The Plight of Georgia's Black Farmers
Black farmers in Georgia exposes the long and deep scars of slavery, racism and broken promises down through the decades in our state. But it is also a story of resilience, determination and love of the Georgia soil.
Black farmers, both during slavery and after, certainly built the economy and wealth of the South, first with their free labor as slaves, and then with low wage work through the Jim Crow era. Only rarely have Black farmers overcome the systemic obstacles to amass land and wealth.
Near the end of the Civil War, after the union General William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta, he started his march to the sea, traveling through the heart of Georgia’s agricultural plantation lands, conquering confederate troops and freeing slaves. Many of these slaves followed the federal troops to the coast. When Sherman and his troops arrived in Savannah, Sherman and Edwin M. Stanton, the union’s secretary of war met with a group of Savannah Black ministers. Sherman asked these ministers what they wanted. Their answer: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.” A few days later, Sherman issued a field order to grant 40 acres to each of around 40,000 freed Black Americans.
Sherman’s order was revoked in the fall of 1865 by newly installed President Andrew Johnson, and the dispersed land was returned to white plantation owners. Yet the idea of 40 acres and a mule spread throughout the South and echoed through the decades to the present day, always dangling the promise of compensation or reparations for the work of freed Black slaves and their descendants. It is so current that film director and producer Spike Lee, a native of Atlanta, named his production company after the concept of 40 acres and a mule.
The promise and disappointment of land acquisition after the Civil War was the first, but not the last of broken promises that Black Georgia farmers have faced. Through back-breaking work, primarily sharecropping, some were able to purchase land from white former plantation families. By 1920, there were more than 925,000 Black farmers in the nation, some 14 percent of the total. Yet, by 2017 the U.S. Census of Agriculture reported only 35,470 Black farmers in the nation (less than 3% of the total) and only 2,870 in Georgia, which is, however, still the fifth largest number of any state.
A number of factors have contributed to the decline of Black farmers, nationally and in Georgia. Generally, for white and Black farmers, the business and the economics of farming have changed dramatically over the decades since the 1920s. Other reasons include: the increase in the size and scale of farms; the advent of commodity price supports in the New Deal; competition in global markets, and the increased reliance on loans, both from the federal government and private lenders; and the increased complexity of technology and equipment necessary to compete. However, Georgia’s real estate laws and federal farm policies have presented additional difficulties for Black farmers and have led to the dramatic drop in their numbers.
Many Black-owned farms have been lost because of problems proving clear ownership of the land. Known as “heirs’ property,” it describes ownership that has been passed down through generations without deeds being recorded. Sometimes land may be owned by hundreds of heirs, any one of whom can force the sale of acreage. This excellent article explains this difficult problem. And this revealing video describes the frustrating problem that many Southern Black families have faced. Heirs’ property is certainly a significant factor in the loss of Black owned farmland.
A 2017 University of Georgia research report estimated that over 34,000 acres in five counties in middle Georgia around Macon/Bibb could be heirs’ property with an assessed land value of more than $760 million.
The second problem that affects Black farmers is racial discrimination. An astonishing timeline of reports starting in 1920 documents the on-going, pervasive discrimination against Black farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The timeline documents public recognition of discrimination for the past 100 years, and yet so little has been done to correct it.
An important lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, was filed as a class action lawsuit against the USDA for discrimination against Black farmers between 1983 and 1997. The USDA admitted it had discriminated, and a settlement was reached in 1999 to pay Black farmers $1.03 billion. More than 22,000 Black farmers applied, but about 30 percent of the applicants were denied. Due to inadequate notice by the USDA, another 60,000 filed late claims, but only 25,585 of these were accepted.
Currently, as part of the American Rescue Act, Congress provided debt relief for Black farmers who could prove discrimination.This was included in the legislation partly because of the impact of COVID on Black farmers, but also as a recognition of the long-standing discrimination of Black farmers by the USDA.
Farmers were already filing paperwork to apply when 12 white farmers, represented by a conservative legal group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, challenged the legislation. A temporary restraining order halting distribution of debt relief money has been issued while the case is being considered. More than 20 farm advocacy organizations around the country have filed amicus briefs opposing this lawsuit.
“I’m hoping the white farmers will lose,” says Jerry Pennick, who was the director of the Land Fund at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and now a consultant. “They [the white farmers] already own 98 percent of the land. How can you call that discrimination? It’s just a continuation of the racist policies of the Trump administration. The only thing to do now is to let it go through the courts.”
Agriculture is an important part of Georgia’s economy. It contributes about $73 billion or about one third of our total economy. According to the Georgia Farm Bureau, we have more than 42 thousand farms, with an average farm size of 228 acres. And the Georgia agriculture industry and its farmers have strong representation in Washington D.C. Sen. Raphael Warnock is a new member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. U.S. Rep. David Scott chairs the House Agriculture Committee and Rep. Sanford Bishop chairs the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. All went to bat for this debt relief package for Black farmers.
But really, we need to take a clear-eyed look at how we got to this point. “When white Europeans first came to these shores, they were given land, and they were subsidized. Yet the people who worked the land were not given the same access,” points out Valerie Hill Rawls, a farmer advocate and managing director of Hill Eco Inc. “So, pretty much it was just another mode of government systemic racist policy to exclude people of color from land ownership and from generational wealth development.
Those who are upset about Critical Race Theory being taught in schools, may want to examine how white people have benefited from government policies towards farmers. The disparate treatment of Black and white farmers in Georgia is an example of how race and racism has benefitted one group over another through governmental policies. This is sometimes referred to as systemic racism, which is exactly what Critical Race Theory addresses.