Grant’s Tomb

The USDA and the dying black farmer

Damien Jackson

The finest burial marker in Tillery, North Carolina does not rest in any of the rural African-American town’s numerous cemeteries. The prominent marble tomb sits on an open stretch of land 50 yards east of an old farmhouse, and south of a broken-down barn housing an aged tractor.

“They were just as much in love right through their final days together,” says a glassy-eyed Gary Grant, hovering at the tomb of his parents. He gently runs his fingertips along the marker’s smooth speckled surface before running off a string of the couples’ accomplishments. Quintessential pillars of the community, Matthew and Florenza Grant acquired hundreds of acres through farming in the ’50s, and by 1964 owned and operated Grant’s Barber Shop, Grant’s Sinclair Service Station, and Tillery Casket Manufacturers —all while sending six kids to college.

“My parents were visionaries,” Grant says. Their land and businesses were a testament to their “vision of freedom and independence.”

But Grant’s pride is rivaled by his bitterness. “I credit the United States Department of Agriculture with the murder of my mother and father,” he says. Although his parents passed on five months apart in 2001 from a variety of illnesses, Grant attributes their declining health in later years to their struggle to protect their land from government foreclosure. “I use the word ‘murder’ because it is the only term that captures what was done to them,” he insists. “I don’t think that even we, as their children, realized the stress they endured over the 25-year period they dealt with the USDA.”

Matthew Grant originally applied for a loan from the Farm Services Agency (FSA)—the local arm of the USDA formerly known as the Farmers Home Administration—to get through the drought conditions and low crop yields plaguing the South in the ’70s. However, like many black farmers, the elder Grant experienced problems his white peers didn’t. Though his application was accepted, Matthew’s loan was not processed by FSA agents until after planting season—a costly delay, given the seasonal nature of farming. And despite a strong farming history, substantial collateral, and his ownership of one of the biggest farms in Tillery, Matthew was inexplicably placed on a “supervised” farm account and received inadequate loans with high interest rates.

Such treatment from their local Halifax County FSA was common, says Grant, who heads the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), a national advocacy organization. “Black farmers with any kind of status were targeted.”

Hampered by problematic loans, mounting debt, and bad weather, Matthew Grant was declared delinquent, and FSA initiated foreclosure. Although the agency customarily allowed three- to five-year deferments on loan repayments in disaster years, Matthew was never given that option. Instead, he was expected to repay farm loans totaling over $200,000 within a year. “Apparently, [deferment] was made available to the white farmers, since they suffered as much crop loss as the black farmers,” stated Matthew, in a 1993 complaint filed with the USDA. “Their operations survived, while black farmers went out of business.”

Gary Grant says the government used “terrorist tactics” to evict his parents. One spring day in 1986, FSA agents arrived at the farm accompanied by federal marshals, showing their guns. Agents told his parents they had 30 minutes to collect personal belongings and leave. The officials left only after Matthew signed an agreement giving FSA clearance to sell the land. However, Matthew countered with a discrimination complaint against FSA that temporarily halted any transaction.

Though officials for the North Carolina and federal agriculture departments did not agree to be interviewed by In These Times, USDA statistics, settlements, and admissions of discrimination paint a damning picture of national policy toward black farmers. In 1920, 1 million black farmers owned 14 percent of the nation’s farms. Today, 18,000 African-American farmers collectively own less than 1 percent of the country’s farms. Although this loss of over 13 million acres is partially attributable to the general decline of agriculture, migration trends, and farmers’ failure to pay taxes and make wills, the impact of discriminatory policies cannot be underestimated. A 1982 U.S. Civil Rights Commission report stated the USDA acted as a significant “catalyst in the decline of the black farmer.” African-American farmers have disappeared at three times the rate of their white peers.

North Carolina has been hit particularly hard. While the total number of the state’s farms decreased 5 percent between 1992 and 1997, the decline for black-owned farms was 18 percent. Between 1982 and 1992, North Carolina lost more black-owned farms than any state.

