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One hundred and forty-seven years ago this week, with the Civil War raging around him, President Lincoln signed into law a bill that created the United States Department of Agriculture. He called it the “People’s Department,” in a tribute to the wide-ranging ambitions he held for it. Almost a century and a half later, the USDA finds itself still battling the stubborn remnants of the racial discrimination and injustice that have become part of its day-to-day existence.

More than most government agencies, USDA’s reach into state, county and local levels made it especially susceptible to cultural norms and tensions of the day. Through most of the last century, USDA extension agents in rural counties in the South engaged in racially discriminatory practices that hurt black people and advantaged their white counterparts.  In parts of Mississippi, Virginia and North Carolina, USDA officers imposed unfair lending processes when black farmers were involved. The unfair treatment has led to decades of discrimination claims.

The department’s history is so checkered that it has earned the moniker the Last Plantation.

Now, new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has launched a new agency-wide effort to reverse the casual and pervasive discriminatory practices that have long plagued the Agriculture Department. In April, Vilsack issued a memo declaring civil rights one of his top priorities: “I have said many times that I intend to take definitive action to improve USDA's record on civil rights and to move USDA into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.”

Traveling in Missouri yesterday, Vilsack told me by phone that he believes the bulk of the problem has to do with the department's history: “I think it is a reflection of the past and decisions that were made long ago, and we are still dealing with the consequences,” he said.

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Front and center on Vilsack's plate is a class action lawsuit settled in 1999. The case, Pigford v. Glickman, is a watershed case of civil rights laws because it so clearly demonstrated discriminatory practices and the associated costs. But 10 years later, while almost a billion dollars have been paid out to settle some of the discrimination claims in Pigford, the case remains a problem for the department; not all the farmers with legitimate claims were part of the original settlement because they filed too late.

President Obama, during his time in the Senate, supported efforts to reopen the case to allow the excluded farmers to be a part of the original class action suit and the resulting consent decree. He and other sponsors were able to get it incorporated into the 2008 farm bill, and so now, the problem of what to do with the 65,000 pending new claims is Vilsack’s problem. The president included $1.25 billion for the initiative in his budget, but Vilsack worries that the process may take too long. 

“Our hope is that we get it right and get it right quickly,” he said. “I am concerned that we can face a lengthy process in which some of these farmers can't hold on long enough to survive.”

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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.”

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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.” 

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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.  

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Now, Tom Vilsack wants to put “that sad chapter” behind us.

Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.