Black Joy

This land is your land – until it isn’t: why Black farmers are demanding debt relief

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“This wasn’t done to Black farmers under the rebel flag, it was done to Black farmers under the American flag.” - Gary Grant, Pigford Legacy Farmer

Black land ownership matters. I know this because my great-grandfather raised his children on five acres of land that I was subsequently raised on. And it was his desire before he transitioned that the land stay in the family.

A common thread when discussing Black land loss and dispossession is generational wealth — these injustices are not solely about the individual farmer. Everything stolen from a single farmer was also stolen from their descendants both born and unborn.

My great-grandfather’s wish to keep the land in the family is about more than losing “his” land, it was also about his children, and grandchildren, and their children always having a landing place. And this is a gift I don’t take for granted, that wherever I find myself in the world, I am never without a place to call home.

So far, we’ve kept our promise to him. And it remains a homebase for family events, my great uncle’s horses and a wide-open space for my younger cousins to create clouds of red dust with their dirt bikes.

This is one of the most important functions of Black land: a safe space to exist outside the confines of a world that often treats the presence of Black folks as a nuisance. But holding onto the land hasn’t always been easy.

It might be just as hard to retain Black land in 2023 as it was in the 50s and 60s. While Black folks make up a little over 14% of the population in the United States, they own less than 1% of rural land. Additionally, a study found that Black farmers lost about $326 billion worth of land between 1920 and 1997 across 17 states.

The rapid decline in Black-owned land is, in part, due to decades of discrimination perpetrated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), local banks and other agents of the state. Black farmers built a successful case against the government, but the win turned out to be merely the beginning of what would become a decades-long fight.

It’s been 25 years since the landmark 1997 Pigford v. Glickman class action discrimination lawsuit against the USDA, and Black farmers are still waiting for the debt relief they are owed. While a settlement and consent decree was reached on April 14, 1999, many Black farmers believe it did more harm than good.

Michael Stovall, a fourth-generation farmer from Alabama, has spent 30 years battling not just the USDA, but has also faced harassment from his local community that resulted in property damage, the murdering of his livestock and a wrongful conviction for allegedly starving his animals.

“I bought this farm prior to [the] Pigford [lawsuit]. I had other farms that they took from me and run me off the land . . . I’m still dealing with $160,000 in debt. And it started out with $400,000,” Stovall has said of his fight for justice.

By 2011, final judgment in the two-track settlement was reached for about $1.06 billion in cash relief, tax payments, and debt relief. However, thousands of farmers , like Stovall, never received the compensation they were owed.

Black farmers continue to suffer great losses, including abandonment by the USDA, once again, when the government distributed billions of Covid-19 relief to farmers, and only allocated roughly 1% to farmers of color.

Then, on March 11, 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law. This included the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, supported by senators Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Ray Luján (DNM), and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). The relief package was intended to provide $4 billion for loan forgiveness and $1 billion in USDA programs for minority farmers. But this victory was short lived.

June of 2021, a group of white farmers filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination and the relief package was halted by a federal judge.

Today, that relief has yet to be distributed. Instead, the USDA has been pushing race neutral programming as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

25 years later, Pigford Legacy farmers in collaboration with the Black Belt Justice Center continue to organize and demand restorative land justice. More information on ways to support these efforts can be found through the Acres of Ancestry Initiative.

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

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