Settlement Expected Soon in Second Black Farmers Class Action LawsuitBy Daniel Cherry | Published 21 Aug 2011 09:35pm |
Tens of thousands of African American farmers in Mississippi and across the U.S. are awaiting the ruling of a federal court to see if they'll be paid for decades of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. MPB's Daniel Cherry reports the court is expected to reach a final settlement in about a week.
Calvin Beasley farms a little more than 400 acres around Midnight Mississippi. While riding down gravel roads passing rows of cotton and soybeans, he says this is one of the best years he's had in a long time.
"My soybeans are looking good. If they continue to get rain, they might do something."
Beasley says he's experienced first hand discrimination by the USDA.
"If you're black in Humphreys County in the 80s you were discriminated against at the farm service agency. That's bottom line."
Beasley is one of tens of thousands of black farmers who say their local USDA office was discriminatory in how they gave out loans.
"I would get my loans late, and they wouldn't loan me money to buy equipment with. They always said there wasn't any money available, but you can't farm without equipment."
He says because of that he had to file bankruptcy on his farm.
"If you get money in May, June, July, things done passed you by. The weather has changed, and the season is gone."
Beasley is trying to have his case heard in the settlement. He's asking for 50 thousand dollars just to get a used tractor. In a way, Beasley is lucky....he's still farming. Frank Taylor is the president of the Winston County Self Help Co-op. He says the discrimination by the USDA caused thousands of African Americans to lose their land.
"In the farming industry, the smaller landowner was forced to sell, and the larger landowner was able to purchase at a much lower price because these people were in dire straits of needing money."
This is largely behind the massive decline in African American owned farms. In 1910 black farmers owned 15 million acres. In 1999 that number was down to about 2 million acres. Frank Taylor says the people who worked at the local farm loan offices were abusing their power to take advantage of poor black farmers.
"These individuals were serving on county committees. They knew what individual had land raising good quality crops. Those kind of issues were very prevalent in the South. I think it was a major contributor to land loss especially in the middle 80s and into the 90s."
On September 1st a federal court in Washington D.C. is expected to reach a final settlement in the massive lawsuit against the USDA. Congress has appropriated one point two five billion dollars to be paid to African Americans who farmed or attempted to farm between1981 and 1996 and can prove discrimination. Greg Francis is part of the lead council representing farmers.
"For most of these farmers it means justice. Justice definitely doesn't mean that everyone who files a claim will be paid, but it does mean that for all of those farmers who farmed for many years, who toiled in the sun and fought off all of those challenges that come with the occupation of farming. Their grievances are finally going to be heard."
This settlement called Pigford 2 follows the first settlement back in 1999. More than 20,000 members of the first settlement have collected about 1 billion dollars. This newest settlement is years in the making, and opens the door for those who attempted to file for Pigford 1 but tried too late. Greg Francis says this shows major improvements at the USDA.
"I think it is a huge step in the right direction to acknowledging that there was a problem, and as I understand it, I believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture is continuing to take steps to ensure that if there is any discrimination that's rooted out and changed."
Some estimates say there may be as many as 100,000 people who could become eligible for the new settlement. Frank Taylor says the money won't come close to getting the farmers back what they lost, but for some it could be a start.
"As you look at the large landowners across Alabama and Mississippi, their legacy has been entrenched. These same individuals that own these small farms want that same value, want that same recognition for their family for generations to come. So it's all about preserving our communities and our families."
If the court gives the settlement its final approval, the deadline for filing claims could be as early as February 2012. Daniel Cherry...MPB News.
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