The history of farming for African-Americans is loaded with more than a century of racism and discrimination. The farming industry – tobacco, cotton, sugar - was built on the back of forced labor. In the 150 years since emancipation, that relationship has not gotten much simpler. From sharecropping to unfair bank lending, black farmers have had to fight through many injustices. But the freedom out in the fields, of growing your own food and passing land down to the next generation, could be the ultimate reparation.
“My grandfather was an old school humble African farmer,” Dr. John Wesley Boyd, Founder of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), told VICE Impact, “and he taught me that the land didn’t know any color. The land didn’t mistreat anybody. People did. You take care of the land, the land will take care of you and your family.”
"When you can go out and create something, that’s true freedom to me.”
Boyd is still farming the land in Virginia that his grandfather passed down to his father, and in turn to him. That land was originally the property of a family of white slave-owners called the Boyds, as were Dr. Boyd’s ancestors. After the Civil War, black people starting acquiring land on the low grounds, by the rivers and swamps. Lands that whites were willing to give up. Of course, they only gave it up out of necessity.
“There was a period after the Civil War when the South was still fighting,” said Boyd. “They wouldn’t exchange their currency, and they lost a lot of capital that way. That’s how black people were able to acquire land.”
Boyd sees that a lot of African-Americans don’t want to get into farming because of its painful history. That’s how Walker Marsh, founder of Tha Flower Factory an urban farm focused on beautification in Baltimore, used to feel.
“I used to equate land work to slavery,” said Marsh in an interview with VICE Impact. “But the first day I started farming, I realized this was not slavery at all. When you can go out and create something, that’s true freedom to me.”
This is why Boyd has focused a lot of energy getting young people into farming.
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“Land ownership is a great thing,” he said. “You can’t leave your PhDs to your children, but you can leave this raggedy old farm… If you can afford a Mercedes Benz, you can afford five to ten acres in the country, and land is something that you can pass on that will keep your family name and legacy.”
The NBFA provides 20 scholarships a year, in partnership with the Chrysler Foundation, to encourage young people to get into farming. Boyd and other longtime farmers provide inspiration for the younger generations because diverse representation within the agriculture industry is a problem too.
“You don’t see black farmers,” said Marsh. “We don’t know what a black farmer looks like. When I was a kid, I pictured an old white dude with a pitchfork on a tractor. But now that I’ve been doing it, I’ve met black farmers I look up to.”
The National Black Farmers Association just convened for its 27th annual conference with between 500 and 700 participants from all over the country. Workshops and lectures sought to help individuals with issues like navigating the governmental red tape to get the subsidies and support they deserve. Boyd’s work on creating equal opportunities in farming extends to Latinos, women, and other minorities as well as black farmers.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Boyd. “You have to participate. For example, there’s a disaster program for those affected by the hurricane in Texas, for those who lost livestock and crops, and you need to be at the table to receive those government benefits.”
The problem, he says, is that people often see the government as the entity that mistreated and continues to mistreat them, so there’s a lack of trust.
“We can’t let that stop us from signing up for a grant,” he said. “That hurts us. White farmers are participating hand over fist and that adds dollars to their bottom line, and we are not, and I’m aiming to fix that.”
He’s been fixing it for decades. Boyd has met with every president since Jimmy Carter to try to right the wrongs that black farmers continued to endure in the 150 years since emancipation.
“I always said there’s nothing wrong with the USDA programs,” he said. “There’s something wrong with the people who administer the programs.”
Racism on the small county committees that made big decisions in bank lending and land acquisition was rampant, and for many years these committees were all-white. Black farmers were being forced to sell land to whites for pennies on the dollar because of unfair lending, a practice which peaked in the 60s but continued to 2000. It was the same practice that was happening among conventional banks, but in this case, the USDA was the bank.
"The government had to pay for the mistreatment and wrongdoing of decades.”
“Someone came in with a great credit rating and was denied the loan,” Joe Leonard, who served as Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the USDA under the Obama administration, told VICE Impact. “It’s no different than conventional banks, but it makes it worse because this is the federal government, and the federal government is the last quarter that should be discriminating.”
As a Senator, Barack Obama took on this issue, and when he became president he signed the bill that provided relief for black, latino, women, and Native American farmers. The Claims Remedy Act of 2010, with President Obama’s signature, was a class action suit that returned $2.5 billion to minority farmers and landowners.
“This was the most important act for black people since the right to vote,” said Boyd. “Some of us got our land back, and we got an apology, which is the definition of reparations. This was a small segment of the pie, but it made a large statement. The government had to pay for the mistreatment and wrongdoing of decades.”
The settlements were one thing. But the Obama administration wanted to go farther in leveling the playing field for all farmers. They created a microloan program that wasn’t predicated on credit alone, in the traditional sense. They looked at a farmer’s assets. So if a farmer had a $60,000 tractor, that could be used as collateral in the loan. This made it easier for people to borrow.
“Our annual lending to underserved producers more than doubled, from $280 million in 2008 to $830 million in 2015,” said Leonard. “The USDA started providing flexible access to credit, making it easier for people of all backgrounds to get the money they need.”
After 30 years of fighting on Capitol Hill, Boyd finally got a president to act.
“It took too long to get those settlements,” said Boyd, “And many farmers died waiting for justice, but their heirs received the claims. Obama did it. There were other presidents who chose not to do it."
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. You have to participate."
The impact of these efforts is something that will be felt through generations, because as more people are able to acquire and keep land and farms and businesses, they can then pass it down to their children.
“80 percent of all wealth in this country is inherited; 90 percent of that are land and homes,” said Leonard. “This act increases the likelihood that wealth will be transmitted from one generation to another in the African American community.”
There are still hurdles to overcome all the time, and at each annual conference Boyd hears more stories of injustice perpetrated on black farmers. But perhaps the greatest injustice of all would be to rob people of their right to connect to the land, through direct restrictions or through a legacy of painful associations.
“Farming is the oldest occupation in history, and for black Americans,” said Boyd. “We are faced with the weather and acts of nature and grain prices. But we ought not be faced with discrimination and banks and the government mistreating black people. That should not be part of the equation, and it still is.”
Encourage the USDA to continue outreach in all its agencies to all the segments of rural America.
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