“This is a full-circle moment for me.”
That’s how Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center (BBJC), describes Congress’s historic decision to approve $5 billion in debt relief and other assistance for farmers of color as part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
For decades, McCurty has fought for justice for African American farmers. As a law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she clerked for the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers’ Land Loss Prevention Project, working on a racial discrimination claim for a Black farmer. In 1997, African American farmers across the country took part in a class action lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) racially discriminated against them by denying them access to farm loans and other support. Settled in 1999, Pigford v. Glickman allocated $50,000 in cash payments to 15,645 Black farmers as part of a $1 billion package.
Because Pigford left out thousands of Black farmers who could not provide the evidence required to participate in the suit or were unaware of the opportunity to take legal action, President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2010 known as “Pigford II” to fund a $1.25 billion settlement for the farmers excluded from the original suit. Then a representative of the Black Farmers Council, McCurty helped to develop recommendations for the Pigford II class counsel. But neither settlement, she said, gave African Americans enough resources and debt relief to recover from decades of discrimination.
These problems continue today. As recently as last year, Black farmers missed out on the federal assistance that white farmers received. Disproportionately small-scale farmers, African Americans obtained just 0.1 percent of former President Donald Trump’s COVID relief, which mostly benefited white-owned and large-scale farm operations.
To give Black farmers much-needed support, McCurty co-founded the BBJC in 2012. A legal nonprofit and advocacy group, the BBJC helps African American farmers and landowners in the South’s Black Belt region retain land, establish sustainable land-based cooperatives and enterprises, and expand community wealth. “We were inspired to launch the center to provide legal support to Black farmers and rural communities and to revivify the Black agricultural land base,” she said.
McCurty is also the co-organizer of the Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign, the supporters of which include attorneys, researchers, musicians, heritage quilters, and other creatives who have raised awareness about the importance of debt forgiveness for Black farmers.
On March 22, McCurty and Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees and representative for the Justice for Black Farmers Group, moderated a briefing to discuss the $5 billion in debt relief and other support that the American Rescue Plan will provide for farmers of color. A group of Pigford legacy farmers joined them, as did U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia), who wrote the stimulus bill’s debt relief provisions, and Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who co-sponsored this landmark initiative.
During the briefing, the farmers discussed the history of discrimination they’ve faced, while the senators celebrated the American Rescue Plan’s passage. Warnock said the relief would help farmers and residents of rural communities alike. But the lawmakers also stressed the need for sustained action to reverse the effects of historic discrimination against farmers of color.
“This is our first step,” Booker said. “We must provide more access to credit and land for these farmers who have suffered this long history of wretched and painful discrimination.”
What effect will the American Rescue Plan have on Black farmers? Civil Eats spoke with McCurty about her longtime advocacy for these farmers, the systemic racism they’ve suffered, and the impact the legislation might have on their legacies and livelihoods. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you feeling about the $5 billion in debt relief, farmer grants, and other assistance that President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan will provide for Black farmers and other disadvantaged farmers?
It just feels really good to be running this victory lap now with our farmers. The big issue now, of course, is implementation. During a BIPOC farmers and ranchers stakeholder call on March 16, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the implementation of the debt cancellation would be a long, drawn-out process. The following week, several media sources reported that USDA was adopting a tiered approach to implement the debt cancellation provisions. Vilsack also referred to this tiered approach during his remarks at the House Agriculture Committee hearing to review the state of Black farming in the U.S. on March 25.
Our coalition is opposed to the tiered approach because it has not been vetted by Pigford legacy farmers. Given USDA’s reprehensible track record on civil rights, the implementation process must center Pigford legacy farmers and be rooted in transparency and accountability. Our coalition has spoken to several Pigford legacy farmers who have debt in the millions of dollars, and they reject a tiered approach to debt cancellation. The farmers contend that USDA should discharge all of the interest from the debt because it is racially motivated, contested, exorbitant, and cruel. During the 1997 Congressional Black Caucus hearing on USDA loan discrimination, Gladys Todd, a legacy farmer from Zebulon, North Carolina, testified that $20,000 of her $25,000 annual debt was interest. Another farmer from Northumberland County, Virginia, Phillip Haynie, testified that his loan had been growing interest at a rate of $352 a day for 10 years.
You want to challenge the perception that the Pigford settlement actually helped them. Why did this class action lawsuit fall short?
There’s this dominant narrative around Pigford providing restorative land justice to Black farmers, but it did not. The primary objective for the farmers was to receive their land and to receive monetary compensation for the egregious economic harm USDA did against them through racial discrimination, animus, and criminality; and of course, [farmers need] the debt cancellation.
