The Atlantic's Vann Newkirk On How Black Farmers Were Robbed Of Their Land : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders In a new cover story for The Atlantic, Vann R. Newkirk II tells the story of how the government systematically stripped black farmers of their land via illegal pressures levied through its loan programs, which created massive transfers of wealth from black to white farmers, especially in the period just after the 1950s. Follow Vann on Twitter @fivefifths. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org.
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The Atlantic's Vann Newkirk On How Black Farmers Were Robbed Of Their Land

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The Atlantic's Vann Newkirk On How Black Farmers Were Robbed Of Their Land

The Atlantic's Vann Newkirk On How Black Farmers Were Robbed Of Their Land

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(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today, we're going to talk about farms and race and the Mississippi Delta. My guest is Vann Newkirk. He writes for The Atlantic, and he's out with the cover story for the magazine all about those three things. The article is called "The Great Land Robbery: The Shameful Story Of How 1 Million Black Families Have Been Ripped From Their Farms." This piece chronicles how, over decades, through legal and illegal means, through government programs and individual actions, white people in Mississippi basically swindled black farmers out of thousands and thousands of acres of farmland.

The Scott family plays a big role in this story. They were one of the largest black landowning families in the state of Mississippi. And this family descends from Ed Scott Sr. He was born in 1886, just one generation removed from actual slavery. Ed Scott Sr. built a farming empire that, by the time he died in 1957, was more than 1,000 acres. The Scott family, like many other black families, lost a lot of that land, so much so and in such predatory ways that eventually the federal government had to pay the Scott family millions of dollars. The story of the Scott family and thousands of other black families in the Delta losing their land and fighting to get it back, it is a story that is hugely relevant to our politics right now and conversations about systemic racism and inequality and reparations.

Our conversation, like Vann's story, begins with Willena Scott-White. She is the granddaughter of Ed Scott Sr., and Vann told me what happened to her family and why it happened to so many others like them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

VANN NEWKIRK: Really, I met Willena Scott-White by chance. I was at a book signing in Oxford, Miss., and she was there and, you know, we just started talking a little bit. And it was clear to me almost immediately that she was a person I was looking for. She's an amateur historian. She has collected almost every single piece of her family history going back to, like, 1880-something in these binders that she keeps in her kitchen. She wants to build a museum. And she's also possessed of the same kind of impossible spirit of will that her father and grandfather were. So she - it became clear that she was going to help me tell the story from 1880-something to now in a way that almost really no other person on Earth would be able to do it

SANDERS: She humanized it. I mean, I love how in the lead you're talking about how she comes to the pickup truck with the pork chop sandwich for you. Like, she's just, like, real people. But, you know, the story of her family, this black farming family, you kind of traced their history, and it shows how for decades, if not centuries, black farmers in the South were swindled out of their land.

NEWKIRK: Right. So I used the story of her family, of the Scotts, who were one of the early sets of - one of the second generation, rather, of landowners - of black landowners in Mississippi who, over the course of a century, they kind of - their story is this rise, fall and rise again. They amass a thousand acres of land. They make it through all these signature moments in Mississippi civil rights history. You know, they're down the street from where Emmett Till was lynched.

SANDERS: Wow.

NEWKIRK: The farmland is literally around the corner from where Fannie Lou Hamer was laid to rest. They - Ed Scott Jr. provided lunches for the Freedom Riders. And...

SANDERS: Really?

NEWKIRK: Yeah, yeah. They have this long history there. And they're like a, you know, like a - I don't want to - like, Forrest Gump was the bumbling version of this, but they're this - their stories weave in and out...

SANDERS: Weave through history.

NEWKIRK: Woven in and out of history.

SANDERS: Yeah. Wow.

NEWKIRK: And they do really well. Even facing discrimination as black folks, they still manage to overcome - keep overcoming. When they are not offered municipal water services, they decided to dig the pipes themselves. Like, they're those type of folks.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NEWKIRK: But when they come to a spot where they really do need federal help, they aren't given what they deserve and what they are entitled to.

SANDERS: Yeah. So let's talk about that. So this family, like many other black families after the end of slavery, they tried to acquire land. A lot of - these folks knew how to farm, and they wanted to now farm for themselves. And basically, as soon as freed black slaves began to legally acquire land once they were free, white people tried to get them off of it. What kind of stuff were they doing back then?

NEWKIRK: So back then, it really was a Wild West, you know. There was not a whole lot of legal intervention if, say, somebody wanted to just kind of lean on you.

SANDERS: What does that mean, to lean on?

