The Last Plantation

Article excerpt

In November 1992, Melvin Bishop's farm in Georgia suffered sever damage from a tornado. After the storm, Bishop went to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to apply for disaster relief, an emergency loan, and an operating loan. For the next seven months, the local USDA office gave him the runaround. Finally, in May 1993, Bishop not only was denied the disaster relief he qualified for, he was also denied both loans. No reasons were given. Bishop, who is African-American, called his experience with the USDA "even more devastating than the tornado."

Bishop's situation is not unique. Hundreds of black farmers have filed administrative complaints or lawsuits charging USDA loan officials with discouraging, delaying, or rejecting loan applications on the basis of race. These charges have been upheld by federal officials. This discrimination, the farmers believe, is a major reason that the nation's already tiny corps of Black farmers is shrinking at three times the rate of farmers nationwide.

Despite the fact that the US has ratified the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights land the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, discrimination against black farmers continues -- even in the midst of a booming economy

The Perennial Crop of Bias

In 1865, the US Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and, soon thereafter, passed the Freedmen's Bureau Act, which leased 40 acres of abandoned or confiscated Southern land to "every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman."

Unfortunately, these plans for the redistribution of Southern lands were never carried out. After the war, President Andrew Johnson returned the land to white aristocrats, ensuring the persistence of the South's semi-feudal economic order.

In 1920, nearly one million African-American farmers owned 14 percent of all US farms. By 1950, Black land ownership had declined to 12 million acres, and in 1969 it was down to 5.5 million acres -- a drop of 54 percent in just 20 years. Between 1982 and 1992, the number of black farmers in the US fell 43 percent -- from 33,250 to 18,816.

In 1990, African Americans made up roughly one percent of the nation's farmers and were disappearing at a rate almost five times greater than whites. In 1999, fewer than 18,000 out of 1.9 million US farmers were African Americans, and these farmers owned less than 1 million acres. A 1990 Congressional report warned that black farms were On the verge of extinction. It is now feared that, by the end of 2000, there may be no black-owned land in America.

In 1982, the US Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the primary reason African-American farmers had lost land was because of the USDA itself. In 1990, Congress authorized spending $10 million annually under the Minority Farmers Rights Act to address this problem. But not once in the past nine years was the full $10 million awarded: Black farmers have been shortchanged by over $50 million.

The US Civil Rights Commission studied the problem in the 1980s and concluded that black farmers wait longer for loan decisions and are more likely to be rejected than white farmers. USDA investigators found that white farmers typically waited 84 days for loan decisions, while black farmers wait an average 222 days. While 84 percent of the white applicants had their loans applications approved, only 56 percent of the black applicants received loans. As a result, each day black farmers lose 1,000 acres of land.

An April 1997 report by the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) revealed that 91.4 percent of 1997 farm loans went to white farmers, 4. …