by Robin Kemp
U.S. Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock said in an online press conference February 9 that he has introduced legislation that would grant aid to Black, Hispanic and Native American farmers and some descendants who lost farm property due to unfair lending and title practices.
The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act would create an “Equity Commission” to evaluate discriminatory practices and policies within the USDA.. It also would provide $5 billion to America’s Black, indigenous, Hispanic, and farmers of color in rural communities who have faced an uphill battle to keep their farms and land “due to discrimination by USDA and other government agencies,” according to a press release from Warnock’s office.
Of that amount, $4 billion would go to direct relief payments “to help farmers of color pay-off outstanding USDA farm loan debts and related taxes, and help them respond to the economic impacts of the pandemic.”
An additional $1 billion would “support activities at USDA that will root out systemic racism, provide technical and legal assistance to agricultural communities of color, and fund under-resourced programs that will shape the future for farmers and communities of color.”
That $1 billion would go to:
- Grants and loans to improve land access and address heirs’ property issues
- Support for one or more legal centers focused on agricultural legal issues of farmers of color
- Pilot projects that focus on land acquisition, financial planning, technical assistance, and credit
- A racial equity commission and related activities to address systemic racism across USDA
- Support for research, education, and extension at HBCUs and other institutions of higher education that historically serve communities of color
- Scholarships at 1890’s land grant universities and for indigenous students attending land grant institutions
- Outreach, mediation, financial training, capacity building training, cooperative development training and support, and other technical assistance
- Assistance to farmers, ranchers, or forest landowners of color that are former farm loan borrowers and suffered related adverse actions, or past discrimination or bias
“Rural communities in Georgia and across our nation have been slammed for years, and this once-in-a-century pandemic has put even more pressure on their hardship,” Warnock said. “Even worse, many Black farmers and other producers of color, like those I’ve met all over Georgia, have been left even further behind due to historical discrimination and a crippling lack of investment from the federal government for decades. As Congress prepares to send significant assistance to help the American people get through this difficult time, we have to make sure that Black farmers and farmers of color, who for so long have not gotten the kind of support they need, get the debt relief and direct assistance necessary not only to move beyond this crisis, but to grow successfully into the future—building generational wealth within their families, and helping keep our rural communities and economy strong.”
Asked whether any of the descendants of farm workers who bought property in Forest Park’s Rosetown community might be eligible for this aid, Warnock said, “The answer is yes. We’ve got a couple of bills, one that I’m the lead sponsor on, and then there’s another being led by my colleague (Sen.) Corey Booker that seek to address these historic injustices. It is a generational problem that is certainly steeped in our nation’s long history of racial injustice. But even as we push through this legislation, I would want to continue conversations with folks like the folks in Forest Park, Georgia, so that we make sure that they’re covered and that we represent them in every possible way. But the legislation between this bill and the one other bill being produced, being pushed by Senator Booker, I think that we will provide aid to those folks, as well.”
Watch the full press conference:
Not just your grandpa’s farm
The history of discrimination against Black farmers is a long one. Simply search “black farmers” on YouTube and you’ll find dozens of contemporary news reports, documentaries, and other videos about modern-day Black farmers organizing, fighting land grabs, and grappling with what it takes to keep the farm going, as well as a few older examples.
Here’s one about Atlanta Harvest, which used to be on Walt Stephens Road in Jonesboro and has moved to Anvil Block Road in Ellenwood:
In the 1999 landmark case Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit by Black farmers who had been denied USDA loans between 1981 and 1996, was settled under a consent decree. The local USDA offices would drag out the loan process, letting applications sit for months or years despite the farmers’ dependence on following the change of seasons. In his decision, U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia Paul F. Glickman noted the USDA’s longtime mistreatment of Black farmers and its nickname, “The Last Plantation.” Thousands of Black farmers who had been denied loans by white USDA agents received $50,000, as well as tax relief and loan forgiveness. However, only about half of those who applied received the settlement–and this was the United States’ largest civil rights settlement.
Depending on how strong the evidence of discrimination was, members of the settlement class could choose one of two tracks. Critics of the settlement, like Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association (BFAA) President Gary R. Grant of Tillery, N.C., complained the bar was set too high for many applicants. A similar suit in 2004 by the BFAA, alleging that the USDA was still discriminating against Black farmers, was dismissed for lack of standing. In 2010, “Pigford II” added another $1.2 billion because the USDA failed to give proper notice to members of the class. Macon’s WMAZ-TV breaks down the complex legal battle in this video timeline:
“Rosetown” was formed shortly after World War Two when Jerome Jay Rose, a a white farmer from Ohio who moved to Georgia in the 1920s and became mayor of Forest Park, sold off pieces of his farmland to Black families. (Rose’s father, also a farmer, had been a Union soldier whose company marched through Jonesboro and Forest Park and tore up the railroad tracks.) Some of the Black landowners may have worked for Rose or nearby agriculture-related operations; others worked for the railroad. Some descendants of the original homeowners still live in those houses, which today are surrounded by industrial areas and other residential housing that went up in the mid-1950s.
According to the Arcade Publishing history Forest Park, by Christine Terrell, Beverly Martin, and Steve Pearson, Rose’s farm was “located on Old Dixie Highway (Highway 41/19) just south of Forest Parkway. He also had his home on Main Street. He is best known for the allotment of land he donated during the time segregation was still being enforced. The city only had two small communities of ‘Negroes,’ as some referred to African Americans at the time, with no room for the communities to grow. Rose’s allotment of land provided the African Americans a larger area in which to build homes. Rose gave the citizens a permanent home to raise their families.”
