AIKEN - Like his farming ancestors who never got their 40 acres and a mule, John Simmons never received the $50,000 settlement and debt forgiveness he felt the federal government owed him.
Mr. Simmons is one of thousands of black farmers in South Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere who say they have been either stonewalled or outright rejected in their applications for a piece of a landmark civil rights settlement reached with the U.S. Department of Agriculture five years ago.
Under a consent decree meant to correct past discrimination in farm-lending practices, the government agreed to pay a one-time $50,000 award in damages to affected black farmers and to forgive certain debts.
But though 13,000 black farmers have been paid more than $650 million since the USDA settled the class action civil rights suit in 1999, an additional 64,000 who applied for the settlement have been shut out, according to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group, an environmental and public health watchdog based in Washington, D.C.
"It's the same thing as back then," said Mr. Simmons, referring to the 40 acres and a mule pledged to black farmers during Reconstruction. "They promise you something they're not going to deliver on. I think we're right back in the same boat."
Since 1965, Mr. Simmons has grown peanuts, soybeans, corn and cotton on 500 acres near the Barnwell County line. His parents farmed the land before him. Mr. Simmons said white federal loan officials delivered on loans too late to plant crops and loaned more money to his white counterparts.
"One's on one side of the hedgerow and one's on the other, farming the same amount, and it's amazing the difference in how little they would loan the black farmers compared with the whites," Mr. Simmons said.
Independent arbitrators say farmers who were denied either had not applied for the settlement in time or couldn't prove they had been the victim of discriminatory lending practices.
"This is one of the inherent flaws in the settlement," said Tom Burrell, the president of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association. "Here you have the court finding in its opinion that the USDA discriminated against black farmers, and now those same farmers have to prove individually they were victims of discrimination."
The nation's black farmers historically have been targets of discrimination, said Doug Bachtel, a rural sociologist at the University of Georgia. Many were denied access to the credit and capital that would allow them to expand their operations, buy expensive machinery and plant the type of row crops covered by federal subsidy programs - corn, peanuts, soybeans and cotton.
"Because of historic discrimination, these folks have been locked out of that system," Dr. Bachtel said.
Association members plan to meet with black members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee this week to seek recourse.
But some feel the damage already has been done.
Jackie Frazier, a black farmer who once grew corn and soybeans in Allendale County, says more money went to part-time farmers or landowners with family members who were affected than to "real farmers."
"I think it caused more dissension among black farmers than anything else," Mr. Frazier said. "Some couldn't understand why this farmer got (the settlement) and they didn't."
Though the Environmental Working Group says a $2.3 billion fund was set aside for the settlement, there was never a set amount for damages, said Ed Loyd, a spokesman for the USDA.
And it's up to independent arbitrators, not the USDA or the courts, to determine the merits of each claim, he said.
"Specific criteria had to be met for that claim to be approved," Mr. Loyd said.
Among them, the affected farmer must have participated in a farm loan program and been denied between 1981 and 1996 and must have filed a discrimination complaint between 1981 and 1997, Mr. Loyd said.
According to a report from the Environmental Working Group, 64,000 black farmers were denied settlement awards on the basis that they failed to meet the deadline for application, though the report says the claims were submitted during a court-established late claims period:
The report also alleges that 9,000 of the 22,000 farmers granted "automatic" payment status in the consent decree were denied the payment because they could not prove they were victims of discrimination, though the Environmental Working Group says those farmers met the criteria:
Source: Environmental Working Group
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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