Farming While Black is Extra Risky

By Don Rollins

Just off White Street in Wake Forest, N.C., sits the Ailey Young House, circa 1875. If you’re imagining one of those grand, preservation-society Southern structures in the mold of, say, Biltmore, don’t.

Young House is a sparse, faded wood, Reconstruction-era shack built by a prominent university professor to house African Americans – folks one decade into freedom but two away from owning their own land. Land has throughout time indicated and bestowed power, a reality made crystal clear in the post-war South.

But while the residents of Young House were living off the menial wages of urban Southern economic sin, black sharecroppers were slowly but surely inheriting, and eventually buying, quality farmland.

Indeed, between 1865 and 1910 (the peak of black land ownership) African American farmers accounted for some 16-19 million acres, most of them in the Mid and Deep South. This, despite sustained white efforts to stem black farming via the hounding harassment, violence and boycotting visited upon black farm families. But a century later, black farmers are as scarce as hen’s teeth. In 1920, one in every seven of America’s farm families was black; by 1982 that figure dropped to one in sixty-seven. And it’s estimated that no more than 18,000 black farms – less than one percent of the nation’s total – are in operation today.

When placed in the context of our national racial narrative, this near extinction of black farm ownership is further evidence of America’s race-based economic bigotry; because more devastating than rising costs, diminishing crop yields and even the encroachment of corporate farming, is the longstanding lending and governmental bias toward black agriculture. Let’s call it what it is: farming while black.

For entire decades it was standard practice for lenders and governmental agriculture agencies to employ different criteria when considering applications from black farmers. Only with Pigford v. Glickman (1999), a class action suit against the US Department of Agriculture, did the judicial system begin to address the breakdown in the federal firewall against discrimination. But while Pigford – the largest civil rights settlement to date – was crafted to remedy USDA’s biased practices between 1983 and 1997, it did not take into account those who for a host of legitimate reasons did not file timely claims. (Example, here in North Carolina, a displaced farmer, stranded in the aftermath of a hurricane, was declared ineligible due to a one-week delay. He is estimated to be one of four thousand equally qualified claimants.)

To the administration’s credit, a second settlement was reached: Pigford II.

The bane of conservatives, it extended to remaining qualified applicants a second window of opportunity for redress and capped total compensation at an additional $1.25 billion.

In the end, it’s not every day that a government gets a shot at some measure of redemption, small though it is in this instance. And several legal experts suggest that USDA could’ve held out for a better deal or shorter window.

But as the daughter of a black farmer in this state put it, the question is not how many surviving famers will qualify for Pigford II. The question is, “Where would all these people be if they had been able to continue their lives and keep their farms?” The window for Pigford II continues through May 11.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Raleigh, N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2012

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