No 40 Acres and a Mule: An Interview with a Displaced Black Farmer
June 25, 1999
ATLANTA, GEORGIA, -- The federal government created the Freedmen's Bureau in the 1860s to provide assistance to former slaves. It also promised the former slaves parcels of land and the loan of a federal government mule to work the land. The federal government never lived up to its promise of "forty acres and a mule." Nevertheless, some African American farmers were able to buy or lease parcels of land under these programs. However, during Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, many of the powers and activities of the Freedmen's Bureau were dismantled and much of the land that had been leased to black farmers was taken away and returned to Confederate loyalists.
Despite open hostility, racial discrimination, and institutional racism practiced inside and outside of government, African American farmers were able to amass an impressive amount of farmland holdings. By 1910, they owned over 16 million acres of farmland. By 1920, there were 925,000 African American farmers. In 1999, African American farmers number dwindled to less than
17,000 and less than 3 million acres of land.
Racial discrimination practiced against African American farmers was never eradicated. In 1997, African American farmers brought a lawsuit against the USDA charging it with discrimination in denying them access to loans and subsidies. The lawsuit was filed in August, 1997 on behalf of 4,000 of the nation's 17,000 black farmers and former farmers. A Consent Decree was signed in January, 1999. The estimated cost of the settlement ranges from $400 million to more than $2 billion. To view the full court opinion click www.dcd.uscourts.gov/district-court.html
Congressman John Conyers with Gary Grant (right)
This interview was conducted with Gary Grant, a Tillery, North Carolina residents and a plaintiff in the black farmers lawsuit. Grant is president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association or BFAA. His family was forced out of farming in 1991. The interview was conducted by Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center, in June, 1999.
Question: What is your feeling about the black farmers settlement offered by federal judge?
Grant: It is a bittersweet victory. Sweet in the fact that we did succeed in the courts, having the USDA admit to discrimination and being certified as a class. Bitter in the fact that I still believe that this consent decree will ensure the demise of black farmers in two to five years. First of all, there is nothing in the document that returns land to us. In addition, there is nothing in the document that will pay off debt that has been incurred because of racist actions of USDA officers. Many of the farmers no longer owe USDA but owe private lenders. If their property is freed up, then the private lender will be able to come after it with less reserve.
Question: What reservations do you have about how the settlement will be carried out?
Grant: The settlement follows basically a two-track process. Track A is the track that will allow a farmer to go after $50,000 and have his debt written off and that's all. Track B is where a farmer provides records of bias from 1983-97, the period covered in the settlement. Black farmers have to prove with a "preponderance of the evidence" their case of discrimination. That will allow them to collect money from damages as well as to have debt written off to collect money for what they lost in not being able to farm. Track B would add up to more than $50,000. Getting into track B is just entirely too cumbersome for farmers to prove the discrimination in the atmosphere where racism ruled the day and people reacted based on their knowledge and understanding of how you act where racism is prevalent.
Question: Which track do you feel the farmers will take?
Grant: I really think that most of the farmers will be accepting the $50,000. It is virtually impossible to describe what people have been through and what most folk are saying. Most of them just want the USDA out of their lives. And when you hear the horror stories that people have to tell, you can understand why. Also, most of them have already been driven out of farming. They have lost their livelihood and a way of life. Once again, the government is asking the "victims" to prove discrimination. The burden of proof is on black farmers instead of the law breakers. That is not fair. That is not just. But, that's the American way. The government records are filled with examples where black farmers were systematically treated different from white farmers. Black farmers were routinely given less money for the same land than white farmers. They were also denied access to programs that aided white farmers. These were common practices. Fifty thousand dollars is not a lot of money. We are talking about a small business stolen, people's jobs, credit rating, and livelihoods ruined, life savings and investments taken, and spirits broken. No amount of money can repay the pain and suffering inflicted on black farmers. I wonder how much money the government would have offered us if we were white.
Question: What guarantees do African American farmers have that the USDA will not allow the same thing to happen again?
Grant: We have no guarantees. The government refused to put into the settlement document a clause that said it would enforce its civil rights policies. This means that they won't have a watchdog over them. Many of the farmers are displeased and frustrated. The farm advocate groups are most disturbed that for the long term there is nothing in the document that really helps us out. There is nothing in this document that guarantees that this kind of racism will not occur again within the USDA. To my knowledge, none of the USDA agents who perpetrated this injustice have been terminated. As a matter of fact, nobody was fired that I know of and some of them are getting promotions.
Question: How has your family been hurt by the actions of the federal government?
