Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, grew up on a farm in rural North Carolina. His parents arrived in Tillery, in the northeastern part of the state, in 1947 to take part in a New Deal resettlement program established to help families raise enough capital through farming to buy their own land, which the Grants were able to do.
However, droughts affecting the region in the 1970s forced them to apply for a USDA loan through their local Farm Services Agency. The Grants had been farming successfully for decades and owned ample collateral assets; nevertheless, like all black farmers in Halifax County, and a disproportionate number of minority farmers nationwide, they were deemed unfit to manage their money and their loan was placed in a supervised account.
This meant that whenever the Grants needed cash to purchase supplies and equipment, they first needed the approval of an account supervisor. Problems arose when the supervisor frequently delayed signing off on purchases, which held up the release of the money for so long that by the time the funding arrived, optimal seasonal conditions for planting or harvesting had passed. The delays meant that crops came in late and yield was lower, which translated into less profit for the Grants and an inability to make payments on time. The Grants battled the USDA until both of Gary’s parents passed away in 2001, leaving behind an enormous debt and the oldest civil rights claim in American history, which has yet to be resolved.
Grant views his parents’ tragedy as part of a larger pattern, one the BFAA–whose motto is “A landless people is a hopeless people”–is struggling to change. The Seventh Annual Black Land Loss Summit, which took place in Tillery February 18-20 and was co-sponsored by the Black Land Loss Fund, sought to recognize and address the disappearance of black farmers and the agrarian culture they embody. The land owned by black farmers has dwindled from roughly 17 million acres in 1910 to roughly 7 million today. And the number of black farmers has declined by 98 percent since 1920, compared with a 66 percent decline in white farmers over the same period.
In the past, violence has determined black America’s shifting landscape: courthouses torched to destroy deeds for land belonging to blacks; black landowners terrorized, driven from their homes and in some cases murdered by the Klan; and, perhaps most spectacular, the 1921 attack by white mobs on Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, which effectively destroyed the thriving community then known as the “Black Wall Street.” Today, Grant cites “USDA-sponsored land loss” and the exploitation of land inheritance laws by developers as the means by which blacks continue to lose land to whites.
In 1984 and 1985, at the height of the farm crisis, the USDA lent a total of $1.3 billion to nearly 16,000 farmers to help them maintain their land. Only 209 of those farmers were black. Moreover, according to a 1997 Civil Rights Action Team Report, which looked at the state of affairs in the 1990s, in several states minority loan applicants waited an average of three times longer to receive their money than their white counterparts. The report found that loans were denied to minority farmers at a rate of ten-fifteen percent times higher than white farmers, varying between states. The rationale for denying loans was completely at the discretion of the loan officer, and unless the farmer appealed his or her decision, a time-consuming and often futile process, the buck stopped there.