Farmland Blues: The Legacy of USDA Discrimination
The history of discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture and the class action lawsuits by black farmers.
By Dr. Pete McDaniel
Curator, Division of Work and Industry
National Museum of American History
What happened in rural America during the quarter century after 1950 has been eclipsed by the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and growing concern over pesticides, nuclear testing, and other environmental issues. During these years, 3.1 million farmers left the land, over one half million of them African Americans. American agriculture transformed from labor-intensive to capital-intensive operations and, spurred by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidies, expensive machines and chemicals dominated remaining farms. Black farmers were often unable to obtain credit, information, or other federal benefits, and county USDA offices purposely squeezed black farmers out of farming. Paradoxically, the flight of African Americans from the land coincided with the civil rights movement, a time of hope for an end to segregation and discrimination. It also coincided with rising national popularity of blues and country music, much of which originated in the rural South. Although southern rural music expressed the hopes, aspirations, failures, and hardships of rural people, farming culture remained invisible to most listeners. The work culture that produced the music—farmers plowing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops; weekend singing and dancing both to the devil and to the Lord; and the family, schools, churches, juke joints, honky tonks, country stores, and smells of the earth—has been neglected or romanticized.
In my recent book, Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, I analyze the forces that combined to drive black farmers from the land as well as the stubborn resistance of black farmers and their supporters. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s initiative to open federal programs to African Americans in the mid-1960s, especially its efforts to elect black farmers to Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) county committees, has been largely overlooked by historians. The class action suit, Strain v. Philpott, that defeated the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service’s discriminatory policies has been relegated to a footnote. Welchel Long and Timothy Pigford challenged the Farmers Home Administration and revealed remarkable prejudice, and the Pigford v. Glickman class action suit is a remarkable civil rights initiative that documented discrimination. Such efforts to oppose USDA discrimination have been buried, and constitute an invisible residue of the civil rights movement.
The history of African American farmers created a remarkable trajectory. African slaves brought farming knowledge with them to the New World, and planters relied upon slaves’ farming expertise. After Emancipation, former slaves made remarkable progress in acquiring farms, and by 1910, African Americans held title to some sixteen million acres of farmland. By 1920 there were 925,000 black farmers, their acquisition of land and tenure coming during some of the country’s harshest racial discrimination and violence. During the 1920s this ownership arc peaked and turned downward, influenced by the march of science and technology across the land, by government programs that favored wealthier farmers, and by USDA discrimination. African Americans had continually moved out of the South to escape violence, gain access to better schools, and find jobs, and the volume of their migration increased during World War I as jobs opened in northern industries.
As I discussed in Dispossession, three USDA agencies offer insight into its encompassing discrimination. The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service handled allotments, referring to the amount of a crop a farmer could grow, and managed numerous subsidy programs. The Federal Extension Service (FES) offered advice on the latest farming techniques, organized 4-H clubs for rural youth, and established home demonstration clubs for rural women. The Farmers Home Administration (FHA, later FmHA) offered loans to farmers unable to secure credit from private sources. These three powerful pseudo-democratic agencies became repositories of prejudice as they hired office staffs, selected extension and home demonstration agents, controlled information, adjusted acreage allotments, disbursed loans, adjudicated disputes, and, in many cases, looked after family and friends. County administrators had enormous discretion in how programs were carried out and who benefitted from them. Land grant university curricula and research focused on farmers who could invest in science and technology.
