A Race Czar for Black Farmers

Can Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack dismantle the Last Plantation?


That is a fair concern because black farmers have endured a long history during which the department has done them more harm than good. In 1910, blacks owned 16 million acres of U.S. farmland, and by 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms in the country. Then, as the USDA influence over American agriculture grew, the number of black farms diminished.

The opinion in the Pigford case, written by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Freidman, concluded: “Today, there are fewer than 18,000 African-American farms in the United States, and African-American farmers now own less then 3 million acres of land. The United States Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners to whom it has delegated so much power bear much of the responsibility for this dramatic decline.”

That was 10 years ago, and apparently not enough has changed to dampen the concern. During the eight years of the Bush administration, there were more than 14,000 civil rights claims filed against the USDA, with very few of them getting favorable attention. Vilsack has agreed to review a sample of those claims to determine if the department properly reviewed and acted on them. “We just need to know,” he said. “One of two things happened, either we don’t let people know when they have a legitimate claim or we were not reviewing them properly.”

Vilsack has issued an order stopping foreclosures on any property that may have a claim in the Pigford case, and he has a launched a series of initiatives to makes sure that the USDA is not discriminating in the services it provides. But the historical echoes of these battles stretch back a long way, and it is difficult to see how they can be easily eradicated.

“Forty acres and a mule” is how Judge Freidman began his opinion in the Pigford case, “… The government promised to sell or lease to farmers parcels of unoccupied land and land that had been

confiscated by the Union during the war, and it promised the loan of a federal government mule to plow that land.” 

We all know how that turned out, but Freidman found modern-day breaches in what the government promised as well. He cited James Beverly of Nottaway County, Va., “a successful small farmer” before going to the USDA help to “modernize his swine herd operations.”

After being encouraged to expand, Beverly’s loan was denied, and he ended up having to sell his property to settle his previous debt with the government.

“Forty acres and a mule. The government broke that promise to African-American farmers. Over 100 years later, the USDA broke its promise to Mr. James Beverly,” Freidman wrote.