Like many other Black Americans, I was born into a family of farmers. I spent every summer with my grandparents, who owned a 117-acre farm in Virginia. It was during those summers that I became connected to the land and was called to be a farmer.
I bought my first farm in Virginia from Russell Sallie, another Black farmer, in 1983. My businesses producing wheat and soybeans and raising cattle started to grow, and so did my financial obligations.
Knowing there were programs available for businesses like mine, I started to look for financial assistance. I started with the Farmers Home Administration, a subdivision of the U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA) that was created to distribute loans and grants to farmers, businesses, and rural communities.
Sallie, who introduced me to the Farmers Homes Administration, told me, “Good luck with those folks up there. They don’t like Black farmers.”
From the start, my efforts were unwelcome. I encountered open disrespect—bullying, racial name-calling, resistance to processing my credit applications, and a hostile environment—when I showed up for appointments.
I soon realized that these intimidation tactics were reserved for Black farmers seeking help. This insight spurred me to take action to hold the USDA accountable. Along with a group of other Black farmers, I started to file complaints against the department in 1986.
When that didn’t produce results, we visited the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights. It turned out to have only two employees—and files that had been gathering dust since the 1960s. I knew my next step had to be legal action.
One after another, our complaints were dismissed, but we learned a lot in the process. In 1995, I helped start the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) to advocate for African American farmers.
NBFA members held a demonstration in front of the White House in 1996 that gave us the chance to discuss our complaints with the secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman. Yet no systemic changes were made to disrupt the USDA’s discriminatory practices toward Black farmers.
A year later, the USDA Civil Rights department reopened and other members of NBFA and I attended a hearing on USDA loan discrimination held by the Congressional Black Caucus. Still, nothing substantial changed. So, we continued to fight, momentum began to grow, and we filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA in 1997.
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