Black Farmers United: The Struggle against Power and Principalities

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since Emancipation, Black farmers in America have fought continuously to acquire self-determination of their lives and that of their families via the attainment, retention, and cultivation of farmland. Impressively, by 1920 Black farmers neared the one million mark and owned nearly 15 million acres (Gilbert, Wood, and Sharp 2002; Wood and Gilbert 2000). Yet, in subsequent years as these farmers endured numerous economic and racialized obstacles including untimely delivery of operating loans, insufficient information about program availability, and racist treatment in many county USDA offices, their number has declined at a rate nearly three times that of White farmers (US Commission on Civil Rights 1982; Wood and Gilbert 2000). Importantly, Black-owned farmland has declined by over 50 percent since around 1910 (Gilbert, Wood, and Sharp 2002).

Arguably the most cohesive attempt to alleviate the racially motivated barriers that have contributed to the rapid decline of Black farmers and Black-owned farmland across America came during the class-action lawsuit Timothy Pigford et al., v Dan Glickman, Civil Action No. 97-1978 (1997). Better known as Pigford, this class-action lawsuit was the result of the collaborative grassroots efforts of farmers, their families, legal teams, and social justice organizations. Collectively, they advocated for the return of land to African-American farmers. Ultimately these farmers prevailed by forcing what was then the largest class-action civil rights settlement in the history of the country. However, despite their legal success, most Black farmers and farm advocacy groups feel that in general, Black farmers received insufficient financial restitution for the discrimination inflicted by agents of the USDA's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), now known as the Farm Service Agency (FSA), and the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).

This essay examines the organization of and advocacy for African-American farmers beginning with support for Pigford in 1997 (Pigford I) up until the passage of Senate Bill 3838 (Pigford II), which allows for the allotment of $1.15 billion to those farmers who could prove their claims of discrimination. Additionally, we review the immediate and long-term implications of this legislation for Black farmers and landowners. Next, we identify barriers that continue to obstruct Black farmers' success in agricultural enterprises, those groups that are actively working to transform the downward spiral of Black agriculture in America, and the role that government may play to contribute to the success of these farmers. And furthermore, we introduce the reader to the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association and review the basic problems of racial discrimination within the USDA. We then turn to an overview of the elements of the Pigford lawsuit and its recent resolution embodied in Senate Bill 3838. And finally, we discuss the USDA as a site of institutional racism and consider the need for continued vigilance of its programs and activities.

The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association

The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) is a national grassroots network of farmers, activists, scholars and concerned citizens dedicated to: alleviating the struggles of Black farmers, developing and educating young Black farmers, and seeking equality for these farmers through the justice system. BFAA is based in the New Deal Resettlement Community of Tillery, North Carolina, which we discuss in more detail below. For now, however, it is important to recognize that the community was established through a land acquisition program initiated as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal (Conkin 1959). These resettlement communities, as they were called, intended to provide landless people an opportunity to acquire property. In the larger Tillery project, called Roanoke Farms, both Black and White families participated and acquired their own land for the first time. …