By 1920, there were 949,889 Black farmers in America. After migrating to the north to escape the horrors of Jim Crow, some Blacks who were unable to find employment there, returned tired and disillusioned back to the south, to the only skill they knew, farming. The opportunity to farm as a free person was presented to them under General William T. Sherman’s Special Order issued on January 16, 1865, allowing former slaves to farm on land abandoned by fleeing Confederate soldiers. Congress authorized General Sherman to rent out that land and supply as many plow mules as possible to the new farmers, i.e., the origins of the “Forty acres and a mule” promise. As a result, 40,000 Black people settled on over 400,000 acres of farmland in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Finally, an opportunity for emancipated black people to become self- sufficient and truly free!!
However, when President Lincoln was assassinated in May of 1865, that glimmer of hope began to fade. The succeeding President Andrew Johnson, ordered General Sherman to return the land to its Confederate owners. Yet, some Black farmers managed to make a way out of no way and maintain their farmland. Furthermore, this ownership paved the way for Black families to move into other businesses, from funeral homes to preaching to construction, serving as the bedrock of all Black wealth in America.
Still, racism permeated the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There were 2,500 agricultural offices established by USDA called the Farmers Home Administration, designed to help farmers. These offices reflected local political power, replete with racial callousness. Since Black farmers had little to no political connections or influence, the USDA offices’ own records show that Black farmers’ requests for help generally received scant consideration. Instead, the white southerners in charge gave first priority to helping white farmers, especially those who held large farms and were politically connected.
As stated in an article by NPR entitled “Black Farmers in America”: “Today, Black farmers call the U.S. Department of Agriculture the "last plantation." In 1982 the Civil Rights Commission concluded that decades of bias against Black farmers by the agriculture department threatened to kill off the few remaining Black farmers. As recently as 1997, an internal audit conducted by the Agriculture Department concluded that in the southeastern United States, loan applications from Black farmers took three times as long to be processed as loan requests from white farmers. It found that Blacks in need of financial support met "bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness and indifference." They further report that “ Black officials at the Agriculture Department's headquarters in Washington told the Washington Post in the 1990s that the department continued to be a ‘hotbed of racial bias and harassment.’ They openly expressed exasperation at the difficulty of trying to change such a deeply insulated and racist system. Clearly, this fight was over more than farms. It was a strike against a sick culture festering with antipathy to people of color. This sinful history stretched back to the day President Lincoln created the Agriculture Department in 1862.” As a result, less than 18,000 Black farmers remain to date.
In response to the racist practices of the USDA, a man named Timothy Pigford, along with 400 other black farmers, filed a class action lawsuit against the agency in 1997. The lawsuit (Pigford v. Glickman) was initially settled, compensating over 16,200 Black farmers. Because some farmers missed the original filing deadline, a second settlement was announced in 2010. The second suit was expanded to include all farmers of color. This resulted in the largest lawsuit paid by the federal government. Unfortunately, there were some non-farmers who took illegal advantage of this settlement. While this happens in many lawsuits, it caused a major uproar among those farmers who were not privy to the lawsuit.
Despite the terms of settlement, many Black farmers were forced out of the business. For instance, most loans from the Farm Service Administration are limited to seven years, after which farmers are forced out of the program. Often, white farmers had access to other sources of credit. But for Black Americans, federal loans are often the only funding option. And when their seven years are up, many Black farmers must resort to predatory lenders or else borrow from suppliers charging outrageous interest rates.
Consequently, these years of racist policies considerably reduced the number of Black farmers from 14% in 1910 to 1.4% is 2017.
Information for this paper is based on: NPR’s article on Black Farmers in America, February 22, 2005; and Fortune Magazine, October 9, 2020.