NEWKIRK: Well, somebody would come to your land with enough guns and say, well, you know, maybe there's pretext or, you know, maybe you were late on a loan and we've got to take it off your hands, but sometimes there wasn't pretext. Or back then, you know, there weren't a whole lot of banks that black folks could go to so...

SANDERS: Yeah. And they had to rely on just the kindness of white people to get credit and loans. And, you know, those credits and loans would be distributed unfairly.

NEWKIRK: Right. It got a little bit more sophisticated as we got into the 20th century. You had people defrauding black folks out via tax assessments, so you'd have a state or local or even federal tax assessor come and say your land was worth way more than what it was worth, so you couldn't pay the taxes.

SANDERS: Oh, the taxes would go up.

NEWKIRK: Yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: Wow.

NEWKIRK: And that was just a common way of doing it. You also had - lots of black folks couldn't get money from the banks, which itself was a way to get them off their land. But when they couldn't get money from the banks, they had to go to the plantation owner for money. And the plantation owner could say I don't want you competing with me, so I'm not going to give you any money. And when the federal government got involved, it gave white folks even more tools and an arsenal to run black folks off their land.

So it became standard in the 20th century for all farmers to ask the federal government for money for helping with planting. And the way it was administered was by locally elected boards. So most of the folks who were on these boards were like the plantation owners because they could vote. So if they didn't want a black person owning land, they thought you were better off with a sharecropper, if you were uppity, too loud, if you protested a little bit, they could...

SANDERS: They could just deny it.

NEWKIRK: Deny you - and also they ran all the places where you needed to get equipment from. It was like a beginning-to-end racket where at any point where you needed help from somebody else, white folks could pull the plug.

SANDERS: So what exactly happened to the Scott family, to Willena's family? Because at one point, her family had - what? - like, a thousand acres or something and then it began to be stripped away from them.

NEWKIRK: Yeah. So they just - they build this thriving agricultural enterprise that the whole family - you know, distant relatives, cousins - all get involved in. It's one of those situations where, like, you know, third or fourth cousins will be living in, like, the same square mile. And everybody will be working on the farm, right? And they did build up under Ed Scott Sr. and Jr. about a thousand acres of land, become one of the largest black landowners in the state. And they are kind of a symbol even among the civil rights movement of black self-sustainability.

You know, the civil rights movement, when it starts in rural areas especially, is very much about, like, it's agrarian. It's about getting folks back to the land. It's about sharing the fruits of the labor with the community and making sure that people can own the means of production over their food. And they are a symbol of that. You know, they - Ed Scott Jr. is not just a landlord. He sends - the folks who work for him, he sends their kids to college. They built this big community that's almost like a model community for civil rights in the South.

SANDERS: And then what happens?

NEWKIRK: Well, then - here's the drop, right?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NEWKIRK: In the '70s and '80s, farmers across the country, not just black farmers, not just the Scotts, face a huge inflation crisis. It becomes almost impossible to farm at any type of scale without federal money. And to that point, the Scotts had been able to mostly avoid federal funding. They were just that successful.

SANDERS: Gotcha.

NEWKIRK: And so Ed Scott Jr. finds a white lawyer who helps him go down to the Farmers Home Administration Office.

SANDERS: That was a federal program.

NEWKIRK: That's a federal program run by the USDA. They give out loans. They go down there and they - OK, they give him a little loan that he needs for - to grow his crops. Comes back the next year without the white lawyer and with a new truck and they claim - the guy in the office was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, whoa, whoa, hey, you got a new truck and you don't have the white guy with you. What's going on here?

SANDERS: Wow. So he was mad at this symbol of his success. And he was also mad that he was there without a white guy.

NEWKIRK: Yeah. I guess, you know, he was a little uppity.

SANDERS: Wow.

NEWKIRK: And so very quickly, the local people who were administering federal funds become hostile to the Scott family. And this is when - also the time when people across the country outside of the South start eating catfish. And the reason why that happens is because lots of different programs, both federal and state in Mississippi, start pouring in billions of dollars into creating from nothing a catfish industry.

SANDERS: Why? I don't mind it. I love me some catfish, but like...

NEWKIRK: Well, I love me some catfish, but, you know...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NEWKIRK: ...It is super profitable. It's during a time when - I mean, they just, like, kind of find a new market. But also it is another way when row crops - when stuff you plant in the ground is failing, they found this new market where they could - you need a certain type of soil and that soil is found in the Delta. So you could almost immediately transform these farmlands if you dig them - just dig them - you could create catfish ponds.

SANDERS: Catfish ponds. OK. So then the Scott family tries to do that. Does the government help them do that?

