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Evaggelos Vallianatos Headshot

The Breaking and Dispossession of America's Black Farmers

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On February 18, 1998, I attended a conference on black farming at Franklinton Center at Bricks, Enfeld, North Carolina.

The Franklinton Center was not just another southern plantation with a history of slavery. It was also the plantation society's police where slaves were "afflicted." It trained farmers how to make slaves of men and to "subdue" and "break" unruly slaves. Right outside of the Guest House where I slept, there was once a "whipping post" for "breaking the uncivilized nigger."

Bob Edwards from East Carolina University and Anthony Ladd from Loyola University of New Orleans, Louisiana studied pork farming and black people in North Carolina. They reported, "Where the pigs are, is where black people live in North Carolina." This harsh reality mirrors the brave new emerging plantation in the United States -- the breaking process at work.

This plantation is a mixture of giant corporations and government agencies. They decide what millions of people will eat, if they eat at all. A handful of corporate executives have the final say of what gets sown, produced, harvested, processed and marketed.

Gary Grant, a dispossessed black farmer and organizer of the conference, denounced the U.S. Department of Agriculture for spearheading the theft of land from black farmers.

He meant to say that the plantation had mutated. Its "tar and feather" method of teaching the slaves a lesson by tearing them apart was no longer feasible. But its psychological warfare and soul-killing "breaking process" was very much alive in foreclosure, a legal term designed to hide the cruelty and violence of taking a person's land.

Pearlie Reed, who grew up several miles away from the closest rural road in eastern Arkansas, was the U.S. Department of Agriculture's assistant secretary for administration in 1998. He spoke at the conference:

The only reason my parents saved their farm from foreclosure is that they had the good sense not to deal with USDA. Don't believe that USDA has no money to resolve the financial problems of black farmers. With the possible exception of five or six people in the entire bureaucracy of the USDA and the U.S. Justice Department, there's no one who wants to give one red cent to black farmers. Nobody in power is taking black farmers seriously. Some listen to them, but they don't follow up. The USDA power brokers in the countryside, the county committee bosses, don't give a damn about what the Secretary of Agriculture thinks. This committee system is accountable to state and local powers, which, in turn, reflect the interests of old plantation owners. It's a patronage system. The President himself can do nothing to change what these farm county committees do. It's in the law. Black farmers need good lawyers -- that's the way for any recourse. Don't bother with USDA officials. Finally, the lawyers of the U.S. Department of Justice who represent USDA in its dispute with black farmers don't give a rat's ass what I think.

The historian Pete Daniel has documented the anxieties and fears of both Gary Grant and Pearlie Reed. That is Daniel explains the racist and brutal breaking of black farmers in the United States. His "Dispossession" (The University of North Carolina Press, 2013) is a cry from the heart for the violence inflicted on black farmers "in the age of civil rights," especially from 1950 to 1975.

This was a dramatic time for rural America. The new plantation of government agencies like the USDA and corporations "drove 3.1 million farmers from the land." More than half a million of those evicted farmers were black. Black farmers were taunted, threatened, intimidated, harassed and foreclosed by USDA officials and corporations. "USDA bureaucrats," Daniels says, "denied African-American farmers loans, jobs, acreage, information and courtesy."

Daniel exposes the racism of USDA. He accuses USDA for shameful policies: promoting capital-intensive "operations" resulting in the subsidy of giant farms. "By the 1950s," he writes, "the intrusive tentacles of agrigovernment uncoiled from Washington through state and county offices and, paired with agribusiness, reconfigured the national farm structure."

Meanwhile, USDA bureaucrats pretended they respected the civil rights laws of the 1960s but, in fact, they intensified their racism and discrimination against black farmers. Daniels speaks of the "accretion of prejudice" in the "pseudo-democratic" agencies of USDA. This "swamp of discrimination" spilled over into ill practices against black farmers. USDA also treated badly women, Hispanics, Native Americans and small white family farmers.

"Despite overwhelming evidence of discrimination, incompetence and falsehoods in many offices, the USDA never cut off funds to those offices, and apparently no white person was fired and few were even relocated or reprimanded," Daniels wrote.

Read Dispossession. It's a riveting and timely account of the deleterious legacy of slavery. And despite the national interest in civil rights, not much competes with Dispossession. Daniel says the civil rights movement prefers heroes and mythology to history. It has cleansed its record of the breaking of black farmers.

According to Aaron Henry, Mississippi civil rights leader, "The layers and layers of racism that the department [USDA] has picked up through the years... is the big reason why it's going to be so hard to undo it." He is right. USDA denies its "unsavory history."

Dispossession, written well and with empathy, should spark intensive outrage. Racist policies drove 98 percent of black farmers out of agriculture. From about 900,000 black farmers in the 1920s there were some 33,000 in 1982 and 18,000 by mid-1990s.

We need to reverse this tragedy. We need to help black farmers get back their lost land and return to farming. Dispossession" could be the prologue to a revitalized black farming -- and American society.