The “Machine That Eats Up Black Farmland”
Mother Jones|May/June 2021
After decades of discriminating against Black farmers and ignoring their complaints, the USDA is promising to do better. Again.
By Kathryn Joyce, Nathan Rosenberg, and Bryce Stucki

Once, Valee Taylor and Renee Stewart’s family was among the largest Black landowners in North Carolina’s Orange County, a rectangle of farm country running north from Chapel Hill.

In the 1930s, after a life of sharecropping, the siblings’ grandfather, Berea “Burrie” Corbett, turned $40 worth of gold coins his parents had given him into a 1,300-acre tobacco farm in tiny Cedar Grove, becoming a pillar of the local Black bourgeoisie. He built a church and a school for the local Black community.

Taylor and Stewart had helped run the farm during high school and college. After careers in law enforcement and pharmacy, respectively, they decided to return to the family business. In 2009, aided by a loan from the US Department of Agriculture, they launched a high-tech aquaculture operation in a 10,000-square-foot building that stood where their grandfather once grew tobacco. Taylor Fish Farm’s organic tilapia soon turned up in grocery stores around the South and was the first Black-owned farm to supply food to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The siblings enjoyed rapid success until a series of natural disasters forced them to take production offline and the USDA delayed their request to defer loan payments. Stewart lost the 80-acre tobacco farm she’d posted as collateral and developed a heart condition from the stress; her doctor, she recalls, “worried I was going to take my life.” Taylor had a nervous breakdown that landed him in the hospital.

It’s easy to think of this as a one-off story of personal calamity. But what happened to Taylor and Stewart is distressingly common among Black farmers, who have lost more than 90 percent of their land since 1910—16 million acres, a landmass roughly the size of West Virginia—in part due to widespread discrimination by USDA bureaucrats who refused them loans, acreage allotments, and other forms of support that white farmers in similar situations easily obtained.

Black ownership of farmland peaked in the early 20 century. And while you might assume the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs helped Black families build on that land base, “it was the opposite,” says Pete Daniel, a historian and the author of Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. “A lot of the reason for that was in the Department of Agriculture and how its programs were racist. The people who carried them out were trying to get rid of Black farmers,” Daniel says. The people in charge at the USDA’s headquarters in Washington “never took action against any of the bureaucrats who were racist and abusive, so they were complicit with this behavior.”

In 1965, the agency’s first civil rights director was appointed to try to clean up its entrenched discrimination. President Richard Nixon later established an entire office dedicated to the task. But in the years since, the department’s civil rights office has been ineffective at best and actively biased at worst, according to our analysis of thousands of pages of documents and interviews with 29 current and former department employees. Far from safeguarding farmers’ and even its own employees’ rights, the civil rights office has instead often buried or ignored their complaints. Agency officials who attempt to change that pattern have found themselves sidelined. “Doing right” when it comes to USDA civil rights enforcement, one employee tells us, “is a lonely, lonely, lonely business.”

The Trump administration intensified the civil rights office’s dysfunction, putting officials in charge of the office and its legal counterpart who’d cut their teeth seeking to undo civil rights protections in other realms. Although President Joe Biden has voiced support for civil rights enforcement at the agency, USDA staff and food justice advocates for victims of discrimination say his plan just dusts off promises that were broken during the Obama years. “It’s just a gargantuan power structure that’s pretty unshakable,” Daniel says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to fight.”

WITH ABOUT 85,000 employees working across 17 subagencies, the USDA is one of the largest federal departments. It oversees the Forest Service and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be called food stamps), loans for rural businesses and infrastructure, farm credit, and even some low-income housing.

The modern USDA took shape under the New Deal, as Southern Democrats used their enormous influence to ensure that all those new federal programs wouldn’t challenge segregation. As documented in political scientist Ira Katznelson’s 2005 book, When Affirmative Action Was White, they made sure that federal resources would be distributed under “local control.” Through the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which was designed to pay farmers to curtail production, the government established county committees that helped determine and distribute farm subsidies. Plantation owners and other Southern elites controlled these committees and the many other farm programs initiated by the New Deal—always ensuring that most of the money ended up in the hands of powerful white men. The USDA’s central role in this pattern of discrimination would earn it the nickname “The Last Plantation” among Black farmers.

By the mid-1960s, civil rights activists had trained their sights on this Jim Crow farm system, running Black candidates for spots on USDA county committees that distributed enormous amounts of farm aid. In 1965, the US Commission on Civil Rights released a scathing report that documented ongoing entrenched discriminatory practices throughout the USDA’s Southern offices. The same year, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman responded by appointing the department’s first civil rights director, William Seabron. It was mostly symbolic: Seabron drew up an aggressive reform plan, which included integrating the local committees, but department officials by and large ignored his recommendations.