Although never providing equal services to blacks, USDA offices increased discrimination after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, sometimes using policy to punish activists, and more often simply excluding black farmers from equal participation in programs. While the USDA discriminated against all poor farmers, southern USDA officials focused on black farmers. The dramatic events of Freedom Summer in 1964 eclipsed an important SNCC initiative to elect black farmers to ASCS county committees. Civil rights activists focused on federal programs that discriminated against African Americans, and they discovered that each county had, among numerous other federal offices, an ASCS office, an elected three-man committee (comprised entirely of white men), and an office manager that executed the programs. Since farmers elected the county committees, civil rights workers enlisted black farmers to both vote and stand for election, to gain a voice in deciding how acreage and other benefits were distributed. Hastily prepared challenges in 1964 provoked white resistance that ranged from issuing confusing information on county maps to intimidation and violence. Only a handful of black farmers won seats to community committees, the bodies that met to elect the powerful county committees. For several years black farmers and their supporters battled subterfuge, fraud, and intimidation in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana but won only a few seats despite having a majority of voters in many counties. As the civil rights movement cooled in the late 1960s, the ASCS claimed that it, not civil rights workers, launched the voting initiative and that civil rights organizations had little or no impact on black voting. The ASCS hoped to white out the powerful civil rights challenge, but documentation resulted in three chapters of Dispossession devoted to efforts of black farmers and their supporters to end ASCS discrimination.
During the civil rights movement, the press primarily covered major civil rights demonstrations and violent incidents and neglected the transformation in the rural South. A wave of science and technology broke across the land, consisting of tractors, self-propelled combines, picking machines, hybrid seeds, improved fertilizers, and synthetic chemicals such as DDT and parathion. USDA policy encouraged farmers to invest in machines and chemicals and bent policy to aid wealthy farmers. The crop cycle increasingly required farmers to purchase seeds and fertilizer at planting time, chemicals to fight weeds, and often emergency funds for machine repairs, and, of course, tractors and picking machines, on credit. Many poorer farmers were content to raise crops each year and clear enough to do it all over again, and they were cautious in buying into the capital-intensive treadmill. While prosperous farmers could borrow from banks, struggling farmers often turned to the FHA, the lender of last resort. County FHA supervisors had absolute control over which farmers received loans, and their discriminatory treatment of African Americans (and women, Indians, and Hispanics) is richly documented.
A pattern emerged across the South in FHA offices during the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes the supervisor simply refused to give a black farmer an application, denied the request outright, or stated that money for that program had been spent. At other times the farmer would receive a loan only large enough to start the crop cycle but not enough to finish it, leading to crop failure. In still other cases the loan was so large that it was impossible to pay off, resulting in foreclosure. Loan officers seldom extended or adjusted loans for black farmers. The situation was precarious, for while farmers required funds to plant, cultivate, and harvest, that same FHA loan made them vulnerable to foreclosure. The FHA program was increasingly corrupt, and loans went to more wealthy farmers.
Consider the example of Georgia farmer Welchel Long. After his father died when he was thirteen, the family moved from a nearby farm to Athens where Long’s first job was delivering wine to University of Georgia students. He served in the army during World War II, and then graduated Tuskegee University on the G.I. Bill. When historian Lu Ann Jones interviewed Long in the mid-1980s, his mind flooded with dozens of cases of FHA discrimination. For example, he observed that, since he moved to Elbert County in 1952, the number of black farmers fell from four hundred to two; he then corrected the number to one since he was no longer farming. In addition to teaching agriculture in high school, Long farmed, and he told Jones of his numerous confrontations with FHA county supervisor Thomas K. Wilson. When a black farmer asked about a loan, Wilson would say there was no money for that kind of loan, and when a black farmer found a farm to purchase, Wilson found fault with it. One year Long received a $12,500 loan, using $3,000 to plant five hundred acres of soybeans, but when he asked for the remainder for herbicides and machinery repairs, the FHA impounded the money. At the National Archives and Records Administration, there is a thick file on Welchel Long. His case was supported by the Allis-Chalmers farm implement dealer as well as a staff member in the business office at the University of Georgia. One year, two members of the county FHA committee supported a loan, but Wilson denied it. During the first years of the Richard M. Nixon Administration, most complaints were either tossed in the trash or filed with no investigation. In 1978, after Wilson had left the county, a surprised Long was asked to serve on the FHA committee. The county supervisor, he told Lu Ann Jones, had enormous power, and the supervisor or state office could overrule the committee. Wilson’s tactics to discourage African American loans epitomized those throughout southern FHA offices and are well documented.