NEWKIRK: No. The government's busy giving so much money to white farmers, and they basically give the white farmers millions of dollars from the federal government to go into catfish. And it saves lots of their operations. Black farmers don't really get that.

SANDERS: This is so extreme, the disparity between what these federal programs give to white farmers versus black farmers. The USDA had to pay out some billions of dollars for that disparity recently, right?

NEWKIRK: Right. In the '90s, one of the largest class-action suits against USDA, against the federal government, is the black farmers lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman. And the Scotts are actually one of the largest plaintiffs in that case. During the '70s and '80s, the USDA essentially disbanded its civil rights office. They had no way for these black farmers to even adjudicate or make complaints about what was happening. And they also had folks like these agents who were - discriminated against the Scotts, they were operating on similar premises across the South. So in the '90s, a lot of these folks, including the Scotts, got together and won a $1.5 billion settlement. Another billion was added by the Obama administration. And so in just 14 years from 1950 to 1964 in just Mississippi, the amount of land lost or stolen, it comes close to perhaps $7 billion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right. Time for a break here. In a minute, Vann explains a sort of epiphany he had as a millennial writer working on this story. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: What was your biggest takeaway, biggest lesson learned, for you in working on this story?

NEWKIRK: As much as I was interested in doing the story, the deeper significance of ownership of a thing, of having land, of having a place to put your name on, of having a place to put your kids' names on, I don't know if I quite understood that significance.

SANDERS: The scale.

NEWKIRK: The scale. You know, like, I'm a millennial. We rent everywhere.

SANDERS: We don't own nothing.

NEWKIRK: We move across the place, you know. We don't want to own anything.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NEWKIRK: I didn't - I don't know if I ever really understood why my great-grandmother was so adamant that my - in her will that nobody ever sell her house or her farmland or the acres she owned across the street from where she lived. I don't know if I understood that until I wrote this piece. And going and seeing on the Scott's property they have their own cemetery where Ed Scott Jr. and Sr. are buried and where the current generation of Scotts intends to be buried and seeing that and realizing that there is this metaphysical significance to this place for them, you know, that...

SANDERS: That's powerful.

NEWKIRK: That's powerful. Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, it's - so part of my backstory that really came to the forefront reading your piece and prepping for this interview, my father was a rancher. I grew up in south Texas. And he owned about 200 acres outside of the Cuero-Yoakum area in east Texas. Texans will know exactly where that is. And he - you know, he farmed on it, ranched on it. At one point, he had several hundred head of cattle on the land. It came down to him through his family. But after he died, we sold it, and, you know, the money went to good use. It helped me pay off my student loans. But, like, I wonder, especially reading your piece, like, as a black family, should we have kept it?

NEWKIRK: Well, if you talk to some of the advocates I talked to (laughter) they have very strong feelings about people keeping their land. But, you know, we understand everybody has - No. 1, is valuable and people have their own circumstances and got to make money, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

NEWKIRK: How do we balance those things?

SANDERS: Well, it's also, like, what is our historical debt to our ancestors? Like, at a certain point, I never asked my father while he was alive how hard it was to keep that land, whether or not his - him and his family struggled in maintaining it, what they had to fight to have it. I never asked. And now I don't know, and I wonder if, like - I don't know. This is getting real deep now. Like, did I abandon some of that legacy?

NEWKIRK: Well, not to sit you on the couch and psychoanalyze you, but I think about this specific dilemma quite a bit because, you know, you said you - that paid your student loans off. It seems like there are so many ways in which especially black folks are kind of set behind that we have to, like, triage our lives to take one injustice or one thing we'd rather hold on to and pay for the other thing, right? So would your folks have been dishonored to know that you used that to get an education? I don't know. You know, those are tough questions. You know, for me, my family, the two things that we're all about were education and land ownership. And if those two would come into conflict, I don't - would they have understood, you know, if I had to pay off my loans with selling a piece of the house? You know, that - those are tough questions, and we're put in those tough situations by history.

SANDERS: Yeah, more than other folks. Is your family a farming family? Because you're from the South, right?

NEWKIRK: Oh, yeah, yeah. My grandmother still owns a farm that I spent a good portion of my childhood on. You know, I used to go take care of the ducks and the pigs and the dogs. So, yeah, I used to run around to get burnt by hot wire as a kid. That was a jam.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Does she have any war stories about some of the stuff that the folks in your piece went through?

NEWKIRK: Yeah. The fun stuff about this is actually after running the story, hearing all the stories from my family about people coming to take the land, about, you know, all these big companies. I'm not going to name them here so - I don't want to get in trouble. But, yeah, big companies came in and tried to take the land, and almost everybody in my family has one of those stories.