Grant: My community, Tillery, is a New Deal Resettlement community established in the1940's. The federal government bought 18,000 acres of former plantation land and divided it up into forty to eighty-acre tracts and made it possible for black people to purchase that land. The black landowners have been the thorn in the side of the political power in Halifax County, North Carolina ever since, because we have not been dependent on them for our survival. Through our struggle, we've managed to save most of the land. Now the population of Halifax is about 52% African American and the community of Tillery is 99% African American. We still probably own 90% of the land, however white farmers are farming 98% of it.
Tillery had over 300 black farmers in the 1950s. Today, it has none. My family has been in foreclosure for 23 years and we continue to raise that issue. I am part of the class action because the USDA denied me the opportunity to assume my father's debt and to continue to operate our farm. My nieces and nephews have grown up in that 23 year time with a very bitter taste in their mouths and hearts about farming because they have seen the toll taken on my father and mother and my brother and his wife. We are not sure that any of them will enter farming. We are not even encouraging them that strongly, but it has brought us together much closer to the understanding of the power of the land.
Question: How important is African American land ownership?
Grant: Land ownership has to be a major theme that takes the African American community into the 21st century. As a people, we must understand the value and the power of land ownership. One generation removed from slavery, black folks were able to acquire more than 16 million acres of farmland. We have nearly lost it all. This land has been in my family for 52 years and another tract that was in jeopardy has been in my family for about 100 years. The only power that there really is in this country is land ownership, which produces economics, which is green stuff. Even for you to have money you have to own land first, so that the money has somewhere to be produced from. The constitution and the founding fathers believed that if you were not a member, if you were not a land owner you could not run for office, if you were not a land owner you could not vote. The lessons of the land have been there every since the beginning. African Americans just seem to have problems with understanding and connecting to it. Also, as we lose this land no one is asking what happens to it and that is where we can also bring in the issue of environmental racism and environmental injustice. On much of this land is where the siting of polluting industries are being set.
Question: How have you been treated by the federal courts?
Grant: We were successful in keeping our case in court only because of the strong evidence pointing to racism practiced and condoned by USDA. It was time for America to come to grips with the ugly face of racism. America needs to know that a group of people was wronged. We were not satisfied with the January 1999 proposed settlement. On March 2, 1999, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman held a fairness hearing to amend the lawsuit settlement. We brought close to 500 black farmers to Washington DC. We overflowed two federal court rooms. At that time, we had an opportunity to present to the judge our differences with the consent decree that had been filed. After that hearing, Judge Friedman made 14 recommendations based on what he heard in the courtroom that day. Our attorneys and the government attorneys only accepted four of those with a great modification and those four would not impact the actual actions of the consent decree.
Questions: What lessons can African Americans learns from the plight of black farmers?
Grant: I think that the first lesson is the continuing fact that institutional racism is alive and well in this country. Black people still have to fight like hell to enjoy the rights that whites take for granted. I think real lesson lies in what we can do as a people if we really will come together. Our case proved that we do have some political power. We got the statue of limitations set aside. We learned quickly that the media is largely controlled and our images manipulated in the headlines to suit the stereotypes of white people. Finally, it became clear that the African American community does not understand the real value and power of black landowners and black farmers. This is true for many of our black churches, civil rights organizations, political groups, colleges and universities, and professional associations. For the most part, we did not have a whole lot of mass support from the 40 million African Americans.
Question: Why do you feel the black farmers issues did not become a rallying point for many African Americans?
Grant: Black farmers have produced more professional people than any other area of our society. We still are not getting widespread support from the black community. When you say black farmer and ask someone what image comes to mind, many will see a dirty, ignorant, barefoot, uneducated person. Many blacks see the stereotype. They don't understand that the black farmer has been a mathematician, a scientist, a meteorologist, a doctor, a veterinarian, and even a lawyer. Until we are able to destroy that stereotype, black farmers will always be misunderstood and unappreciated by our professional people.
Question: What would you like to see black organizations, black institutions, and ordinary black citizens do to assist you in this struggle?
Grant: First, I would like black institutions and black people to believe that the black farmers know what is needed. Second, I would also like them to contribute financially, morally, physically, and spiritually. Third, we need to begin a massive education program with our children on the importance of owning land. The historically black colleges and universities or HBCUs, and especially the Land Grant schools, need to get on board. The black farmers struggle was a wake up call, and some of our institutions are still asleep. Our struggle challenged the plantation system. Many of our brothers and sisters do not want to stand up anymore and take a stand. Our land grant universities need to design outreach and research that encourage their students to work with black farmers and the black community.
Question: What legacy would you like to see your struggle leave for generations?
Grant: This country has not had to listen to black farmers because the black community has not said we are worth saving. I don't believe any of us will survive and progress unless we can come together around the central issue of the survival of black farmers. It is imperative that we maintain land ownership so we can make sure our food supply is not poisoned. Land ownership is economic power, political power, and is the only avenue that we really have to ensure our children a legacy.
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