Challenges to Discrimination: ‘Strain’ and ‘Pigford’
The Federal Extension Service distributed the latest scientific information to farmers and organized 4-H clubs for children and home demonstration clubs for women. The segregated Negro Extension Service operated out of African American land grant universities and was supervised by white land grant schools. Still, African Americans eked out spheres of independence that offered opportunities and careers. In 1965 the Negro Extension Service was integrated into white land grant schools, and black county agents and demonstration agents were assigned secondary positions, always under white supervisors. The autonomy provided by segregation disappeared. Willie Strain had edited The Negro Farmer at Tuskegee University until 1965 when he moved to Auburn University, where he was given an office, no duties, and was shunned by the white staff. He spent his time reading in the library. After several years, he returned to graduate school. Back at Auburn, he was passed over to head the publications department despite his qualifications. He sued. The class action suit, Strain v. Philpott, revealed the duplicity of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service’s integration plan. Judge Frank M. Johnson’s September 1971 decree not only illuminated the degree of discrimination throughout Alabama’s extension service, but also prescribed remedies to correct it. Similar cases challenged extension service discrimination in most southern states. White land grant universities also resisted federal employment guidelines and insisted that counties should have control over hiring, an obvious ploy to avoid integration. In a larger view, land grant universities focused on research that favored more affluent farmers.
Despite numerous studies by the US Commission on Civil Rights and Congressional hearings that revealed patterns of discrimination, USDA bias continued. In 1984, Timothy Pigford testified before a House subcommittee and recounted his experiences in eastern North Carolina. After attending the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for several years in the late 1960s, he worked fulltime at the Hercules Chemical plant and started renting land to farm. “It has always been my dream to own and farm my own land,” he testified. When he found a farm for sale, the FHA office denied his application and continually gave him flawed farming advice. Pigford took extension courses, expanded his rented land, attempted to buy again and again, and finally became active in farmer groups that challenged discrimination. Black farmers took advantage of an internal USDA study conducted by a Civil Rights Action Team (established by Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman) that revealed continuing discrimination. African American farmers staged a demonstration in Washington and brought about a class action suit, Pigford v. Glickman. On April 14, 1999, Judge Paul L. Friedman began his decision with that familiar Civil War and Reconstruction era rhetoric: “Forty acres and a mule.” Here Friedman connected emancipated slaves’ struggles for property ownership with black farmers who struggled—and continue to struggle—for ownership in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. He estimated that only 18,000 black farmers survived.7 The judge established an elaborate process to determine damages and prevent fraud. He established 1981, the year the USDA’s civil rights office stopped investigating discrimination complaints and threw many in the trash, as the cut-off date for damages. Dispossession focused on the years before 1981, and evidence of discrimination appeared in, among other sources, USDA records, the US Commission of Civil Rights Papers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Papers, the National Sharecroppers Fund Papers, records of land grand universities, and in legal literature.
An April 25, 2013 New York Times article entitled “U.S. Opens Spigot After Farmers Claim Discrimination” virtually ignored the discrimination that led to the lawsuits, and instead unduly focused on fraud in settlements under the Pigford decision and in cases involving women, Indian, and Hispanic farmers. Sharon LaFraniere, the author of the article, neglected to explain the exacting legal process that Judge Friedman established for documenting discrimination. Instead, LaFraniere preferred statements such as, “career lawyers and agency officials who had argued that there was no credible evidence of widespread discrimination.” USDA officials repeatedly denied discrimination, even in the face of multiple reports from the US Commission on Civil Rights (beginning in 1965 with Equal Opportunity in Farm Programs: An Appraisal of Services Rendered by Agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture); Washington Post reporter Ward Sinclair’s series of articles in the early 1980s; and, of course, the extensive documentation housed in repositories across the country. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund found at least ten factual errors in the article; The New York Times published executive director Ralph Paige’s letter to the editor, along with another letter from ten scholars of rural life. Even after black farmers won their case proving discrimination, some USDA staff perpetuated the myth that there had been no bias. USDA staff seemed anxious to once again erase the historical record, mirroring the role they played in denying civil rights efforts to win ASCS elections in the 1960s.