SANDERS: And they fought.

NEWKIRK: And they fought.

SANDERS: This is the thing that's so crystal clear in your story, and I just, like, have been grappling with this since I read it. Like, the story of these farmers, the story of the Scott family, it shows that, like, our government is not better than us. Our government is a manifestation of us. So whatever isms as a society that we're dealing with, they become part of the way the government implements itself, you know?

NEWKIRK: Right.

SANDERS: If you have a population that is grappling with racism, the outcomes from that population's government will probably be racist, you know? What goes in comes out, and so, like, how is there any way to have a government that's fair unless you get all the people that help make the government and vote for it and select it and fund it, make them fair, too?

NEWKIRK: Well, yeah, not only is the government us, how we govern - how we behave ourselves in the collective, it becomes imbued with national mythology and significance, right? So one thing that I wish I'd talked about a little more in the piece is this is land that's first stolen in the first place, right? It was stolen from Indigenous Americans from the Choctaw in Mississippi. And that becomes part of the national mythology. It doesn't become something, oh - where lots of people are looking at it like, oh, this is evil. People took pride in that for most of American history, really, that they had wrestled (ph) this land from Native Americans. And that became part of - the frontier spirit in Mississippi was these white folks went out there in their plantations and they tamed the land that was stolen, that was taken from - for them by force. So that force narrative, that dominion narrative, becomes a part of the culture of the South, of Mississippi in particular. And it has no choice but to permeate every other piece of legislation. Every other piece of organization we build on top of that foundation, it's still in that foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Time for one more quick break. When we come back, we haven't even begun to talk about what happens to the land once owned by black farmers after they lose it. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: One of the things you write about is that when we see a bunch of farmers across the country start to sell their land off to some big farms and such, you know, these big corporations, increasingly farmland that goes to these big companies, a lot of it ends up with TIAA. This is the retirement and pension fund.

NEWKIRK: Yeah.

SANDERS: What in the world?

NEWKIRK: So...

SANDERS: I have TIAA retirement. That means, like, I own little bit of some catfish money? What is this?

NEWKIRK: Yeah. You own a little bit of the Delta. So you should go down there...

SANDERS: OK, claim my stake.

NEWKIRK: ...And take a lot time in your place.

SANDERS: Yeah.

NEWKIRK: Yeah. The reason why I brought them into this story is not because I think TIAA and other pension funds are necessarily, like, the villains of the story. It's to show exactly what happens and how the - over generations and decades a theft becomes legitimate. And to me, they are symbols of how Wall Street in America kind of papers over every single thing, right?

SANDERS: Yeah. Well - because TIAA didn't do anything illegal. They bought this land later, but the land was stolen from other folks before. And so now, they kind of have stolen land. Like, what is their responsibility to that fact?

NEWKIRK: Yeah. And not just necessarily stolen land. Like, what is your responsibility in a region built by slavery that was stolen as a matter of course where sharecropping created every single parcel of arable land that is ownable now and on top of which the theft that I write about in this piece happened? What is your responsibility there? How can you build ethical guidelines in investing that account for all of those things and don't just say, oh, maybe we shouldn't invest here? I don't know. Those are questions that, you know, I'm - I don't know if I'm smart enough to answer those questions, but I do want to have people asking them.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well - and a company as big as TIAA, them buying up farmland, that's just proof that this stuff has a good return on investment. Like, they're making money off of this. So, like, this land is worth a lot.

NEWKIRK: Well, it didn't used to be, actually. It's only in the last 10 years or so, 12 years or so, when anybody thought that farmland was a good investment class.

SANDERS: What changed?

NEWKIRK: What happened - number - two things happened. One was the Great Recession. The Great Recession made all kinds of real estate more attractive across the country. And you saw corporatization in Wall Street...

SANDERS: Because it got cheaper?

NEWKIRK: Got cheaper, the dollar got a little weaker and real estate itself just became - you know, it was a buyer's market. When you have people lose a lot of their land, it's just - you know, scale is the No. 1 thing investors are looking for. And when so much is on the market, they can achieve that scale. The other thing that happens is we're looking at a resource crisis. That's basically inherent to the human condition, right? We have too many people on Earth. And one thing we know will increase in value almost infinitely as a population goes up is food.

SANDERS: Oh. Yeah.

NEWKIRK: So there it is.

SANDERS: TIAA is not stupid (laughter).