Real estate records in the Clayton County Courthouse do not show that Rose “gave” the homes directly to African American families in the allotment. They indicate that each homeowner paid Rose (or, in at least one case, his wife) for the property in question. It appears that Old Dixie Highway may have run right through Rose’s land, or that he owned land on both sides. It’s not clear why Rose sold off his land and left Forest Park; both he and his wife, Laura, were listed as being 61 years old in the 1940 Census. He moved to Florida and his wife died soon after the Rosetown properties were sold. Rose died in 1966 and is buried next to his wife in Ohio.
Today, many of the homes in Rosetown (and in other parts of Clayton County) are owned by banks, real estate investment companies, and absentee landlords. Others remain in the hands of descendants of the original owners. Sometimes, homes in Rosetown show up in legal advertisements the county places in the Clayton News (the county paper of record), indicating that the home is being sold for a small amount of back taxes–sometimes a few thousand or even a few hundred dollars.
Since Jim Crow days, “heirs property” was how many Black families left land to their children. Those who did not write a legally-biding will would have their lands divided up into shares for surviving family members. This led to all kinds of power grabs from distant relatives and left families prey to unscrupulous whites who bought up single shares, then kicked everyone off the property.
That is what happened to many Black-owned farms throughout the South. Rural whites tricked them out of their land or used their positions in places like the USDA, the Farm Service Agency, and the Georgia Farm Bureau to make it impossible for Blacks to keep farming.
The price of land
The latest USDA Agricultural Census for 2017 shows that Clayton County is home to 19 farm operations covering 590 acres, with land and buildings valued at $4.93 million–even though the county is beginning to look more and more like an extension of Atlanta.
Hanging onto land even today can be a challenge for Black property owners. While gentrification tends to get the most attention in urban areas, suburban areas that used to be agricultural–like Clayton County–face similar issues around rural and formerly-rural land. Policies around zoning, multiple ownership, clear title, and land banking can strip Black landowners of their inheritance. Here’s how it happens, according to Vice News:
In other areas of Clayton County, large areas of farmland are bought up by developers who put in entire subdivisions, sometimes at inflated prices, rendering that land useless for farming.
Meanwhile, young Black people are going “back to the land” or continuing the family farming legacy into the 21st century. Atlanta Harvest is one example.
What “farm to table” really means
The buzzphrase “farm to table” conjures visions of foodie delights and organic delectables created for people with high disposable income. Having access not only to those products but to the land where they are grown is often left out of the discussion.
The new crop of young farmers, some of whom work in urban and suburban areas, points to the importance not only of Blacks owning land but also to bringing fresh food that is not sold in many minority and low-income neighborhoods.
“Food deserts” or “food redlining areas” are places where there are no or few grocery stores within a one-mile radius. One of every four people in metro Atlanta lives in a food desert, according to the journal Atlanta Studies. And that doesn’t take into account Clayton County or the Southern Crescent, where very few people live within walking distance of a grocery store because the suburban roads and neighborhoods built in the 1950s were designed for a car-dependent society.
Since that time, Warnock’s office points out, Black farmers have lost nearly 12 million acres. The numbers illustrate the demise of the Black farmer in America. In the 1920s, about 925,000 Black farmers were in business, according to the USDA–meaning Blacks represented one of every six farmers nationwide. By 2017, USDA figures show that number was reduced to “about 35,000 farms with Black producers,” according to Warnock’s office–and that means fewer than two of every 100 farmers today is Black.
The term “redlining” refers to the red lines that mortgage lenders drew around Black neighborhoods 100 years ago to show that anyone in those areas who applied for a federal home loan should be turned down. The premise was that the area was “low income” and thus a bad risk. The effect was to deny Black people with good credit access to homes in white neighborhoods and to prevent them from improving homes they owned in Black neighborhoods. Without access to capital, many of these areas became run-down over time. The problem continues today. Your interest rate may have nothing to do with your ability to pay and everything to do with your address.
That banking practice led directly to food deserts, according to Jerry Shannon, who authored the study. He wrote, “The connection between past redlining and current supermarkets is clear, as the latter are concentrated on the upper right side [Northeast Atlanta] of the map. Conversely, convenience stores have the opposite pattern – most are located in the lower left [Southwest Atlanta], in and around previously redlined communities.”
Warnock said Sen. Booker has put forth similar legislation. The Louisiana Journal reported in November 2020 that Booker’s Justice for Black Farmers Act would offer up to 160 acres free of charge to Black farmers, potentially putting 132 million acres back in Black hands. In particular, it would address families who lost their land through “heirs property” passed down to descendants without any clear chain of title. The land would come from owners willing to sell it, according to America’s Farm Report.
Unfortunately, many members of the Pigford classes are no longer around to see justice done.
“Due to the injustices of the historic Pigford v. Glickman class action racial discrimination lawsuit, the vast majority of Black farmers were left with crushing debts, threat of foreclosures, and no legal recourse to save their family farms,” according to attorneys Tracy Lloyd McDurty and Dekera Greene Rodrugue, who represent Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt.
“For over twenty years, our farmers have not been able to stand fully in their freedom dreams due to this shackle of unconscionable debt—debt that originated from the racist misdeeds of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sadly, many of our elder farmers transitioned to ancestorhood without restorative land justice from USDA. We are thankful for the courageous leadership of Sens. Warnock, Booker, Luján and Stabenow in rectifying this shameful chapter of U.S. history through full debt cancellation for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx farmers. In the words of June Jordan, ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for.’”
If your family was or is affected by unfair farm loan practices, we’d like to hear your story Send us an e-mail and please include your contact information.
As a matter of transparency, Robin Kemp independently researched the Rosetown home sales and map several years ago for an unfinished documentary, then presented copies of the information to longtime resident Mattie Hartsfield and other members of the community, who confirmed its accuracy. Attempts to contact Rose’s descendants over the years have been unsuccessful. Rose moved to Florida and later remarried, according to Census records. He died in 1966.