Black Farmers’ Appeal:
Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign
Black legacy farmers and their families standing in front of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, DC.
Courtesy of Gary Grant, Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. March 2, 1999.
$20,000 of the $25,000 annual debt was interest. Now, can you imagine if we couldn’t get money to repay the principal, how hard it was to get the money to pay the interest. That interest is terrible.
–Gladys Todd, Legacy Farmer (Zebulon, NC)
A landless people…got a problem.
–Lucious Abrams, Legacy Farmer (Waynesboro, GA)
I think the USDA just got a problem with Black folk with land. It is evident. Everywhere Black people own land, ninety percent of them have a problem in trying to hold on to it.
–Carl Parker, Legacy Farmer (Ashburn, GA)
When you look at these eighty and ninety-year-old Black men and women having to fight these kinds of fights it is unimaginable.
–Eddie Slaughter, Legacy Farmer (Buena Vista, GA)
This wasn’t done to Black farmers under the rebel flag, it was done to Black farmers under the American flag.
-Gary Grant, Legacy Farmer (Tillery, NC)
This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Pigford v. Glickman class action racial discrimination lawsuit filed by Black legacy farmers in against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for decades of anti-Black racism in the delivery of loans, subsidies, disaster assistance, and other program benefits.
In 1997, the USDA released the Civil Rights Action Team (CRAT) Report, a condemning report that affirmed Black farmer narratives of pervasive government-sanctioned racial discrimination against them through the Farm Service Agency and county committee systems. Later that year, farmer-plaintiffs Timothy Pigford, Cecil Brewington, Lucious Abrams, George Hall, Eddie Ross, and Lloyd Shaffer filed class action lawsuits, charging the USDA with discrimination against Black farmers in the distribution of loans as well as failure to investigate complaints regarding widespread systemic racial animus. The goal of the lawsuit was to restore Black farmers and their agricultural land base through full debt cancellation, federal and state tax relief, monetary compensation for economic harm, priority of lending services, return of land, and access to land in USDA inventory.
Due to the disastrous implementation of the Pigford Consent Decree, the vast majority of Black farmers were left in crushing debt, threat farm foreclosures, and with no legal recourse to save their family farms. Most of this debt originated from the racist misdeeds of USDA and was supposed to be canceled under the Pigford Consent Decree, but due to a range of factors including attorney malpractice, incompetence, and the aggressive posture of the US Department of Justice in fighting the claims of Black farmers, only 4.8 percent of the $1B Pigford Settlement went to partial debt cancellation. Moreover, the Pigford farmers never received economic redress from the $1.25B bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 that provided recompense to late claimants in the In Re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation Settlement (Pigford II). Illustrating the glaring inequity, the NY Times article, “Trump Funnels Record Subsidies to Farmers Ahead of Election Day”, revealed that President Donald Trump dispersed over $46B in subsidies in 2020 to mostly white farmers and large-scale industrial farms.
For over two decades, thousands of Black farmers have either been foreclosed on or forced to take out loans with private banks to pay off debts with USDA. Aging Black farmers have delayed foreclosures by pooling their resources and filing pro se complaints in federal court. Until the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Black farmers had their tax refunds, social security, disability, and subsidy payments garnished through debt offsets. Elder Eddie Slaughter, a double amputee legacy farmer from Buena Vista, GA, had his social security, peanut subsidy, and disability payments offset for over nine years amounting to over $41,000. Consequently, Black farmers have not been able to fully activate their freedom dreams because they have been locked out of credit from USDA and other lending sources due to this shackle of debt. Despite the dominator narrative that the Pigford lawsuit was a “historic win” for Black farmers, the lawsuit did not uproot institutional discrimination within USDA. Anti-Black racism persists within USDA, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) county offices, the Office of Civil Rights, and the county committee system. Black farmers still have not received reparative justice from USDA. According to the investigative report, How the Government Helped White Americans Steal Black Farmland, Nathan Rosenberg et al. conservatively estimates that the theft of Black farmers’ land and generative income amounts to $326B today.
