Of Roots and Racism A Farmer's Lament: "I Don't Feel like I'm Part of America"
Pfankuch, Thomas, The Florida Times Union
********** Correction (9/1/98)
Because of an editing error, the city of Pavo, Ga., was
misidentified in a story on Page A-1 Sunday.
MAVO, Ga. -- Willie Head Jr. stands outside his single-wide
mobile home and surveys his 72-acre farm.
A rusty plow. An old tractor with a worn tire. Dusty rows of
peas and turnip greens irrigated with a sprinkler a city dweller
might use in a garden.
Head, a 44-year-old man who has lived his whole life on a farm
in Brooks County, Ga., has fought the weather, pests, low crop
yields and poor market conditions like all other farmers.
But Head says there's one thing he can't fight: a
government-run agricultural credit and financial assistance
system that federal officials recently admitted is rife with
racism against AfricanAmericans and other minorities.
"I don't feel like I'm part of America," said Head, who is
black. "I don't feel like I'm an American citizen."
Head and about 500 other farmers from 13 states are seeking
$2.5 billion in lawsuits filed against the U.S. Department of
Agriculture that say the government and its employees routinely
have denied black farmers equal opportunities for loans,
disaster aid payments and grant programs designed to help
farmers expand their operations or improve their efficiency.
The USDA admits it is guilty.
In a 1997 internal report, the separtment acknowledged that
"minority farmers have lost significant amounts of land and
potential farm income as a result of discrimination by
Government loan information reveals the extent of the problem:
In 1994-95, for example, the USDA lent farmers $1.3 billion. Of
the 16,000 farmers who landed a loan, only 206 were
The difficulties facing black farmers were made worse by a lack
of action by the USDA. The department cut all employees at its
civil rights complaint office in 1983, so thousands of
complaints made by black farmers were stuffed into an unmanned
office in Washington and ignored until recently.
In January, Head and 14 other farmers went to Washington and
met with President Clinton. After four hours, Clinton promised
to help the farmers and has urged Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman to resolve the discrimination case.
But the case remains in mediation, and a Feb. 1 trial date
approaches. One major stumbling block: The government wants to
address each discrimination complaint on its own, and the
farmers are seeking class-action status that would let them
settle all cases at once.
Meanwhile, the farmers are fighting to keep their farms and
families alive. They're hoping a settlement will not only
jump-start their farms, but will put an end to the racism they
say has nearly eliminated a way of life that's been part of
African-American culture for centuries.
"It's a call to the land," Head said. He began farming at age
6, when he snuck away from his parents and, to their amazement,
drove a tractor in a perfectly straight line down a farm field.
"Our goal is to hold onto our land," he said, "because without
land, as a people, you haven't got anything."
`NOT A NEW ISSUE'
The roots of racism in American farming reach back to the days
of slavery, and since then white landowners have maintained
their hold. Black land ownership has fallen steadily since its
peak in the early 1900s.
The government knew about the discrimination for years and,
until recently, ignored it, said John Sparks, a special
assistant on civil rights for Agriculture Secretary Glickman. …