40 Acres and a Mule: the Plight of Black Farmers

Photograph Source: ghettorigged – CC BY 2.0

The most deleterious of the effects of the industrialization of farming in the United States is the drastic decline of the small white family farmers and the near disappearance of the black family farmers.

Rise and fall

In 1900, there were 746,717 black farmers in the United States. In the next ten years, by 1910, black farmers increased by 19.6 percent, becoming 893,377. The next decade, black farmers increased by 3.6 percent, reaching in 1920 their highest number ever: 925,710.

Then white racism triggered an unstoppable decline and fall. White society, its government, and large farmers hit the landed black farmers with a ton of bricks. Most black farmers abandoned farming.

The government waged an invisible war of cheating the former slaves of their promised forty acres and a mule. Large white farmers, agribusiness, and government agencies at the county, state, and federal level scared black farmers, giving them the wrong information, denying them loans, harassing them out of their land.

When black Americans started demanding civil rights in the 1950s, the wrath of the large white farmers boiled over. Black farmers ran away from the countryside to the northern cities as fast as they could. The legacy of slavery, the failure to distribute land to black Americans after the Civil War, and the racism of the federal land grant universities and extension service had had their terrible impact on black farmers as well.

Joel Schor

This story became alive in the writings and discussions of a colleague: Joel Schor. I met him in Washington, DC, where he was a historian with the US Department of Agriculture. We used to have lunches together and speak on the phone. We shared our concerns. I kept talking about corruption at the EPA, and he complained about racism at USDA.

He was courageous enough he reminded his supervisors of the destructive policies of USDA toward black farmers.

He gave me an unpublished paper he had written for USDA (“Black Farmers / Farms: The Search for Equity,” Spring 1995), in which he said that, by 1995, the vanishing black farmers were, at the most, one percent of the country’s farmers. Agriculture for blacks was becoming “a cultural memory.” It was no longer a way of life or a source of employment. The number of black farmers told their tragic history: They declined by 51.3 percent in the 1950s, 50.8 percent in the 1960s, and 57.3 percent in the 1970s. By 1997, the brave new rural world of America had cleansed itself of black farmers. Less than 18,000 black farmers were still farming in the year 2000, their numbers hitting the catastrophic level of 98 percent decline in the twentieth century.

Protesting racism at USDA

I remember walking with a few black farmers protesting the discriminatory and racist policies of USDA. The silent protest took place in Washington, DC on September 28, 2004. We were walking from the headquarters of USDA to Capitol Hill where the Constitutional Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee was preparing to have a hearing about the legal problems of the black farmers suing USDA.

What startled me was that there were so few people in the protest march, and those who marched, were overwhelmingly old and black. The Congressman who chaired the hearing, Steve Chabot, captured the tragedy of the black farmers, saying:

“When slavery was ended in the United States, our government made a promise – a restitution of sorts – to the former slaves that they would be given 40 acres and a mule…what is clear is that promise was intended to help freed slaves be independent economically and psychologically, as holders of private property rights. What also is clear is that the very government that made this promise, the “People’s Agency” [US Department of Agriculture] established in 1862 under President Abraham Lincoln, has sabotaged it by creating conditions that make sovereign and economically-viable farm ownership extremely difficult.”

Justice and support for black family farmers

It’s never too late to undo wrongs. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are potentially moving into the White House this November. They can finally fulfill the promise of the government to the black farmers: assist them with enough land and agroecological knowledge to become successful small family farmers. Those of the black farmers wishing to have 40 acres and a mule, give them 40 acres and a mule.

Such a policy should reorder USDA to cease telling family farmers to get big or get out, and, above all, abandon agribusiness and its sick animal farms and return to its original mission of helping small family farmers, no matter their skin color, raise community, democracy and wholesome organic food while protecting the natural world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.