The rush to dismiss Shirley Sherrod based on an edited video contrasts remarkably with the tens of thousands of cases of USDA bureaucrats denying African American farmers loans, jobs, acreage, information, and courtesy who were neither dismissed or reprimanded. These racist actions have had enormous consequences. The Pigford v. Glickman settlement of $1.25 billion suggests the monetary loss to black farmers who suffered discrimination, but it barely hints at the human costs of USDA racism. A once-prospering community of black farmers was devastated not only by mechanization and chemicals but also by unchecked racism that spread from county agricultural committees through state agencies and on through to Washington.
In 1920, there were 926,000 black farms in the country. Between 1950 and 1978, the number of black farms dropped from 560,000 to 57,000. Ironically, these years encompassed the civil rights movement when laws were intended to aid African Americans. The number of white farms also decreased, from 4.8 million in 1950 to 2.4 million in 1978, a testimony both to the USDA’s focus on aiding larger farmers and to the impact of mechanization. Yet in the years between 1920 and 1978, only 56 percent of white farmers left rural America compared to 94 percent of African American farmers.
My research on the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), and the Federal Extension Service (FES) uncovered numbing accounts of discrimination. The flurry of op-ed columns on Mrs. Sherrod’s firing have largely evaded the historical context of USDA discrimination.
After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, southern USDA employees used federal programs to punish civil rights activists who registered to vote, sent their children to white schools, or demonstrated against segregation. Racism circulated through federal, state, and county USDA offices, and employees at every level twisted civil rights laws and subverted programs to punish black farmers. Until the late 1960s, African Americans had no voice in agricultural policy, and until the 1970s the USDA employed only a handful of blacks outside custodial positions. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1964 sent investigators throughout the South and in 1965 published Equal Opportunity in Farm Programs documenting USDA’s sorry civil rights record. Prompted both by the Commission’s report and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, like nearly every secretary since, sent down a directive promising to stamp out racism and ensure equal rights. USDA employees from county agricultural committees through state and federal offices smiled with compliance while refusing to implement equal opportunity.
The documentary record is enormous, and it is depressing. Some FmHA county supervisors refused to give black farmers application blanks, secretaries insulted black clients, loans were denied for no reason, or in some cases loans were approved to trap black farmers in debt and prompt foreclosure. When a powerful effort led by SNCC, the National Sharecroppers Fund, and CORE in the 1960s attempted to elect black farmers to powerful ASCS county committees, they were defeated by trickery and violence.
The Federal Extension Service, tightly tied to white land-grant universities, resisted integration stubbornly for years. In Alabama, Willie Strain, who had worked his way up to a top leadership position in the African American extension network, was transferred from Tuskegee University to Auburn University in 1965 as part of FES integration. He was shunned and given no work there, as were other African Americans who made the move. After enduring this treatment for a year, he took leave and continued his education, but when he returned to the same situation, he filed a class action suit, Strain v. Philpott, that in 1971 forced the extension service to integrate. Later Timothy Pigford filed a class action suit, Pigford v. Glickman, which was decided in 1999 but has dragged through a decade of contentious settlement. It was during these years that the number of black farmers plummeted.
Judge Paul L. Friedman admitted in his decision that the Pigford case would “not undo all that has been done” but insisted it was a “good first step.” By 2000, of course, it was too late for hundreds of thousands of black farmers. When Judge Friedman handed down his decision only months before the end of the millennium, there were but 18,000 black farms left, and many of those were endangered. Underlying Friedman’s decision was a disturbing contradiction: black farmers suffered their most debilitating discrimination during the civil rights era, when laws supposedly protected them from racist policies.
The increase in USDA programs had an inverse relationship to the number of farmers: the larger the department, the more programs it generated, and the more money it spent, the fewer farmers that survived. Shirley Sherrod has been attempting to help those black and white farmers who have survived so far, but her speech that analyzed the complex reside of racism in rural America was cruelly distorted. The invisible issue in the Sherrod case is the continuing racism in the USDA and its legacy that cost the country millions of its best farmers.
By Pete Daniel
Pete Daniel has written extensively on the rural South. He has been president of the Agricultural History Society, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and is presently president of the Society for History in the Federal Government. He is retired from the National Museum of American History.
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