The Plight of African American Farmers

by Ari Weinzweig, 2014

 While most everyone knows that the challenges of keeping small-scale sustainable farming in the US healthy and vital (should I say . . . “sustainable?”), the plight of African American farmers has been far more challenging still.  The numbers are overwhelming and they’re pretty much all grim.

In 1910 there were about 1,000,000 black farmers in the US owning about 15,000,000 acres.

By 1969 black farmers owned only about 6,000,000 acres.  In 1920 blacks owned 14% of the US’s farms.

Today African Americans own less than 1 percent of American farms and there are under 18,000 African Americans still working the land for a living.

Or look at this way:

In 1920, 1 in every 7 farmers was black; in 1982, 1 in every 67 farmers was black.

In 1910, black farmers owned 15 million acres of farmland; in 1982, black farmers owned 3.1 million acres of farmland.

By the late 1980s, there were fewer than 2000 African-American farmers under the age of 25.

Today, there are fewer than 18,000 black farmers, representing less than 1% of all farms in America

In 1920 there were 5.1 million African Americans—more than 48 percent of blacks in the U.S.—lived on farms.  By 1982 the umber had dropped to 120,000.

While the number of farms and farmers has been declining nationwide, the decrease in numbers in the African American agricultural community is happening over twice as rapidly as the national averages.

No matter how you look at it’s not an uplifting picture.  After Emancipation many blacks had at least some opportunity to get land.  After the Civil War 4,000,000 African Americans gained their freedom.  Many, understandably, wanted to have their own land—it was an accepted and seemingly straightforward way to establish one’s freedom and standing in the community.  For the first ten years after the War Reconstruction programs were in place to help former slaves get their footing in freedom, a big part of which was to buy land.  General Sherman deeded “40 acres and mule” to black families in Florida and Georgia, but President Andrew Johnson reversed the order and it never really was implemented.  The Freedman’s Bureau, formed in 1865, opened up millions of acres of public land, and many freed blacks took advantage of the opportunity. But most had to work for years to pay for it and their work was done in an economic and cultural climate that was more often than not very hostile.

Never the less, by 1890 there were 120,738 black farms. By 1910 there were 218,972 farms and nearly 15 million acres owned by African Americans.  The rural presence of African Americans here in Michigan was actually quite strong in the early years of the Great Migration.  Many were farmers in the South and chose to settle in rural areas here as well.   But as blacks bought more and, opposition from angry whites grew.  Jim Crow laws were introduced in 1881 requiring segregation on Tennessee railroad cars.  214 lynchings were reported (and that’s only what was reported) in 1900 and 1901 alone. Never the less the turn of the last century was probably about the high point for African American presence in American farming.

From the start of WWI to the 1929 stock market crash the Southern economy was in bad shape.  Blacks suffered an inordinate share of the burden—first sharing the pain of economic hardship, then the burden of being blamed by poor whites for their plight.  Violence and lynching became even more frequent.  Combined with troubles with the cotton crop many blacks began to look north for a better place to live.  During WWI European immigration to the US pretty much ceased.  The ensuing labor shortage in urban factories had industrialists looking to the South and the African American communities as a newly important source of labor.  By 1930 a million blacks had left the south as part of the Great Migration.

Cotton prices plummeted and black farmers defaulted on loans, lost life savings, etc.  A series of programs that discriminated against black farmers compounded the pressure.  PBS reports: “in 1933, Roosevelt created the $500 million Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to help poor, rural Americans. Black farmers applied for relief but did not receive it as often as whites. In June 1934, for example, there were 84 applications from blacks and 49 from whites. The FERA accepted 24, all from white farmers. The average total relief for whites was $19.51 and for blacks, $15.17.”  All of that was made all the worse because many blacks fleeing the south often failed to leave wills behind.  Their land was then given legally to all of their heirs equally.  By convincing a single heir to sell, white landowners could then force the sale of the entire farm since there was no proper division amongst the heirs.

In the second half of the 20th century a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report published in 1982 detailed some of the struggles.  According to the Chicago Tribune, “black farmers historically have struggled against restricted credit, high interest rates, an inequitable share of government benefits and denial of purchase access to available land Especially singled out for criticism by the commission was the performance of the USDA`s lending agency of last resort, the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). The commission found that racial discrimination by county FmHA agents and boards was endemic in the South.”  Based on that a class action lawsuit followed.  According to a recent article in “The Michigan Citizen,” “Between 1983 and 1997, thousands of African American famers suffered rampant discrimination at USDA’s Farm Service Agency offices, which denied them loans solely because of their race, resulting in severe financial and real estate losses Those farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA secretary at the time, Pigford v. Glickman, resulting in a settlement of $1 billion that went to about 13,000 farmers   But about 74,000 other farmers, who filed late, said they either didn’t get notification of an initial lawsuit or lacked the resources and time with which to respond.” Only in recent months have the last of those settlements finally been paid.

Today, as we know there are only a handful of African American farmers in the country.  The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed about 1300 farmers here in Washtenaw County, of which it says, 16 were African American.  Given the trends in agriculture everywhere in the US and among African American farmers in particular it’s not unlikely that the number is now a touch smaller than it was 7 years ago.