Date: Sun, 29 Aug 1999 00:06:56 -0400
From: Robert D Bullard <email@example.com>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] An Interview with a Displaced Black Farmer
X-Sender: Robert D Bullard <firstname.lastname@example.org>
No 40 Acres and a Mule: An Interview with a Displaced Black Farmer
By Dr. Robert D. Bullard <email@example.com>,
Environmental Justice Resource Center (EJRC)
25 June 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
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
This interview was conducted with Gary Grant, a Tillery, North Carolina
resident 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
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
Question: What reservations do you have about how the settlement will be
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
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
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
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
Question: What legacy would you like to see your struggle leave for
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.
Copyright (c) 1999 Environmental Justice Resource Center.
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