In 1997, black farmers filed a class-action discrimination suit against the USDA. Two years later the government settled, promising the majority of claimants $50,000 tax-free, some debt relief, and prioritized loans. In the consent decree, Judge Paul Friedman stated that the USDA’s long-standing discriminatory practices toward the black farmer were “unacceptable,” and the settlement should “deter … the same conduct in the future.”

However, many farmers consider the settlement unacceptable. The amount of compensation—less than the cost of most top of the line tractors—was too little to restore the farms of those who’d lost them. And since the settlement, USDA figures show that 40 percent of claims have been rejected, payments have been made slowly, and, as a result, many farmers have lost additional land.

And some feel USDA intentions are clear. “It’s pure racism,” says Leonard Cooper, a former USDA county agriculture director from Warrenton, North Carolina. “If you’ve got land, you’ve got wealth. They want to keep you from thriving and owning land. This has been their goal—to derail you.”

Though not going that far, former USDA Director of Civil Rights Lloyd Wright feels local racism and lack of federal oversight has had a similar effect. “Local officials had no fear of being reprimanded,” says the 37-year veteran of the USDA. The Reagan administration dismantled the agency’s civil rights division in 1983. The Clinton administration reinstated it in 1997 with Wright as its director. Wright acknowledges “there were many local officials who didn’t want” African-Americans to own land, and that national officials “didn’t do anything about it.”

This was certainly not news to Matthew Grant. Though initially a part of the class-action suit, he was wary of how the government would remedy such a collective claim. He opted for a separate suit. In 1999, after incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and struggling with severe health problems and a dysfunctional farm, Matthew was offered a settlement of $400,000, along with relief from outstanding debts. He refused, considering the offer inadequate. Both he and Florenza died in 2001 without being compensated. The surviving children are still negotiating for a more equitable settlement.

“Back in the ’70s, my father was grossing $80,000 a year from the farm alone,” says Grant. “Considering what we’ve been through, $400,000 would barely pay the attorney fees and the gas we used running about trying to fight the government.”

Government involvement in the town of Tillery wasn’t equitable from the start. Initially known as the Tillery Resettlement, this cotton-clad community in northeastern North Carolina was one of 113 new farming projects created by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the largest of eight Negro resettlements. At first the government intended to allocate Tillery’s 18,000 acres of fertile soil to white farmers. But “they soon realized the town was set in a flood plain,” says Grant. So the government chose Tillery as a place to resettle black farmers.

Despite occasional floods of the nearby Roanoke River, area farmers survived and flourished. By the early ’60s, there were more than 300 black-owned farms in the town averaging 50 acres, raising mostly peanuts, cotton, corn, and livestock. “In them days, most everybody was farming,” says 95-year-old Lillie Fenner, recalling the former productivity of black farmers in her native Halifax County. Such productivity allowed for a thriving, independent Tillery. Local institutions included seven churches, an auto shop, several social clubs, and two markets for local produce.

Unfortunately, discriminatory policy helped bring much of this to an end. “Now white folks run what farms are left,” says Fenner. Few, if any, of the resettlement’s 350 black families still farm today. Most of the original resettlement land is still owned by African-Americans, but the vast majority of it is leased to white farmers.

Though many black farming communities across the country have gone the way of Tillery, they are not giving up without a fight. A number of organizations are seeking protections and compensation for the black farmer, including the Land Loss Prevention Project, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and the Coordinating Council of Black Farm Groups.

As head of BFAA, Grant has spoken around the country, organized land-loss summits and protests, testified before Congress, and met two presidents. “We want reparations,” says Grant, whose group’s demands include more equitable compensation, full debt relief, and land provisions for affected farmers.

Grant’s ongoing struggle has much to do with a command issued by his father 25 years ago. After Matthew lodged a complaint at the Halifax County FSA office, a white agent suggested the family take up a different occupation. Grant remembers his father counseling his children in the FSA parking lot. “We ain’t ever going to crawl under no rock just because the white man says so,” Matthew said, teary-eyed. “Black folks built this country with a lot of blood and tears.”

“You deserve better,” Matthew told his family. “Don’t stop until you get what you deserve.”

Damien Jackson is a writer in North Carolina.
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