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Hope for Black Farmers
By Rep. Eva Clayton,
Chair of the CBC Foundation

It greatly concerns me that in my home state of North Carolina, and every state where farming is a way of life, in just over fifteen years there has been a 64 percent decline in minority farmers from 6,996 farms in 1978 to 2,498 farms in 1992. Black farmers are declining at three times the rate of white farmers.

There are several reasons why the number of Black farmers is declining so rapidly but the one that has been documented is the discriminatory environment present in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the very agency established to assist the special needs of farmers. The plight of the Black farmer in America is a plight that has been fueled by the sting of discrimination. Once land is lost, it is very difficult to recover. And Black farmers have lost land.

For the first time in decades, however, Black farmers have reason to be hopeful; progress is being made. Although not a perfect resolution for their claims, a landmark class action settlement was approved in January 1999 to end decades of lawsuits by Black farmers who were systematically denied government loans, disaster relief and other aid because of their race. The settlement would give farmers a tax-free cash payment of $50,000 and erase their debts to the USDA.

The settlement and much of the hope and progress can be attributed to a number of distinct "firsts" that have occurred under the leadership and guidance of the Black members of the House Agriculture Committee and the CBC.

1)  At the request of the CBC, Black farmers were able to meet with the President. President Clinton allotted one hour for the meeting. He gave three. The farmers spoke; the President listened. This was a first.

2)  At the urging of the Black members of the House Agriculture Committee, the Republican chairman scheduled and held two Full committee hearings to consider the plight of Black farmers. In 30 years, there had never been an official committee hearing on this issue. This was a first.

3)  Because of the efforts of Black members of Congress and others, contained in the Agricultural Appropriations Bill there is language that gives relief to Black farmers, including the lifting of the statute of limitations that had prevented them from having their day in court on their discrimination claims. This was a first.

When the history of this century is written, it is my hope that the year 1999 will be recorded as significant in the effort to change the course and culture of the United States Department of Agriculture and the muddied legacy it has left for Black farmers.

Reprinted from the Congressional Black Caucus Newsletter
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