For decades, Black farmers fought the United States Department of Agriculture over racial discrimination. The farmers, mostly in the South, lost crops, their farms and their homes. Some farmers grew old and died waiting for the slow hands of justice to turn in their favor, but those that still toil in the fields can proclaim victory, the government has finally started cutting checks in the $1.2 billion settlement case known as “Pigford II.”
Tim Pigford, a corn and soybean farmer from southeastern North Carolina, alleged that USDA officials denied his loan application because he was Black. He even testified before Congress in 1984. By 1998, what became known as the Pigford’s case evolved into a class action racial discrimination lawsuit that included Black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid from the government from 1981 to 1996. The government settled the case in 1999.
Pigford, eventually backed out of the landmark case that bears his name and was awarded a separated individual payout.
“Pigford II” included Black farmers who missed the filing deadline, but also suffered hardships in receiving aid from the USDA. The farmers, roughly 18,000 of them, will each receive $50,000 plus an additional $12,500 for debt associated with federal taxes.
The judgment is the largest civil rights settlement in United States history.
Even as some advocates for Black farmers declared victory in the case, most agree that the settlement payments won’t go far enough to make up for the wholesale devastation of rural Black communities and the loss of land ownership at the hands of government officials.
“For many Black farmers, the settlement is not going to buy them a new farm with new equipment and put them back into business. That’s not what it’s going to do,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association.
Boyd said, for an elderly Black farmer over 65 years old, the settlement would make the coming years a little more comfortable, pay some bills or help grandkids with college tuition.
Boyd, who has advocated for Black farmers for nearly 30 years, added: “The settlement was never designed to make us completely whole. I don’t know if you can put a dollar figure on that.”
Still, Boyd said the settlement was a big victory for Black farmers and a big victory for Black people.
Boyd said at times he wanted to give up and that he heard “no” so many times he began to think of “nos” as “maybes.”
When Boyd wanted to give up, he remembered the pain and suffering carved into the faces of Black farmers that he met and tried to over the years. Many of them had worse stories than his own encounter with a county supervisor that they said spit on him after denying him a loan.
“That’s what kept me going it was the faces, it was the stories, it was the pain and suffering it was all the land that was lost,” said Boyd.
According to the USDA, Black farm ownership peaked in 1920 at 925,710. By 1982, the number of Black-owned farms had plummeted to 33,250. A 1998 USDA report found that, “The decline of the African American farmer has taken place at a rate that is three times that of white farmers.”
Since 1920, nearly 12 million acres has slipped from the hands of Black farmers.
The United States Commission on Civil Rights found that the Farmers Home Admistration, “may have hindered the efforts of black small farm operators to remain a viable force in agriculture” and that the USDA and FHA failed to “provide equal opportunities in farm credit programs.”
Critics have charged that the Pigford settlement and claim process is rife with fraud, and that some who alleged discrimination never attempted to farm or receive loan assistance from the USDA. But Boyd said that those allegations are an insult to Black farmers.
“We made the South what it is, we made this country what it is. We made cotton king,” said Boyd. “…If that Black farmer or Black land owner felt that they were discriminated against by the government, they deserved a right to go through that process. I didn’t say everybody deserved a check. I never said that.”
Gary Grant, head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, said that from 1981-1996. Black farmers in North Carolina lost nearly 300,000 acres totaling $1.2 billion in lost assets in North Carolina alone.
“Fifty thousand dollars to a farmer is not a lot of money,” said Grant.
Farmers didn’t get their land back, they didn’t get their equipment back they didn’t get their homes back, and Grant said, that tax-burdens often put Black farmers in worst shape than they were in before the settlement.
In a press statement on the Pigford II settlement payments, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said: “The Pigford I and II class action lawsuits attempted to address a history of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture. Between 1983 and 1997, thousands of African American famers were denied loans solely because of their race. These discriminatory practices resulted in severe economic consequences for farmers, often preventing them from maintaining and keeping their farms.”
Fudge continued: “Nearly 14 years after the first Pigford case was filed, I am pleased this chapter of discrimination in the history of the Department of Agriculture is closed and bureaucracy will no longer keep these farmers from receiving their due justice.”
Some argue, however that the chapter is still open and Black farmers face extinction if they don’t continue to fight.
Even as the settlement checks go out, the future of Black farming looks grim. Black farmers are counting on a youth infusion to revitalize industry.
“Nothing has changed at the USDA, despite the settlement,” said Grant, who still doesn’t trust the USDA. “We can’t leave it alone.”
Grant added: “This country has destroyed a way of life (family farming and that doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White) and devastated Black communities by the destruction of the agricultural plain, which was the economic engine in rural society.”
Grant acknowledged that sharecropping memories still haunt southern Blacks, because it was such a painful part of our history. But he maintains that Black farmers sent their children off to college and forgot to teach them about the power of land ownership. That was a mistake.
Boyd said that the Black community needs to improve awareness of the value of land ownership.
“A landless culture is a powerless culture. If you don’t have any land you don’t have any power in this country,” said Boyd.
Boyd added: “If you can buy a new Cadillac or a new Mercedes Benz you can also afford five acres in the country. Whatever you need to do in this [nation], if you have land, you can get it done.”