Black farmers might never reap what they've sown

Original plaintiffs await hearings on discrimination claims


Years have come and gone, promises have been uttered and broken, and the disappointment in Lucious Abrams' heart has only grown.

Abrams, 57, has spent the past 11 years watching his Waynesboro, Ga., farm shrink from a couple of thousand acres to a couple of hundred, wondering whether what he was promised in 1999 would ever come.

Like thousands of other black farmers, Abrams was turned away, ignored or put on hold when he applied for operation loans in local U.S. Department of Agriculture offices in the 1980s and '90s.

As a farmer struggling to keep his land, he was one of six original plaintiffs in the 1999 landmark Pigford v. Glickman case, a class action lawsuit brought against the USDA by black farmers who alleged discrimination in receiving loans and subsidies between 1983 and 1997.

The USDA later admitted to denying black farmers loans based on race. The settlement gave eligible farmers $50,000 each, forgave their debts and offered some tax credits and priority for future loans.

Despite the triumph, Abrams and thousands of others walked away with nothing.

Though the USDA has paid out more than $1 billion to some farmers, a reported 81,000 were denied the settlement, despite being able to prove they had applied for loans and received no help, according to research by the Environmental Working Group.

"We're in the same situation we was in before the lawsuit," Abrams said. "It's no more than when we came over on the slave ships. People getting rich off your suffering and you're suffering from people prospering."

Many of those farmers alleged unfair deadlines in filing claims for the settlement, and Congress last month resolved to dedicate more money for those who filed late in the settlement known as Pigford I.

On Wednesday, President Obama signed the bill, Pigford II, that set aside $1.15 billion for those late filers.

Despite being an original plaintiff in Pigford I, Abrams is not eligible for the new round of funds because, he said, his claim was "unjustly" denied by an arbitrator years ago.

While the new funding puts a spotlight on an effort to right a wrong, there are thousands of others who will never get the piece of justice they fought so hard for, Abrams said.

"The lead plaintiffs have been forgotten in Pigford," said the lead attorney at the time, Alexander Pires Jr. "There really was no change. A ton of lawyers quit, and a lot of people became very bitter ... and black farmers are still being persecuted by the USDA."

Abrams is holding on to his shrinking farming business because agriculture is all he has ever known.

His family roots grow deep in Burke County. He lives not far from a road named after his father and still tends the land his family bought in 1953.

He used to wake up every morning to flourishing acres of cotton, corn, wheat and other grains. When operating costs became too cumbersome, he applied for USDA loans in the mid-1980s, hoping for help to get seeds planted on time.

Loan officers told him to come back later, wait a little longer and, "Sorry, your loan is not processed yet."

"When you can't get your money on time to operate, two or three weeks in the farming industry -- that's like if you need water to drink and you can't get it till three days later," he said.

The effect was disastrous. His operation had to cut back on something, so he saved by reducing fertilizer and skipping soil samples.

Slowly he saw his farm deteriorate while his white neighbors left USDA offices happy.

He wondered whether his problem was unique, or whether there were other black farmers seeing the same struggle.

In 1996, Abrams and five other black farmers piled into a pickup and drove across the country to find out.

They needed 400 signatures for Pires to agree to represent their case -- and what they found was overwhelming.

Abrams drove to rural towns and asked the corner stores to point out where the black farmers lived. He sat with farmers, explained the lawsuit and heard story after story of discrimination from USDA loan officers.

"I looked in their eyes and saw these farmers' suffering," Abrams said. "This was something happening to black farmers across America."

According to data from the USDA, loans to black farmers averaged $4,000, or 25 percent less than those to white farmers, between 1990 and 1995. Of the disaster payments distributed in that time, 97 percent went to white farmers and less than 1 percent went to black borrowers.

A spokesman from USDA declined to comment last week on whether loan officials will be held accountable for the discrimination or whether any action will be taken to identify those who withheld loans from black farmers.

Gary Grant, the president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, said that because of the discrimination, the hurt can never be made up by the $50,000 awards of Pigford I.

With the president's approval of funds for Pigford II, the money can't bring back land that was lost to foreclosure and debt.

"The damage has been done," he said.

Further setbacks

Each claimant in the 1999 Pigford case had to go before a judge to have their cases reviewed.

- Of the 22,551 claimants, 59 percent were approved and 41 percent were denied.

- More than $1 billion was paid to black farmers as $50,000 individual payments.

USDA contracted with the U.S. Department of Justice to fight the farmers' claims.

- The USDA spent $12 million and 56,000 staff hours fighting each individual claim.

- 81,000 farmers were prevented from having their claims heard by a judge.

- Of the 3,309 claims in Georgia, 3,228 were denied.

Source: USDA Office of the Monitor, Environmental Working Group