Updated: Feb 21, 2021
By Ziao Yin
Image retrieved from Mother Jones
Since the 20th century, overt racism and bigot legislation has led to almost 12 million acres of land, owned by Black farmers, being lost. Although many of the evident factors cease to exist, the impact that it made still plagues African-American communities through modern struggles.
The Mississippi Delta in 2021, arguably the most fertile land in the US, has endless rows of every type of crop imaginable. However, it wasn’t always like that. Over the 20th century, land there was mainly owned by white plantation owners and left inaccessible to many of the Black farmers. Systems in place, such as sharecropping, meant that white landowners made pacts to not sell their land and instead rent to these Black farmers. Landowners then had the advantage to take their share of the profit, some taking up to 70%. Accumulating their wealth off of Black labor held Black farmer families in debt and poverty for later generations. Several homestead acts, such as The Homestead Act of 1866 passed as an effort to help Black farmers get off the ground, further trapped Black farmers. The land homesteaded was commonly uncultivated forest land and without proper assistance, cannot yield hearty harvests. In three years, only four thousand African-Americans utilized the act, only to find themselves working for logging industries owned by whites.
After World War II, many soldiers were coming back, in search of jobs. In response, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill) on June 22nd, 1944. This act promised benefits for veterans, including college tuition, low-cost loans, and unemployment insurance. Southern Democrat lawmakers, partially in charge of drafting the bill, worried that these benefits would be used to challenge the Jim Crow laws that were in place. These lawmakers challenged the draft and demanded that the benefits be allotted by the state, not by the federal government. This gave states, like Mississippi, the right to exclude many Black veterans from receiving benefits. This furthered segregation as well as prevented Black veterans from accumulating land. Locally elected committees at the time also started administering money for farmers to help stimulate the growing cotton industry. White plantation owners, who dominated local farming industries, were the ones to benefit and keep farming within their own families while Black families who couldn’t vote were denied assistance. In just two decades, from 1950 to 1969, Black farmers lost a total of 6 million acres of land.
During the 1980s Farm Crisis, the Federal Reserve began issuing high-interest rates, causing farmland value to deplete by 60%. White plantation owners had the resources on hand to transition into other industries, like fishing and logging. Struggling Black farmers weren’t given resources and aid to transition into these new industries as their white counterparts. White farmer families were able to take out loans that helped them get a foot in the door of these booming industries, whilst Black farmers were offered different loan terms, smaller loans, and even outright refusal.
Image retrieved from The New York Times
Farmers on the verge of or have already lost their land, started protesting against state and federal governments. Pigford v. Glickman, filed on behalf of Black farmers, was a class-action lawsuit challenging the USDA and the federal government demanding for allocating farm loans and assistance back into African-American farmer families. In 2010, Congress settled Pigford II claims, putting almost $1.25 billion into the pockets of the African-American farmers discriminated against at the time.
Struggling African-American families at that time used their strength and community to face the racism put against them. They not only overcame much of the daily racism but also resisted the racist legislation used to put their families down for generations. Black History Month is not only a month to fight for the still very racist government we have today but also celebrate the achievements of African-Americans and the importance of Black excellence.
Written by writer Ziao Yin