Similar to the vast mycelial networks that support the natural world, our nonprofit ecosystem nourishes collaborations of ecological harmony, collective land tenure, and cooperative economy while raising collective consciousness and action. The Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign is an example of our multidisciplinary approach to preserving and restoring the Black agricultural land base and land-based livelihoods. The Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign is a grassroots organizing, popular education, and legal advocacy campaign to rectify the injustice(s) of the Pigford v. Glickman class action racial discrimination lawsuit debacle. Inspired by David Walker’s impassioned entreaty against the chattel enslavement of Africans in the United States, the Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign is a polemic against yet another form of racialized capitalism–unconscionable debt. Our collective is comprised of a non-hierarchical, multidisciplinary, multigenerational tribe of farmers, attorneys, writers, poets, researchers, fiber artists, heritage quilters, and earth-based craftspeople. Our work carries the land memory of our Ancestors who dreamt of realities untethered to the debt cycle central to sharecropping and tenant farming–outgrowths of racialized capitalism, white domination, and chattel slavery. The Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign taps into our vast, non-linear, collective imagination–rooted in the teachings of our Ancestors, while providing a compass for Returning Generation(s).
In December 2017, six Black farmers filed a pro se complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to obtain the recovery mandated by the Pigford Consent Decree to stop USDA foreclosures on their family farms. In 2019, Presiding Judge Paul Friedman ruled in favor of USDA and dismissed the farmers’ complaint. The farmers appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Standing in solidarity with our Black legacy farmers, Black Belt Justice Center (BBJC) attorneys agreed to provide pro bono legal representation to the farmers in their appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit as well as other legal and legislative strategies. BBJC attorneys understood the power of using the federal court filing to reshape the historical narrative and collective memory of the Pigford lawsuit debacle and centered the personal narratives and lived experiences of our Black legacy farmers. BBJC attorneys worked closely with Pigford farmer-organizers to piece together fragmented collective memory including Elders Bernice Atchison, Carolyn Jones, Everlyn Bryant, Abraham Carpenter, Gary Grant, Robert Binion, Rod Bradshaw, Eddie Slaughter, Angela and June Provost, Lucious Abrams, Carl Parker, Cecil Brewington, Bernard Bates (Ancestor), the Sigue Sugarcane Family, and Lloyd Wright. This communal effort inspired our Land Justice Community Archives.
In 2019, Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund (AAI/BAF) launched Black Farms Stolen: The Legacy of the Pigford Lawsuit, a community (re)education series on social media that provided a historical overview of the Pigford lawsuit and exposed the unconscionable debt many Black legacy farmers still experience after the lawsuit. In addition to key historical documents, our popular education series included archival interviews with Black legacy farmers. From 2009-2013, Elder Eddie Slaughter traveled throughout the country, with his own recording equipment and vehicle, interviewing other legacy farmers to document the trauma and economic devastation exacerbated by the Pigford lawsuit debacle. Also in 2019, AAI/BAF traveled to Georgia and interviewed three Pigford legacy farmers: Eddie Slaughter, Carl Parker, and Lucious Abrams. In collaboration with Obsidian Creative Studios, AAI/BAF edited the video footage into an 18-episode web series that was released across our social media platforms in early Spring 2020. The series was incorporated into various multimedia projects (i.e., short media clips, print interviews, and investigative articles, etc.) and elevated the demand of debt cancellation for Black farmers to a national level through numerous media outlets, including The Nation Magazine, Project South, The Counter, Politico, Colorlines, USA Today, and The Washington Post (please refer to the Press sections on our website for further study).
In 2020, the BBJC provided the Biden-Harris Transition Team with numerous substantive policy recommendations to lessen the acute economic suffering of Black farmers within the Administration’s first 100 days: a USDA foreclosure moratorium, debt cancellation of USDA direct and guaranteed loans for farmers of color, direct payments to farmers of color for past and ongoing USDA racial discrimination; and a perpetual allocation in the $30B Commodity Credit Corporation Fund (CCCF) to restore the Black agricultural land base. To date, all four policy recommendations have influenced President Biden’s 100-day Action Plan, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the recently announced Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Program.
Decades of farmer-led organizing combined with our heightened organizing efforts over the last three years produced several historic federal legislations: The Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2020, the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2021 (reintroduced), the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act of 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and the Build Back Better Act of 2021 (halted in the Senate). In 2018, Democratic Presidential Candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren engaged with farmers and advocates from the BBJC, the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, the Justice for Black Farmers Group, and others to amend her public position regarding the root cause of the steady erosion of the Black agricultural land base. Senator Warren expanded her position from the narrow analysis of the heirs’ property phenomenon to the persistent malfeasance of USDA against Black farmers, which is well-documented in congressional hearings, investigative reports, peer-reviewed publications, and documentary films. Encouraging a community-based participatory policymaking process that included numerous Black farmers and advocates, Senator Warren produced a comprehensive policy platform to dismantle institutional discrimination within USDA (a copy of Senator Warren’s policy platform is also available in our Land Justice Community Archives).