Those were the three primary tenets of the lawsuit with respect to the Black farmer, and we know that it was a $1 billion settlement, and only 4.8 percent went to debt cancellation. There was, at the time, 1.5 million acres of land. Most of that was Black-owned land in USDA [possession], and the Black farmers wanted their land back, but only one farmer received his land back. And, for the last 20 years, Black farmers have not been able to stand fully in their freedom dreams, because they haven’t had access to credit with the USDA, or with any other traditional lending institution. They have not been able to pass on generational wealth, and many of the farmers have been pushed off their land. For example, farmer Eddie Slaughter—he’s a double amputee and blind in one eye—had his disability, his Social Security, and his peanut subsidy offset for nine years, amounting to $41,000 [in lost income].
How did that end up happening to Slaughter and other farmers?
That happened because none of this debt was canceled. So, then [the government recovered] the debt with the Social Security payments, with their farm subsidies, with their federal tax returns, with their disability payments. That’s how it happened, and I think it’s something that we really need to wrestle with. How could Black farmers suffer for over 20 years as a result of class action racial discrimination lawsuits that left the vast majority of them in unconscionable debt, threat of foreclosure, and no legal recourse to save their land? The importance of implementation [of the American Rescue Plan’s debt-relief program] comes in when we look at the disastrous implementation of the Pigford lawsuits, particularly Pigford I.
Can you elaborate on why you believe the Pigford I settlement was disastrous?
With respect to Pigford I, there was rampant attorney malpractice, incompetence and the aggressive posture of the Department of Justice and USDA in challenging the Black farmers’ claims. No one has really focused on this aspect of the lawsuit. The attorneys for the Black farmers, they negotiated away discovery. So the burden, then, was placed on the Black farmer to find a similarly situated white farmer who had not been discriminated against. But you see not only the burden but the equity of putting that on the Black farmer when they don’t have to compel USDA to provide that information.
And if you go back and look in the historical record, class counsel made representations that they would provide this information readily to the Black farmer, but that wasn’t the case. We know that thousands of Black farmers were denied outright on their claims. So, we want to challenge the dominant narrative of Pigford and reeducate the community on the injustices of the lawsuit.
Given the historic discrimination farmers of color have faced, what are your thoughts on politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who criticized the American Rescue Plan’s debt relief provision as “reparations,” and called it unfair to white farmers?
It really shows that our politicians don’t have a firm grasp of U.S. history, world history, and federal ag policy, because we know that, with the Homestead Act of 1862, 270 million acres of land were transferred from and stolen from Indigenous nations and provided to mostly white male settlers. We also know that the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 transferred 46 million acres of land from Indigenous nations to, again, mostly white male settlers. Even with that, fewer than 1,000 African American farmers received land titles with the Southern Homestead Act, and then of course, we have a history of decades of well-documented discrimination by the USDA against the Black farmer that has led to over 98 percent of farmland being owned by European Americans.
I also think it’s important to note that Duke University economist William Darity, who has studied reparations, stated that the recovery to restore the Black farmer would need to be between $250 billion and $350 billion. So, it’s not reparations, but debt cancellation is a necessary step in the long journey toward restorative land justice for Black farmers.
Do you think the debt relief will enable Black farmers to recover or acquire more land?
We don’t know. There were 1.5 million acres of land in USDA inventory back in 1999. Most of this was Black farms. The farmers say that, with this debt cancellation, it liberates 1.5 million acres of land from USDA land dispossession through debt. Again, we would have to confirm those numbers. We’re not sure, but the impact is significant. It’s a milestone in Black agrarian history, because we’ve never received federal legislation to undergird or support Black economic wealth creation and land ownership in this country. If anything, it’s been hostility, animus, and criminality against the Black farmer to erode those gains of Black land ownership that came through our own determination and grit.
What about young African Americans and other people of color who would like to become farmers today but lack the land access, generational wealth, and other resources that their white counterparts have? Will the American Rescue Plan help them?
There’s a $1 billion provision in the American Rescue Plan that provides financial funding for land acquisition, technical assistance, legal support, and cooperative development. There is a provision, also, that includes funding for Pigford legacy farmers who were dispossessed of their land due to the discriminatory actions of the USDA but no longer have debt. So, I think that $1 billion provision to support the land base of farmers of color can be utilized by returning-generation farmers.
How important is the Justice for Black Farmers Act introduced by Senator Booker in this effort? If passed, do you expect this legislation to give Black farmers from multiple generations the help they need to succeed?
The Justice for Black Farmers Act includes a provision that provides land to returning-generation farmers, or landless farmers. So, the provision that farmers can obtain up to 160 acres of farmland at no cost and with access to technical support, a farm operating loan, and a USDA single-family home mortgage is important. I’m very hopeful with respect to the Act. Of course, we would need the right political climate. The fact that the vote in the Senate for the American Rescue Plan Act was very close speaks to the war with respect to the moral compass and consciousness of this country when it comes to committing to restorative land justice to Black farmers and farmers of color.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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