Black farmers lost 90 percent of their farmland between 1910 and 1997, in large part because of loan denials at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) — a practice that has gone on for decades.
A recent report highlighted how a long list of federal agencies has systemically discriminated against Black farmers, including the USDA.
“Through discriminatory loan denials and deliberate delays in financial aid, the USDA systematically blocked Black farmers from accessing critical federal funds,” according to a Pro Publica report.
“If you are Black and you’re born south of the Mason-Dixon Line and you tried to farm, you’ve been discriminated against,” Lloyd Wright, the director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and a Black Virginia farmer, said in the report.
The report noted that the debts Black farmers “consequently accrued cost them millions of acres, which white buyers then snapped up.”
In 1920, Black farmers peaked at nearly 1 million, constituting 14 percent of all farmers. But between 1910 and 1997, they lost 90 percent of their property. By contrast, white farmers lost only 2 percent in the same period.
As of 2017, there were just 35,470 Black-owned farms, representing 1.7 percent of all farms.
Black farmers lost some 16 million acres, Conservatively estimated to be worth between $250 billion and $350 billion in current dollars.
“This report is stating what I’ve been saying for three decades: the amount of land we lost due to racism at the USDA and the blatant discrimination Black farmers have faced for so long has gone unanswered,” stated John Wesley Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association in Bakersville, Virginia.
“The oldest occupation in this country for Black people is farming. But from slavery through Jim Crow, the USDA, and the banks – all these things put together means we are facing extinction,” Boyd said. “What’s troubling is when the brown bear, the black bear and the bald eagle were facing extinction, Congress put harsh laws in place until their numbers came back up. So why can’t they do the same thing for the oldest occupation in history for Black people, which is farming?”
As noted in the Pro Publica report, land counted as an ideological priority for Black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery.
On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed.
“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman.
Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.”
Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be transferred to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.”
The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people. However, the promises never materialized in large part because of backlash from white supremacists.
“By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles,” the Pro Publica report noted.
“These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans,” the report said.
Lawrence Lucas, President Emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and representative of the Justice for Black Farmers Group, said USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack had done nothing to help Black farmers.
“The amount of wealth loss could be in the trillions of dollars,” Lucas remarked. “We’ve had administration after administration, president after president and Congress after Congress do nothing. Secretary Vilsack has been a disaster even when he worked under President Obama, who also wasn’t good to us.”
In a letter to the agriculture secretary, Lucas expressed his disappointment.
“We have watched with disbelief and discouragement as a sequence of events played out in a self-fulfilling prophesy: a member of the Vilsack agriculture transition team declared that what we wanted, debt relief for Black farmers was unconstitutional,” Lucas wrote.
“We contend that there was an unnecessary length of time spent from Senator Warnock’s two bills, voted into the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and the decision by a Florida judge to issue a temporary restraining order against you which stopped relief for Black farmers.”
“We contend that you slow-walked the processing of these claims with a process that went beyond 100 days. With the stroke of your pen, we are fully aware that you could have removed the debt that these farmers have suffered because of USDA’s long history of discrimination, not a process but debt relief.
“Instead, we have white privilege that continues to be a part of the USDA landscape at the pain and suffering of Black farmers and others. [Former President Donald] Trump paid out $16 billion in allotments to white farmers in a very speedy fashion and Black farmers received only a very small fraction of those funds. Why for them and not us?” Lucas concluded.