May 4, 2004
Black farmers in Alabama press fight for land
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
AND SUSAN LAMONT
LINDEN, Alabama—“What do we want?—Our money!” chanted a standing-room-only crowd at an April 5 meeting here sponsored by the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, Inc. (BFAA, Inc.). The event drew farmers and supporters from counties across western Alabama to discuss how to win implementation of a 1999 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and farmers who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the government for its racist lending practices and other policies.
BFAA, Inc., president Tom Burrell reviewed the history of this struggle, which won agreement from the government to reimburse farmers and their families in the Pigford v. Glickman case. In the 1999 settlement of the lawsuit—which was backed by the mobilization of thousands of farmers and their supporters in protests, meetings, and marches—the USDA admitted to a pattern of discrimination against Black farmers in lending practices and other services, causing many to lose their land.
The number of Black farmers in the United States fell from 900,000 in 1920 to 18,000 in 1998, the year before the consent decree was signed. In 1992, Blacks owned 1 percent of the farmland in the country, down from 14 percent in 1920.
The government agreed that if farmers met a minimum set of filing requirements they would receive $50,000 tax-free in compensation. This filing process, however, became an obstacle to many and thousands of farmers were denied their claims. Only 13,000 of the 22,000 who applied received payments of any kind, said Burrell, and only about $500 million of the money allocated for reimbursement has been used. The government “has only paid 13,000 folks, but has the money to pay another 50,000,” he said.
The five-year statute of limitation placed on those wishing to file claims against the government expired the week following this farmers meeting.
“Most farmers, we are finding out, were not aware of the lawsuit, did not have time to apply by the deadline, or simply did not believe it was true” that the government was paying farmers, Burrell said. He explained that three categories of people eligible to apply for reimbursement did not know they could. This includes people who attempted to farm whether they succeeded or not, and their descendents. Leaders of BFAA, Inc., said the next step in the fight was to ask the courts for an extension of the deadline to allow for more applications to be filed. Farmers at the meeting seeking to file a claim were asked to fill out petition and questionnaire that would be used to make an argument for the extension. “Don’t let anyone make you believe you are not entitled to your money!” said Burrell.