Black Farmers Receive Settlement Over Alleged Discrimination Claims

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture announced that $1.25 billion will be provided to African-American farmers who said they were discriminated against in USDA farm-loan programs. Host Michel Martin speaks about the historic settlement with John Boyd, Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, what some Muslim women wear - be it the burqa, niqab or a veil -has sparked debate in much of Europe, but it has also prompted discussion at an Islamic university in Egypt. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, the Department of Agriculture yesterday announced it will pay out $1.25 billion to African-American farmers who said they were discriminated against in farm loan programs. The settlement is the second round in a long legal fight. Back in 1999, North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and 16,000 other black farmers won a $1 billion settlement over discrimination claims. Unfortunately, thousands of farmers' claims were denied because the filing deadline had passed.

The new settlement enables farmers who missed the claim deadline to file for compensation. We wanted to know more about this, so we called John Boyd Jr., the president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association. He has been in this fight from the beginning. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studio now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHN BOYD, Jr. (President and Founder, National Black Farmers Association): Hello, Michel. Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: How did this start? Do you remember? I mean, how did Timothy Pigford, and the other farmers who pressed their claims, begin to believe that they had been discriminated against?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Well, the lawsuit had been filed in several other states around the country - Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi. And we filed the same lawsuit in federal court several times and what we did was, we just changed the main plaintiff's name every time we re-filed the lawsuit. And we were successful with Judge Paul Friedman here in Washington, D.C. And that case was heard. And we told our stories about how the government discriminated against black farmers, and how they historically and discriminatorily took our land from us by not lending us money on time. Black farmers didn't take part in the U.S. Farm Subsidy Program. So, there was a lot, a lot of problems at, you know, USDA that, in my opinion, still exist today.

MARTIN: Give us an example. Maybe - why don't you just tell us your experience. You are a second-generation farmer...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in Virginia. Can you just give us a sense of the experience that you had so that people can understand what it is that we're talking about?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Absolutely. You know, farmers need farm operating loans every year, you know, to plant their crops on time. And if you plant on time, you can make the maximum harvest and if you don't, your yields won't be good. So, I started to try to do business with the USDA and the county supervisor there -that's the person who makes the decisions on loans and how much you can get, and things of this nature.

I honestly thought he had just a personal problem with me. And all of the farmers would see the county supervisor only on Wednesday. So, we called it Black Wednesday because all of the farmers - black farmers would be in the lobby. We all knew each other, but we never spoke about our personal situation with the loan officer.

MARTIN: So, what would happen? You would constantly get your applications denied or...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Well, most of us were...

MARTIN: ...they would just be delayed or what would happen?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: ...most of us was denied. The county supervisor would leave the door open and let the other black farmers hear how badly, you know, Mr. Garnet(ph) would talk to us. He would talk down towards us and leave the door open. When a white farmer came in, we had to leave the office. He would close the door and conduct business with them quietly, and then he would bring us back in and talk loudly.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. He would literally kick you out of the office...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...when a white farmer came in, but when it was an African-American farmer, his personal business would all be public?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: And referred to us as boy - you know, boy, I need you to go on out of here. I mean, that's the dialect that he would speak to you in. And I was from a different age bracket than the older black farmers, who were very humble. And I didn't understand why I couldn't get a loan. I mean, why can't I? I mean, I had pretty good credit until I got involved with the government. And one particular year, he tore the application up and tossed it in the trash can.

MARTIN: In front of you?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Yeah, in front of me. And he said he wasn't going to process the loan. I said, well, why not? I said, I think I'm qualified for the loan. And he said, well, I don't have any money to lend you - any of my money. He often used that term: any of my money. You know, it was the federal government's money.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, OK. I think we get the picture. So, as we mentioned, there was a consent agreement reached...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...a settlement reached in 1999...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...with some 16,000 black farmers in which the government agreed to pay farmers for past discrimination in lending. They basically agreed...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: ...they reached a settlement.

MARTIN: ...with the black farmers, said that these things had occurred and that they were willing to rectify the situation. What I wondered is why didn't that settle it then?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Well, we thought we had a huge victory at that time. And we thought everything was all over and the government was going to stop discriminating. And then they filed a motion in court not to turn over the cases, those black farmers who filed civil rights cases. The Civil Rights Office was closed under the Reagan administration from 1981, and it didn't reopen until the Clinton years in 1997. And what happened was 80,000 nearly 80,000 black farmers came after the filing deadline. They didn't know about it. We didn't have the names and addresses.

You know, when a class action comes up, they send you a card in the mail saying, hey, you may be eligible for this. That never took place, and 80,000 black farmers came after the filing deadline. And it took us from 2000 to 2008. Then - Senator Barack Obama was a senator, and he sponsored that bill and the farm bill that passed into law that would allow these cases to move forward in federal court. So...

MARTIN: I understand a moratorium on foreclosures of most of the claimants' farms will be in place until after they've gone through the claims process. But presumably, some of the farmers probably had the same experience that you did. In fact, we know that the number of black farms has declined greatly over the last decade. So what difference will this make?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: I hope it will put the farmers back on track, where they start taking part in federal programs. But to comment on what you said, the government treated black farmers worse than the dirt on the ground. There was no sympathy, and the way they treated these farmers was really degrading, and it was a national disgrace. And this settlement is a mere apology, a step in the right direction by the president. And I want to commend the president for putting this thing in the budget. He didn't have to do that. He put it in the budget twice. But I'm hopeful, Michel, that he would reach out to leadership on the Hill and say, hey, appropriate the funds for the black farmers and make this thing real, so that the black farmers can actually receive some checks in the mailbox.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let you go, I do want to mention I have interviewed you before.

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Yeah, we talked about you.

MARTIN: We've been doing this...

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: We're old friends now.

MARTIN: ...for a long time. Yeah, exactly. I mean, this has been going on for such a long time. Do you feel that there's light at the end of the tunnel?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: I feel that...

MARTIN: As you sit here today, do you feel that it's almost over?

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: I feel that we're right there, right there. I don't think we've been this close to, you know, bringing this thing to a real closure. We're here again. If we can get the president - I know he's pulled in many different directions - but I think if he gets when he gets behind the issue, this would be something historic. And black farmers would turn out in record numbers to support him later on. I mean, because this is something that has to happen for us.

MARTIN: John Boyd Jr. is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. As we mentioned, he's a farmer of many generations. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington. Mr. Boyd, thank you so much for talking to us.

Mr. BOYD, Jr.: Thank you, Michel.

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