Of Roots and Racism A Farmer's Lament: "I Don't Feel like I'm Part of America"

By Pfankuch, Thomas | The Florida Times Union, August 30, 1998 | Go to article overview
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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] programs."

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

African-American.

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.

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