Today, fewer Americans support their families by operating farms than at any time in generations. This is particularly true among black families. According to USDA statistics, in 1920, blacks owned 14 percent of the nation's farms; by 2007 (the latest year for which statistics are available), the number was down to just over 1 percent.
The implications of this are broad and significant. The average net worth of African Americans in the United States is less than $5,000 compared to more than $110,000 for white households. Because homes and land constitute the majority of a family's wealth, the loss of land among black families has particular relevance.
For many of us, especially in the South, our families have deep roots in farming. I suspect my skin was permanently dyed from countless hours of playing in the red clay of North Carolina where my mom, her mother, and my great grandparents once grew sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, peanuts and other crops that sustained them nutritionally and financially.
Years later, a credit union loan enabled my sisters and me to acquire the family property and build a home there for our mother. We are among the fortunate few.
Soon, the federal government will issue $50,000 payments to thousands of black farmers, and family members of farmers, as a result of the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation Settlement case, which found that the USDA denied loans and other assistance to black farmers because of their race.
Properly managed, the funds received in this settlement could have a large impact in determining a family's economic options. Remember, the typical net worth of black families is less than $5,000. The award could serve as a down payment for a home, provide funds to start a small business, pay for a child's education, or otherwise be invested in ways that create assets and opportunities in the future.
As CEO of Hope Credit Union, I am among many who are concerned that this large infusion of funds into the Mid South region will attract financial predators and scam artists in a manner similar to what happened following Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, HOPE provided financial counseling and services to more than 10,000 individuals get their lives back on track. We are prepared to extend similar support to black farmers and their heirs.
The sweat of our forefathers laid the foundation for many of us to realize educational, financial and other achievements that discrimination barred them from experiencing. My daughter and nephew are benefiting from my forebears' sacrifice and wisdom, as will future generations, because we were able to preserve and leverage the assets they worked so hard to acquire.
I urge all who receive awards through the Black Farmers Discrimination Settlement to manage their funds wisely, and consider how they can be leveraged to build assets not only for themselves, but also for their grandchildren, just as their grandparents did for them.