The BBJC also worked with Senator Cory Booker in the development of the Justice for Black Farmers Act (JBFA), originally submitted to the Senate in 2020 and refiled in 2021. Guided in purpose to address the history of systemic discrimination against Black farmers as well as compel substantive reforms within USDA, the JBFA promoted targeted, ameliorative initiatives to advance reparative justice for Black farmers. Of significant importance, a provision in the JBFA provided debt cancellation of USDA direct and guaranteed loans, federal and state tax relief, and the return of debt offsets to Pigford legacy farmers.
While the Justice for Black Farmers Act was never enacted, two pivotal sections of the bill were further developed by Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock and inserted into the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (signed into law in March 2021 by President Joe Biden). These two sections, 1005 and 1006, provided debt cancellation of USDA direct and guaranteed loans as well as a $1B Fund for outreach and other technical assistance services for BIPOC farmers. Section 1006 also included a provision to provide direct payments to farmers who had experienced past and ongoing USDA discrimination and bias including farmers who had to repay USDA through private bank loans to maintain ownership of their multigenerational family farms.
A month after the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, the BBJC submitted a letter backed by over a hundred signatories submitted to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack urging for swift implementation of the $5B debt cancellation and related services provisions of section 1005 and 1006 of the Act to alleviate the economic devastation caused by the COVID pandemic and exacerbated by decades of systemic racial discrimination by USDA against Black farmers and other farmers of color. Specifically, the BBJC requested that Secretary Vilsack develop an inclusive implementation process rooted in a community-based participatory framework that valued racial equity, respect, humility, shared decision making, and knowledge democracy. Under this framework, USDA would be required to provide numerous opportunities to obtain meaningful input directly from Black farmers and other farmers of color regarding the implementation process for the $1B Fund and to address the tax consequences of the debt cancellation. The BBJC also requested that Secretary Vilsack prioritize the restoration of Black farmers through financial compensation, land acquisition, and grantmaking for regenerative food and fiber re-entry and innovation.
What we are seeing today is the legacy of enslavement. The righteousness of the farmers’ claim for debt cancellation rests on the long arc of that history both the immediate history with USDA and going back to a system in which Black people were property and were excluded from owning property. In this system, the law has always played a critical role in undergirding the rules of the game so that the rights of whites to property were protected, while Blacks’ claims to property were always treated as less than and as contingent and that legacy continues today. So now, as the farmers come forward and claim what is rightfully theirs for debt cancellation it is being treated as a gift or a giveaway. In other words, it is not being treated as a claim for which they have a right, it is being treated as something that maybe the government will give if it chooses to, maybe it will be treated as a form of welfare. When in fact it is a right that they have that they are due under law and that has not been recognized.
-Professor Cheryl Harris, Critical Race Theorist and Author of Whiteness As Property
By June 2021, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several white farmer litigants backed by conservative political organizations filed numerous lawsuits in federal courts (thirteen lawsuits have been filed to date) challenging the constitutionality of the debt cancellation program, which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the program. As a result of the poor implementation of the debt cancellation program by Secretary Vilsack (over 100 days of inaction), justice was delayed once again for Black farmers. During this same period, Secretary Vilsack provided billions of dollars in funding to a variety of entities including the timber and meatpacking industries through the Commodity Credit Corporation Fund (CCCF) and nonprofits through cooperative agreements, while continuing his inaction regarding the relentless economic suffering of Black farmers.
If enacted, the Build Back Better Act would have provided debt cancellation to 91 percent of the 2,500 Black farmers who currently have USDA direct loan debt. Only 2,500 of the 22,000 self-identified BIPOC farmers are Black (less than 8 percent of all Black farmers are eligible for debt cancellation). Thus, the largest recipient of the debt cancellation provision would have been “economically distressed” white farmers resulting from a problematic matrix of “race neutral” criteria (i.e., debt cancellation for economically distressed farmers in high poverty counties). Continuing a community-based participatory policymaking process that the BBJC began with Senator Elizabeth Warren, the BBJC worked in concert with the Black farming community and Senators Cory Booker and Reverend Raphael Warnock to secure at least $750M in direct payments to farmers who suffered from past and ongoing USDA discrimination and bias in the latest iteration of the Build Back Better Act. Although the BBJC helped to secure direct payments for Black farmers in the American Rescue Plan Act, Secretary Vilsack retained discretion over the $750M. To date, Secretary Vilsack has failed to implement Section 1006 that would provide direct payments to Black farmers for past and ongoing discrimination and bias.
