A few months ago I was asked to speak at Georgia State University about Black-owned land issues and the plight of Black farmers. This was a presentation before professors and students in urban Atlanta. I realized as I spoke that my audience was not informed about rural issues and ongoing racism in the deep South. Social change is a painstakingly slow process and when you are in the city it’s hard to conceive what happens in rural areas – often isolated rural areas. This is why I was asked to speak, of course, but still it was a revealing experience. They also wanted me to refer to the second phase of the Black farmer lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture.
I began the presentation at Georgia State University with a delineation of historical dates of the rather constrained opportunities for Black land ownership in America. Invariably the policies in America resulted in some kind of betrayal followed by Black resistance. I started with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Then Congress creates the Department of Agriculture in 1862. Then also in 1862 was the Homestead Act – here’s a description:
Congress passes the Homestead Act to open western lands to independent farmers rather than slave owners. This land was available also for freed slaves but there were few as slavery was still the law of the land. The parcels were 160 acres. Eventually 1.6 million homesteads were granted and 270,000,000 acres of federal land was privatized. It also dispossessed Native Americans of land and wealth. This was land reform largely for whites the likes of which was never offered to freed slaves after the Civil War or at any time in history.
Clearly, the Homestead Act, as well as the creation of the Department of Agriculture, was partly a response by the federal government to the South and its southern plantation owners. The South had successfully seceded from the Union, was engaged in war, and had wanted to extend the slaveocracy to the western territories.
A little known fact is that prior to the south seceding from the Union in the 1860’s, in the May 1844 edition of “The Liberator” the renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called for the north to secede from the government for precisely the opposite reason. The reason being that the Constitution of the United States adopted after the Revolutionary War was “at the expense of the colored population of the country.” With the three-fifths clause allowing the enslaved individuals to be counted as three-fifths of a person – albeit a non-voting person – the South controlled Congress and the nation. Garrison said it was time “to set the captive free by the potency of truth.”
By January 1865 Congress adopted the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. Also in January1865, while in Savannah after his famous trek through Georgia, General William T. Sherman issues Field Order 15– here’s a description:
After meeting with freed slaves in Savannah, Georgia – in what became known as the Savannah Colloquy – General William T. Sherman responded to their pleas for land. In January, he issued his famous Field Order 15, which set aside a huge swath of abandoned land along the Georgia and South Carolina coast for black families to have forty acres plots. He also said that army mules no longer in use would be offered to Black farmers. This is likely where the “Forty Acres and a Mule” legend began. Sherman never stated whether this was to be a permanent or temporary land acquisition.
With hopes being raised by many in the Black community, Sherman’s Field Order was ultimately the beginning of betrayal by the federal government on land distribution. Here’s more:
• 1865 (March) Congress establishes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) providing for the allocation of ‘unoccupied land’ to freedmen (not to exceed 40 acres). Rather than 40 acres as requested, Congress allowed the Freedmen’s Bureau to sell only 5 to 10 acre tracts of land to freed slaves.
• 1865 (April 9) Civil War ends.
• 1865 (April 14 ) Republican President Abraham Lincoln assassinated and succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson (former U.S. Senator from Tennessee).
• 1865 (May) President Johnson announces his Reconstruction Plan. The plan calls for the Southern States to abolish slavery but does not offer a role for Blacks in Reconstruction. The southern states are to determine the role for Blacks without a federal mandate.
• 1865 (June) Some 40,000 freed slaves were settled on what was referred to as “Sherman’s Land” on some 400,000 acres of land in Georgia and South Carolina. Much of this land was for rice cultivation. The Freedmen begin to create their own government; white access to the area was denied; and they begin to cultivate their land.
• 1865 (Summer) President Johnson reverses Sherman’s Field Order 15 by ordering that virtually all plantation lands given to freed slaves be returned to the original plantation owners.
The history, of course, moves into the 20th century with the struggles of Jim Crow in the South. The important point to be made, however, is that there has always been resistance and action by the Black community to the constraints on their achieving freedom and justice. By the early 1900’s, for example, Blacks owned some 15 million acres of land – this was an enormous achievement.
Fast forward to 1946 when the USDA’s Farmers Home Administration was created to provide credit to farmers – it was known as the “lending institution of last resort”. But Blacks have rarely been able to access adequate credit from USDA offices across the South. These county offices have invariably been headed by whites that clearly wanted to make sure that the monies were going to the white community and to white farmers. This is the legacy of actions, for example, of white planters in the Mississippi delta who made sure that New Deal agriculture policies of the 1930’s, such as the Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA), benefited them and not Black farmers.
Ultimately, in the 1990’s, Blacks sued the government and settled what is now the Pigford v Vilsack lawsuit.
A colleague of mine from Tuskegee University once said that the closer you get to farmers the harder it is for policies to be implemented. This is true. The Secretary of Agriculture might give directives from his office in Washington DC; the directives will then be given to the state directors of the USDA; and then the state directors will send policy information to the various counties in the state and this is where the rubber hits the road as it were. This is where the policies should impact farmers and be offered to farmers but it is also where the entrenched social prejudices and cultural alienation are most keenly felt. Black farmers have always received abysmally poor treatment in these county offices and comparatively relatively little capital in loans for their farm operations or farm ownership opportunities have been provided – thus the lawsuit.
Nevertheless, Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been attempting to change the system starting with civil rights directives in the department when he was first appointed; engaging in a study of civil rights abuses; developing a “strike force” in the South to ensure fair treatment for all in the implementation of farm programs, etc. We are also witnessing some changes at the local level thanks to his initiatives and the result of the Black farmer lawsuit.
Regarding the Pigford lawsuit, Blacks led the way yet again in seeking justice. By the time Vilsack became Obama’s Secretary there were lawsuits pending from women, Native American and Latino farmers thanks to the leadership of Black farmers in the rural south who’s lawsuit provided opportunities for others who were also being marginalized by USDA offices.
Suffice it to say, Representative Michelle Bachman (R-MN) decries the Black lawsuit against the USDA as reparations. I wish the lawsuit was, in fact, reparations for centuries of abuse of Blacks by white supremacists in America. Alas, it is not. Word has it that Bachman is also enamored about a book by Robert E. Lee that purports the benefits of slavery. Perhaps Bachman should first be a slave and see how she benefits. At the very least, Bachman and her co-hort, Representative Stephen King (R-IA), provide the opportunity for us to share more information about the Pigford lawsuit. (See the October 6, 2010 response “Pigford advocates respond to congressional critics“)
For the Georgia State University audience I realized that it’s difficult to know about or to acknowledge the grindingly slow process of social change in southern rural communities. But I also realize how important it is that these issues are discussed as widely as possible. And for Michelle Bachmann and her comments about reparations? This is a lawsuit about unjust treatment from a federal agency. Further, the meager amount of monies being offered through this lawsuit could in no way compensate the Black community for its struggles against the centuries of entrenched racism and past slavery in America. Reparations in future negotiations? Not a bad idea!
Heather Gray is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org