Black Land Loss

by Tommy Ates

Saying goodbye to the old family farm is always sad; but losing it through coercion or threat of violence is simply criminal. This situation, as well as various others, is what has happened to many black and poor farmers over the past 30 years. According to an Associated Press study, the amount of black-owned land in rural areas has dropped sharply over the past 30 years, in parallel with the rise of African-Americans in urban areas, causing white flight. Much worse, many of the land takings have gone unreported with blacks simply not telling the authorities (especially rural areas) in fear for their safety or thinking that law enforcement probably did not care (especially the South).

So it should not be to anyone’s surprise that mostly only black lawmakers (Rep. John Conyers, et al.) have addressed in the problem in public forums or panels; however, there are no clear answers, simply sobering statistics. Here are three simple facts that explain the situation clearly. According to the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association: 1) between 1920 and 1992, the number of black farmers declined 98 percent, 2) in the 1980s, there were less than 200 black farmers in the United States under 25, and 3) today’s African-American farmer accounts for less than one percent of American agribusiness.

Now, if there is any irony of the plight of black farmers, their struggle to survive is not unlike the difficulty the black underclass has escaping poverty, too little financial assistance from the government and not enough time to prove themselves financially solvent in the marketplace (aka corporate America).

And sadly the scourge of racism has stroked the flames of destruction. Many farmers had their land taken by more wealthy landowners forcibly or by trickery, often with the assistance of the landed gentry, as well as by the Ku Klux Klan, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. And if you think that in the modern era that land grabbing doesn’t occur, look at the Myrtle Beach area in South Carolina, where black landowners have been decimated by ignorance and misinformation about the value of their lands. While the wealthy snowbirds enjoy the Myrtle Riviera, black and poor families moved from their farmhouse by the sea to their apartment or home for the elderly. The class differential between the blacks in the region is nominal before and after the land appraisal boom of the 1980s and 90s.

Even with the April 1999 Consent Decree with United States Department of Agriculture and black farmers, claimants are still having a hard time getting the settlements funds owed to them. The vast USDA bureaucracy, including the long dreaded Farm Service Agency (FSA), has long been labeled a “good ol’ boys” network even by the mainstream media, with employees still working there whom some black plaintiffs claimed discriminated against them, this in addition to relatively low minority employment levels within the agency, particularly in management positions. For many minority farmers, as long as corporate farmers can still peddle influence in Washington and on the local level, farming subsidies will continue to go to multinational corporations and farmers, instead of the average black farmer who farms on less than 50 acres–often not enough to make a significant profit.

To play Devil’s Advocate, yes, it is true that corporate farming and wealthy landowners have more resources in hand to ensure better crop yields and more reliable farm employment. But, does that mean “in the name of corporate progress” that the African-American farmer should be rendered extinct? No, America was built by and for the people and any American farmer (regardless of race or class) deserves to have a future without having the urban lifestyle, be the only option for employment. Listen, people: We have enough wage slaves; it’s time for self-sufficiency. Already, we are seeing the results of the big farms run amok in a huge increase of drug trafficking to the blighted rural regions, as farming simply cannot pay the bills. In some areas of the rural South, in terms of murders and robberies, we are seeing the ghetto visiting Grandma’s house out in the country, and even the shotgun is obsolete. For the surviving farmers (and there are few), we can help look after our rural relations by asking and lobbying our congressional representatives on the state and national level to ask that the USDA accurately process and help needy black farmers be aware of some of the farm benefits that are available to them.

For those of you who may have forgotten all about rural life, there are many cultural traits that give us our common legacies. The land of our forefathers is an invaluable treasure, especially since it was earned even before it was bought.

In light of Black History month, the problem of black land loss brings new meaning to the question of what constitutes the “blood, sweat, and tears,” instead of water, add theft. Needless to say, this issue makes me eager to celebrate my black history.

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