NEWKIRK: Well, if you're looking for a retirement fund, if you want to invest long term, there's almost nothing better you can invest in that's more stable in this world economy than food and land.

SANDERS: Wow. How much land, this farmland, catfish land, does TIAA own?

NEWKIRK: TIAA owns about 80,000 acres of land in Mississippi. Most of that's in the Delta.

SANDERS: Wow.

NEWKIRK: And if you go over to Arkansas, it owns about 130,000 total acres.

SANDERS: Well - and, you know, just talking about TIAA and kind of going back to some of the conversations in our politics right now, when you think of a big issue on the left like reparations, to really get at all of it and to make some of these folks like the Scott family whole, it requires a conversation not just about what the federal government needs to do but about what some of these big companies like TIAA might need to do as well.

NEWKIRK: Right. What's clear is that TIAA alone owns about as much land in the Mississippi Delta as do black folks. When you include just one or two of the other pension funds, because TIAA is not the only one, they clearly surpass what black folks have owned and perhaps what black folks have ever owned in the Delta. That's remarkable. You know, these are - you know, if you put them all together, it's probably about seven or eight companies that own more than, like, black folks can dream of owning, you know? And that's something that's just so mind-boggling to me.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well - and, like, some of the very land that TIAA owns was taken from those black farmers over time. That's something.

NEWKIRK: We cannot - we can't get to the actual provenance of all of the land in those portfolios, and that's something I do want to stress just because it's impossible. It's impossible to do. So what I'll say here is, you know, we know that these areas - and we have plots that are adjacent to places we know were watered by theft in the blood of black folks. We know lots of these places were built by sharecropping. So what I'll try to make clear here is that it is unclear exactly which plots of land are owned by TIAA and which ones were stolen from black folks.

SANDERS: What ended up happening to Willena Scott-White and her family? You know, they had all this land. They lost a lot of it, tried to pivot to catfish. They had this lawsuit. Like, do they make it out OK? Did they ever become made whole?

NEWKIRK: You know, they got millions of dollars back from the federal government. They got most of the original land back that was both in the catfish plant that Ed Scott Jr. created and in some of the other fields that he was farming. They got most of it back. They're still at work right now in clearing some of it and in planting soybeans across most of it. Right now, if you go out there, it looks like the rest of the farms - big soybean farms, you know? But I still get the sense that this is, like all farmers really at that level, still difficult and it's added difficulty because they're starting from zero, you know? They don't have the decades of productivity now. The land was fallow in lots of places for years. They had to clear it. They had to basically invest money that they should not have had to invest back into the land to make it productive in the first place. So they are definitely starting if you're looking it at from similarly situated...

SANDERS: From scratch - less than scratch.

NEWKIRK: From less than scratch. If you're looking at similarly situated farmers with the same amount of land, they're definitely, you know, starting behind the eight ball compared to those folks.

SANDERS: I wonder what would have happened to Mississippi, the state where the Scott family is, if these black farmers weren't treated so poorly. You know, at one point, you write in the piece the state was majority black. Now it's majority white. And the majority of farmers there are white. Could there have been a majority black farming state in Mississippi if this history didn't happen?

NEWKIRK: We are not lucky that I have editors, actually, because I had a pretty lengthy kind of piece written that was almost like a speculative fiction piece of - this piece.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Some Afrofuturism...

NEWKIRK: A little bit of Afrofuturism, yeah.

SANDERS: ...Delta style. I love it.

NEWKIRK: That got cut for what are probably obvious reasons.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

NEWKIRK: I did do a lot of thinking about this, trying to retrace the individual pressures that moved people out during the Great Migration. And I identified land, lack thereof, as probably the major factor. So let's say people didn't move and did get the right to vote in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia - right? - just those states, that swath of states. You got four states that are going to be at least 40% black, I believe, going into the present day post-voting rights. That's four states where you're going to have reliably probably one or two black senators, you're going to have a pretty strong black Electoral College vote, for how many elections, you know? You've got 40 years' worth of elections, 50 years' worth of elections post-Voting Rights Act. How much would that have changed America?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Vann Newkirk, thank you so much. I have been a fan for so long, and I'm so happy to share this story and share a bit of you with our audience.

NEWKIRK: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Vann Newkirk. His cover story in The Atlantic is called "The Great Land Robbery." It's out now. Listeners, we're back on Friday with our usual wrap of the week of news and culture and everything else. For that episode every week, you can share with me the best thing that's happened to you all week. Record yourself on the phone, send that file to me via email to samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. You might hear yourself in Friday's podcast episode and also maybe, too, on the radio. All right. Listeners, per usual, thank you for listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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