Will Settlement Bring Black Farmers Dignity?

After years of discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, black farmers are now getting a $1.25 billion settlement. Founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association John Boyd tells host Michel Martin what this settlement means for farmers and their families.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the day we head into the barbershop for our roundtable and today we'll make a side trip to visit four barbershops around the world that are featured in a new documentary "The Fade." That's coming up. But first, we want to focus on a historic new case that's been resolved after decades in the courts. More than $1 billion in compensation is going out to African-American farmers who faced discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. President Obama signed the settlement in 2010, and the first checks were sent out this week. Returning to the program to tell us more is John Boyd. He is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. Welcome back.

JOHN BOYD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us. Congratulations?

BOYD: I would think so, you know, after many decades have went by, so...

MARTIN: How does that feel? Did you honestly think this day would come?

BOYD: Well, as I campaigned on the Hill I remember a Capitol Hill staffer - I actually left my notebook in there and I went back in and she said, that man's crazy, they're never going to pay black farmers for discrimination. So, you know, we heard no for so long, no turned into maybe for me. So, you know it's just - and one year would go after the next, one year - you know, the years just kept going by, you know, as Congress was doing the same thing like they're doing today, you know, stalemating. So you can easily get deterred on Capitol Hill but we kept pushing for it.

MARTIN: You know, people can hear the emotion in your voice.

BOYD: It's very emotional because I've watched so many of my mentors die in the struggle, you know, Linwood Brown, Sylvester Warren. These guys were a lot older than I was when I first started. I was considered a baby to those guys, but they walked me through the process and they are not here to see this day, you know, when, you know, black farmers are actually receiving their compensation. So it's a, you know, very historic moment for us.

MARTIN: I want to refresh people's memories of the kinds of circumstances that lead to this lawsuit. We spoke earlier with Chantelle Walker (ph) from Little Rock, Arkansas, and she describes how she went to apply for a loan in 1986 to start a farm on her family's three acres of land and was denied again and again. This is what she said.

CHANTELLE WALKER: My friends and I, we were on the same position. None of us had it, we all just went in together, and I was like the only one that was denied out of the group that went with me. We basically thought that it was because of my race because all of my friends were white, and they actually have their own farms now.

MARTIN: Is that about the set of circumstances...

BOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That were covered by the settlement? Could you just describe a little bit more about the kinds of circumstances? Is it that similarly situated African-Americans...

BOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: who had similar circumstances to whites - similar credit history, similar experience...

BOYD: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Were denied access to these programs when whites were approved?

BOYD: And people need to understand the discrimination case went back from 1981 to December 31st, 1996 is the period where you have to have had difficulties applying for loans at USDA. Many black farmers was deterred from even applying for loans. Applications torn up and thrown in the trashcan like mine was, you know, in front of the county supervisor who said he didn't care if I didn't come back next year to apply for federal assistance.

Many black farmers, especially in the deep South - Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana - was just deterred from applying. They would just come in and say, well, we don't have any money available to lend you guys this year. And we heard that many years in a row, and we would watch our white counterparts walk in and receive farm operating loans or farm ownership loans, farm equipment loans.

And I remember very vividly applying for a farm operating loan, nearly pleading with the county supervisor - that's the person that makes the decision for farm operating loans - for a $5,000 operating loan. A white farmer comes in that I know in the neighborhood, and instead of asking me to leave or he step out, he brought the white farmer in. They asked each other about their families and what was going on, and he handed him a farm operating check for $157,000. And then when he walked out the door, he said, hey, Earl, I need you to come back in next week and fill out that paperwork for this, now, right.

MARTIN: I have to address two criticisms of the settlement with you.

BOYD: Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: The first is going back to Ms. Walker (ph). She is now expecting $50,000, which is reportedly the average settlement. I mean, like, the total figure sounds large, but the actual individual settlement is about $50,000. How many farms are actually going to be saved by these settlements?

BOYD: Fifty-thousand dollars will not purchase you a farm, buy a John Deere tractor and a disc harrow. That's not going to happen. But for black farmers who may still have their farms and they want to go out and plant their crop next year, they will be able to do that. That's not a large number.

Many of these farmers were older when they applied for - you know, when we tried to do the settlement. Many of them are now dead. So we're looking at maybe 4,000 of that 18,000 that may be deceased, and we're going have to deal with their next of kin and things of that nature to help make sure that they receive those payments.

MARTIN: The other criticism comes from the other direction. This is something that was articulated by the former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann...

BOYD: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...The Republican Congresswoman. This is actually the second round of payments. There was a 1999 class-action settlement, but thousands of black farmers' claims were denied. And critics say that this is indicative of the fact that there was - some of these claims were fraudulent.

BOYD: That's what she said, her, Steve King and some of their other friends on Capitol Hill that just fought me tooth and nail on the settlement. Black farmers are not frauds. You know, what I call fraud is slavery, when they continued to question the numbers and they said that this was going to be a blanket settlement.

Only 18,000 black farmers are receiving payments out of nearly out of 80,000 late filers. Each case was adjudicated individually by independent judges - and retired lawyers looked at these cases individually. We had nothing to do with the decisions on who was compensated and who was not. So the picture that they painted on Capitol Hill that, you know, these farmers were coming out of everywhere and was going to receive $50,000 a piece, that just did not happen. Almost every black person in this country are maybe one or two generations away from somebody's farm. When you look at the numbers, you can't go by the census, you know, when you have sharecroppers and, you know, things of that nature that was eligible in this lawsuit.

MARTIN: You are not personally benefiting from this settlement.

BOYD: No, I'm not.

MARTIN: You are not a party to this particular lawsuit, and you will not be receiving compensation as a result of this settlement.

BOYD: I'm not a plaintiff. You know, our organization led the plight in it.

MARTIN: Do you feel that everyone now has a fair opportunity to be treated fairly by the Department of Agriculture?

BOYD: Number one, I would hope that the administration would double back and make sure that every black farmer and every person of color is treated with dignity and respect at the Department of Agriculture. But as history goes forward, I think the black farmers' case will be an ideal historic case to take a look at.

You know, what happened to us historically, our first occupation in this country was farming, and here we are, you know, was almost facing extinction, you know, at the hands of our own federal government. So I think that this case will be an ideal case for college students and other historians to really take a closer look at to see, you know, exactly what happened to us.

MARTIN: John Boyd is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. He was kind enough to leave his farm...

BOYD: Yes.

MARTIN: ...In Virginia and join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. John Boyd, thank you for speaking with us.

BOYD: Thank you.

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