African American farmers and their supporters have fought a protracted battle against USDA perfidy. It was a fight that recorded few victories but that set important precedents. Willie Strain’s case against the Alabama Extension Service created a pathway for similar suits in other states, and the Pigford case opened an avenue for women, Indians, and Hispanics to contest USDA discrimination. The legal records from these cases offer historians the opportunity to delve further into USDA discrimination.
Timothy Pigford graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in May 2013 and was awarded the Hoggard Medal of Achievement for academic excellence. One of his professors, Monica Gisolfi, offered remarks at the graduation ceremony to contextualize his career. “Most likely you do not know that your classmate, Mr. Pigford, is one of the most important civil rights activists of the last thirty years,” she began. “He is an individual who has fought for freedom at great personal sacrifice, who has bettered the lives of tens of thousands of American farmers, who has fought for justice and equality, and who—like all great Americans—has challenged his government to protect, defend, and insure the rights of its citizens.” Timothy Pigford personifies the enduring legacy of black farmers who fought USDA discrimination, and his achievements should encourage a thoughtful look at the history of USDA discrimination and its incalculable damage.
- Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
- Bruce J. Reynolds, “Black Farmers in America, 1865–2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives,” USDA Rural Business Cooperative Service, Research Report 194 (October 2002), table 3, “Farm Operators in the US by Race, 1900 to 1997,” 24.
- Welchel Long, interview by Lu Ann Jones, April 16, 1987, Elbert County, Georgia, box 5559, Farm Credit 1-2, General Correspondence, 1906–1976, Records of the Secretary of Agriculture, Record Group 16, National Archives and Records Administration, Oral History of Southern Agriculture, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
- Pete Daniel, interview with Willie L. Strain, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, February 21, 2007, Southern Oral History Collection, Chapel Hill, NC; Hoyt M. Warren, “Actions Associated with Implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” in the Cooperative Extension Service, Auburn University, December 1972 (administratively confidential), copy in Archives and Manuscripts Department, Auburn University; Willie L. Strain v. Harry M. Philpott, 331 F. Supp. 836 (1971).
- House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Hearings on Civil Rights Enforcement Record of the Department of Agriculture, 98th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, 1984), statement and testimony of Timothy Pigford, 63–81; Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D., 82 (D.D.C., 1999).
- “Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture: A Report by the Civil Rights Action Team” (Washington, 1997).
- Pigford, 185 F.R.D. at 85–86.
- Sharon LaFraniere, “U.S. Opens Spigot After Farmers Claim Discrimination,” The New York Times, April 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/us/farm-loan-bias-claims-often-unsupported-cost-us-millions.html.
- John A. Hannah, Eugene Patterson, Frankie M. Freeman, Erwin N. Griswold, Theodore M. Hesburgh, and Robert S. Rankin,Equal Opportunity in Farm Programs: An Appraisal of Services Rendered by Agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture(Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1965).
- Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, “‘Sharon LaFraniere Got it Wrong’: Response to the Coverage of the Pigford Settlement in the April 26, New York Times,” http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com/pigford/Response%20to%20Pigford%20NYTimes%20Coverage.pdf; Ralph Paige and Rachel Slocum, “Letters: Bias and a Settlement With Black Farmers,” The New York Times, May 3, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/opinion/bias-and-a-settlement-with-black-farmers.html.
- Monica Gisolfi e-mail message to author, June 4, 2013.
- Ashmore, Susan Youngblood. Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964–1972. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
- Cantor, Louis. A Prologue to the Protest Movement: The Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration of 1939. Durham: Duke University Press, 1969.
- Goodwin, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
- Korstad, Robert Rodgers and James Leloudis. To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
- Korstad, Robert Rodgers. Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth–Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
- Natanson, Nicholas. The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
- Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
- Reid, Debra A. and Evan P. Bennett, eds. Beyond Forty Acres and a Mule: African American Landowning Families Since Reconstruction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.
Originally published by Southern Spaces, 10.30.2013, republished with permission in accordance with the Budapest Open Access Initiative.