Many of the USDA bureaucrats were under the sway of deep-seated Southern interests, personified by Rep. Jamie Whitten, a segregationist landowner from the Mississippi Delta who cultivated allies and spies within the department. As a powerful member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, he killed department reports on Black farmers and farmworkers, and statistical agencies that studied poverty. When Congress debated expanding food stamps in Whitten’s deeply impoverished home state, he said if “hunger is not a problem, nigras won’t work.” He assured a Mississippi administrator in the county committee system that he could ignore integration orders from Washington and entered a passage in a congressional report arguing that Freeman couldn’t enforce civil rights laws. Lacking the appetite to challenge the lawmaker known as the “permanent secretary of agriculture,” Freeman told reporters that he had two bosses: “One is President Johnson. The other is Jamie Whitten.” With no mandate or power, the office would later descend into mismanagement and chaos.

President Nixon pushed for moderate civil rights reforms in part to drive a wedge between labor and civil rights groups. As part of that effort, he created the USDA office of civil rights. But this merely gave an official name to a body with no real power. Only a few years later, when Earl Butz was secretary, 80 percent of its staff was moved to unrelated work—an overt signal of the administration’s abandonment of civil rights. This established a pattern in the department. As Daniel puts it, since its inception, the office has “been told not to do anything and has the personnel within it that can ensure that nothing will be done.”

This legacy of deliberate inaction persists. Local USDA offices originally established to defend white supremacy still garner hundreds of discrimination complaints against themselves every year, advocates and farmers say, and the department almost never resolves them in favor of the complainant or punishes employees for wrongdoing. The systemic attack on Black farmers is partly why 98 percent of commercial farms are now owned by white people, and the agency’s loan programs mostly enrich large, white-owned farms. The USDA even named its Washington headquarters after Whitten—in 1995. According to Lloyd Wright, who headed the civil rights office under President Bill Clinton, “It doesn’t matter who’s running the damn plantation because it doesn’t change very much.”

Wright at least tried to change it, supporting what would become the largest civil rights settlement in US history. It resulted from a landmark class-action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, filed on behalf of Black farmers who experienced discrimination from department employees between 1981 and 1996 when the civil rights office had effectively stopped investigating discrimination complaints. For decades, wrote the judge, who ruled in their favor in 1999, “the Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners discriminated against African American farmers when they denied, delayed or otherwise frustrated the applications of those farmers for farm loans and other credit and benefit programs.” The $1 billion settlement, he continued, was “the first step of immeasurable value.”

Valee Taylor was one of more than 33,000 claimants in the ultimate settlement. In the early 1980s, he’d applied for a $325,000 Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan administered by the USDA. But the agency denied Taylor on the grounds that he had no farming experience, even though five generations of his family had been farmers, and he’d worked on the family farm in high school. Though they won the legal battle, individual farmers received little from Pigford; a typical payout was about $50,000, which neither relieved most plaintiffs’ debts nor helped them regain their land. And the case sparked substantial resentment among some conservatives, white neighbors, and local USDA staff who thought Black farmers had been paid off by the Democratic Party or given a backdoor form of reparations.

When the Obama administration settled with a new class of Pigford claimants in 2010, right-wing commentator Andrew Breitbart covered the case obsessively, describing the settlement as a Democratic “vote-buying scheme.” In March 2010, Breitbart published selectively edited video clips that made it seem like Shirley Sherrod, the head of the USDA’s Rural Development office in Georgia, had admitted to discriminating against a white farmer. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack immediately fired Sherrod. When the rest of the video emerged, making clear Sherrod had done no such thing, Vilsack offered her another post within the USDA, which she declined. (She sued Breitbart for defamation and settled out of court.)

Pigford also highlighted internal divisions in the department. “We had a small group of people who supported Pigford and all of the class actions we settled,” agrees Joe Leonard, the USDA’s civil rights director under Obama, and “a large number of people who did not.” In 2002, three years after the first Pigford settlement, Congress reorganized the civil rights office, renaming it the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCr, often pronounced “Oscar” within the division). But while Vilsack would say the case “helped close a painful chapter in our collective history,” the resentments linger. According to one former civil rights office employee, “The USDA employees who were around [during Pigford] still have the same anger that Black farmers got something they didn’t deserve.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM MOTHER JONESView All

Mainstreaming Militias

In Virginia, right-wingers who face down anti-racist demonstrators with AR-15s have earned an official stamp of approval.

5 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

The Right Medicine

When covid treatments are politicized, science loses.

4 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Up Rooted

Forests have always migrated to survive. But now they need our help to outrun climate catastrophe.

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Healing Requires Truth

A modern civil rights project seeks to reexamine hundreds of Jim Crow–era murders, and help families move forward.

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Geography Class

Photographer Matt Black’s epic work of “critical cartography”

5 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Distant Learning

New immigrant students had the most to gain at Virginia’s Justice High—and the most to lose once the pandemic hit.

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Field of Trees

The case for bringing foliage back to the Corn Belt

3 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

Who You Gonna Call?

After Oakland cops drew guns on an accident survivor, a new kind of emergency responder rushed to the scene.

8 mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

SUCK IT UP

Is pulling CO2 out of the sky our climate salvation-or just another Big Oil boondoggle?

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021

SWEET AND LOWDOWN

The hidden suffering behind America’s sugar habit

10+ mins read
Mother Jones
November/December 2021