Twenty two years after the historic Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit was filed, the attack on Black farmers and Black land ownership remains. The case was originally filed in 1997 by a Black farmer named Timothy Pigford. The number of plaintiffs later grew to 400, as Black farmers brought allegations that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against them in allocating disaster payments, as well as operating and land ownership loans. More importantly, the lawsuit brought to light that the USDA failed to adequately investigate racial discrimination claims. In 1999, the first Pigford settlement and consent decree was approved for an amount of $1.06 billion in debt and tax relief, and cash payments.
The settlement’s agreement had structural issues, many claimants filed late, and the class counsel failed to properly represent the farmers. However, the Pigford suit was successful in that it set the precedent for Keepseagle v. Vilsack, a suit filed by Native American farmers, and the Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers Claims Resolution Process. Another community that was inspired by the demand for Black agrarian justice and the Pigford case is Acres of Ancestry/Black Agrarian Fund.
In 2012, Acres of Ancestry/Black Agrarian Fund was established as the Black Belt Justice Center in response to the second approved Pigford settlement of $1.25 billion in 2010 after learning that 60 percent of claimants were denied. “Over the years we realized that we couldn’t do this work to restore the Black agricultural land base in a silo,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, Executive Director of the Black Belt Justice Center and co-founder of Acres of Ancestry. Following the fallout of the Pigford settlement, the center took an ecosystem approach to their work that remains focused on obtaining justice for Black farmers while preserving Black agrarian history and culture.
Today, it is a community of attorneys, heritage quilters, researchers, writers, fiber artists and others who are committed to justice for Black farmers. “We are combining our various expertise, talents, magic to dismantle institutional discrimination with the USDA but to also stand fully in our freedom,” said McCurty. The legal support provided for Black farmers is through Acres of Ancestry’s Black Farmer’s Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign, which is pushing for restitution, compensation for economic harm, stopping anti-Black racism, debt cancellation, land, federal and state tax relief and access to non-extractive capital.
Lloyd Wright, farmer and former director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights, recalls how his father also dealt with the prejudice of the USDA. His family’s farm is in Westmoreland County, Virginia and he explained one common practice of the government, was ill-advising Black farmers on what and how to plant on their land. Farmers then had to dig up the new crop and were not allowed to harvest it. “My father got to the point where he no longer worked with the USDA,” Wright said.
By the time Wright himself became an active farmer, he had already started working with this department so “they wouldn’t try to hang me out to dry,” Wright explained. Now in a volunteer capacity, Wright continues his advocacy work through an informal network with the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center. He also works with a number of community based organizations including Acres of Ancestry to “do what I didn’t get done when I was director.”
When Wright became director of the Office of Civil Rights in 1997, he recalled that it was almost impossible to resolve cases, especially those that were a part of the Pigford lawsuit. The Reagan Administration was intent on dismantling the office by stripping it of its main power – the investigators. Wright explained that by 1983, many of the employees were either downgraded or left for other jobs. Wright was able to hire 34 people during his tenure and the USDA Office of Civil Rights officially re-opened in 1998.
Currently, Black farmers comprise less than 2 percent of the land in the United States and own less than 3 million acres. According to McCurty, Black legacy farmers (the name Acres of Ancestry uses to refer to farmers supported through the Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign) refer to the USDA as “the last plantation,” as Black farmers have been fighting for debt cancellation for over 30 years. Wright agrees, “The old plantation is still there and it doesn’t change much from one administration to another.” In June 2021, Black farmers were due to start receiving debt cancellation but this action was stalled due to a federal ruling.
In addition to Wright, Bernard Bates, based in Hill City Kansas, is a Black legacy farmer who is a part of the Cancel Pigford Debt campaign. Bates’ grandparents were the first – and one of the few- Black people to secure loans from the Federal Farm Loan Bank, which is now known as the Federal Land Bank. Bates once wrote President Regan a letter detailing the discrimination he faced as a Black farmer. He recalls how his farm had about 7,000 bushels of wheat and Bates and his family watched the Federal Bank haul their crop away in the middle of the night. To date, he has lost 950 acres of land and his debt remains over $200,000.
As a third generation farmer, farming is his legacy. “I’ve been discriminated against ever since 1956,” recalls Bates. That was the year he graduated from high school as the only Black person in his class. His white classmates were buying land, machinery, new cars and homes. When he applied for a loan to start his farming career, he was immediately told his credit was bad. “It wouldn’t do any good to fill out an application because the county board would just reject it,” Bates explained. In waiting for debt cancellation, Bates says he would like to see more honesty in the process. “That white and black stuff needs to be stopped – we’re all human beings.”
Leaning into Bates’ sentiments on remembering the humanity of Black farmers, Acres of Ancestry has an additional initiative that’s creative-focused so that the community may express themselves through art. Revenge of Dandelions Griot Collective is inspired by the poet and activist Olu Butterfly Woods. Like the Black farmers, “the dandelion can grow in the harshest conditions yet thrive and spread seeds,” said McCurty.
The collective is a home within Acres of Ancestry to support Black writers to stand in their imaginations. It is also a place to have autonomy over one’s own labor and lift up agrarian stories as a compass to guide the culture’s future. Organizing for the collective looks like hosting dirt teach-ins that are a form of community health healing work hosted by agrarian expertise like Dr. Marlo Paul and Dr. Anthony Paul. It also looks like preserving what Acres of Ancestry refers to as the “Black commons,” which is a concept based on shared cultural, economic and digital resources all in relation to land.
To further illustrate the important history of Black legacy farmers, Acres of Ancestry just released “Restoration,” a concert film that shares a deeper look into the egregious wrongs that Black farmers have endured for too long. “Over the last two years, we’ve been acquiring artworks from fiber artists, heritage quilters and we recently acquired iron work pieces from ‘Keeper of the Gate’- ancestor Philip Simmons,” said McCurty. Currently, Black writers from the Revenge of Dandelions Griot Collective are interviewing artists whose work is in the collection. In addition to helping Black farmers obtain justice, Acres of Ancestry/Black Agrarian Fund seeks to be the “keeper” of Black Agrarian technology and culture.
When asked what justice looks like for Black farmers, Wright said, “We need to stop the bleeding.” The “bleeding” he’s referring to is the excessive court actions and processes that have delayed farmers in getting debt cancellation for years. However, relief from the USDA is only going to help 8 percent of Black farmers according to Wright. He further explained, “everyone thinks this is a Black farmer assistance program lawsuit – the truth of the matter is, that is not the case.” The main issue, according to Wright, is that historically the USDA has never helped Black farmers.
Last year, Acres of Ancestry was told that there were nearly 17,000 Black farmers that were in debt to the USDA spanning from 5 – 30 years. New numbers now estimate that actually 3,100 Black farmers will be eligible for assistance. “We need to address Black farmer debt, both those that have debt with the USDA and those who have debt outside of the USDA because the USDA is really the reason why most of them [Black farmers] are in trouble,” Wright affirmed.
Despite the current bleak state of things, McCurty believes that an important reckoning is coming. “So many of our Pigford legacy farmers have ascended to the land of the ancestors without restorative land justice,” she said. “[But] We’re in a historical moment in creating a multigenerational movement”.
Iris M. Crawford is an environmental and climate justice journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her second love is arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter @IrisMCrawford