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It took more than a decade to wind its way through the courts, but last month the federal government announced it would pay compensation to thousands of black farmers who were the victims of discrimination. The money was supposed to be budgeted by tomorrow. But Congress went on break last Friday without funding the settlement. Black farmers say the failure marks yet another broken promise. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, Julie Rose has the story.
JULIE ROSE: Many black farmers, including James Alston, Jr., have died waiting for justice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ms. DORETHA EDWARDS: Daddy wanted to provide for his family, just like the white man wanted to provide for his. And the settlement would just kind of make up for the things that he was not able to do.
ROSE: Doretha Edwards lives in Charlotte today, but grew up working the corn and cotton fields of her father's farm in South Carolina. He died in 1997, the same year black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They say their requests for low-interest loans were either denied outright or delayed so long they missed the planting season. Even as a child, Edwards knew it was discrimination.
Ms. EDWARDS: I can remember the white farmers in the area, particularly this man everybody called him Big Mac, I don't know whether that was his real name or not. But I do remember him driving the tractor and my father having one little mule and a plow.
ROSE: More than 10 years ago, the USDA admitted it had discriminated against black farmers and promised to compensate them. About 15,000 black farmers were paid a total of over $900 million. But James Alston's family and thousands of others didn't hear about the settlement in time and filed late claims. In 2008, Congress decided to compensate them too.
Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): The USDA is excited about this opportunity to turn the page on what has been a troubling chapter for our department.
ROSE: That was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing the settlement last month to pay the late-filing farmers a total of $1.25 billion. In the agreement, Congress was to allocate the money by March 31. Vilsack and President Obama promised that would happen. But it hasn't. A handful of lawmakers raised the alarm in a press conference last week, as their colleagues packed for Easter recess. Here's North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan.
Senator KAY HAGAN (Democrat, North Carolina): Congress must act immediately. As William Gladstone said, justice delayed is justice denied.
ROSE: Missing the deadline means the government and several dozen law firms may be forced back to the bargaining table. National Black Farmers Association president John Boyd knows Congress and the president have been preoccupied with health care but he says black farmers can't wait any longer. They're aging. They're losing their farms.
Mr. JOHN BOYD (National Black Farmers Association): It's not gonna bring the land back, but we certainly could close the chapter. That's what the government likes to say. If they're sincere about closing this chapter, then they ought to pay up.
ROSE: Boyd is frustrated at yet another delay in a fight that has already lasted more than a decade. But there are others who feel encouraged the black farmers are so close to closure. Like Lupe Garcia.
Mr. LUPE GARCIA (Farmer): I hope this will pave the way for us to get in and have a just settlement for all of us.
ROSE: Garcia grows cotton and alfalfa in New Mexico. He and other Hispanic farmers also sued the USDA for discrimination a decade ago. So did Native American farmers and ranchers. They all say they were unfairly denied loans and aid. To date, neither group has managed to settle with the government. But the USDA is not denying their claims. Once it closes the chapter on discrimination against black farmers, it will have other pages to turn.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte, North Carolina.