Given the economic devastation caused by the racialized colonial constructs that historically kept our tenant farming Ancestors and their descendants in cycles of debt and poverty, these same constructs cannot serve as the solutions. Our Black legacy farmers who carry the lived experiences and collective memory of the racist antics of USDA, often refer to USDA as the Last Plantation due to the vestiges of the plantation economy namely debt as a racialized tool of oppression as well as the racist origin of the CCCF. Established in 1933, the CCCF provided a price floor through commodity subsidies to mostly white landowners at the exclusion of Black tenant farmers who worked the farmlands. This policy of exclusion continues to perpetuate racial wealth disparities today. In addition to advancing a racial equity framework with respect to the CCCF, the BBJC is advocating for the CCCF to be radically reimagined and prioritize ecological farming and stewardship over the monocultural, industrial agriculture paradigm that thwarts both human progress and a climate positive, interdependent, and biodiverse ecosystem.
USDA continues to be the greatest barrier to our work to achieve reparative land justice for Black farmers. As exposed in journalist Kali Holloway’s investigative article for The Nation Magazine, Forced Off Their Land, the Pigford lawsuit did nothing to uproot institutional discrimination within the agency and thus the rot of institutional discrimination continues to hamper racial justice and human progress (a copy of Forced Off Their Land is available in Land Justice Community Archives). Currently, racial disparities in debt offsets are being investigated extensively by the Center for Public Integrity and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. Both institutions have filed numerous FOIAs against USDA to obtain debt offsets data with comprehensive reports forthcoming.
The legacy of the Pigford lawsuit is the theft of Black farms through usurious debt. Most Americans are unaware of this shameful chapter in US history. The fact that our government packaged amoral debt and land theft as restorative land justice for decades of systemic racial discrimination against Black farmers reveals just how far we have come in this experiment of American democracy. Many of our elder Black farmers refer to USDA as “The Last Plantation” due to the agency’s history of pervasive racial animus, discrimination, and criminality against Black farmers. Immense gratitude to our supporters that helped amplify the Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign and raise awareness of the plight of our Black legacy farmers. To claim this victory for our farmers, we need to activate our collective power. In the words of June Jordan, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Thus, through two centuries a continuous indoctrination of Americans has separated people according to mythically superior and inferior qualities while a democratic spirit of equality was evoked as the national ideal. These concepts of racism, and this schizophrenic duality of conduct, remain deeply rooted in American thought today. This tendency of the nation to take one step forward on the question of racial justice and then to take a step backward is still the pattern. Just as an ambivalent nation freed the slaves a century ago with no plan or program to make their freedom meaningful, the still ambivalent nation in 1954 declared school desegregation unconstitutional with no plan or program to make integration real. Just as the Congress passed a civil rights bill in 1868 and refused to enforce it, the Congress passed a civil rights bill in 1964 and to this day has failed to enforce it in all its dimensions. Just as the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 proclaimed Negro suffrage, only to permit its de facto withdrawal in half the nation, so in 1965 the Voting Rights Law was passed and then permitted to languish with only fractional and halfhearted implementation.
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
PIGFORD LEGACY FARMER ANCESTOR SCROLL
BLACK FARMERS WHO CROSSED INTO ANCESTORHOOD WITHOUT
RESTORATIVE LAND JUSTICE FROM USDA UNDER THE PIGFORD LAWSUIT
Our Ancestor Scroll was birthed from an interview with Elder Eddie Slaughter, a farmer-organizer from Buena Vista, GA. Elder Slaughter suggested that we build a wall dedicated to all the Black legacy farmers who transitioned to the Land of the Ancestors without restorative land justice from USDA.
News Articles and Reports on the Implementation of Pigford I Consent Decree AND AFTERMATH
The Cuban agroecologist Fernando Funes Monzote shared, "you make the path by walking."
Engage with our tribe on social media as we make our path toward collective liberation through the preservation of Black agrarian custodial landownership, ecological stewardship, and food and fiber economies in the South.