When Black Farmers Are Forced From Their Land
The Book That Reveals The Deeper History
“He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”
—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Land theft has long been a historic barrier to the wealth and asset attainment of Black and Brown farmers in the U.S. Current estimates suggest that Black farmers have lost roughly $326 billion worth of acreage over the course of the 20th century. Many economic experts consider this to be among the biggest trends contributing to the enormous wealth gap that continues to exist between White and Black Americans.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, Black farmers in 1910 owned more than 16 million acres of land. In 2017, when the most recent agricultural census was done, that figure had plummeted to a mere 4.7 million acres.
On average the Black community loses upwards of 30,000 acres per year in landownership due to myriad reasons such as lack of real estate asset planning, property tax liens, and predatory lending practices.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the federal agency tasked with oversight of all of our food systems in America. It is also one of the largest holders of land in the nation, with most of it consisting of public parks like Yosemite and the Red Wood Forest in California.
Over time, USDA has acknowledged its role in discriminatory practices and wrongdoing towards Black farmers dating back to the 1965 U.S. Civil Rights Commision. Today, the Biden administration is attempting to rectify decades of racial discrimination in U.S. farm assistance by forgiving loans that many farmers of color are saddled with. But while these farmers and their advocates welcome the plan, they assert that this move fails to fix the deeper systemic issues tied to racial bias.
In a class-action lawsuit filed in 1997, Black farmers asserted that the USDA denied them timely loans and debt restructuring, which resulted in many of them falling into foreclosure. In a federal case known as Pigford v. Glickman, a settlement agreement of $50,000 per farmer was codified. Many farmers, however, in facing the onerous burden of gathering key documents along with restrictive deadlines failed to submit requests. Moreover, many legal advocates in this case believe that the settlement fell short of addressing the deeper systemic issues tied to discriminatory lending.
According to Jillian Hishaw, author of the book “Systematic Land Theft,” property laws in the U.S. have provided White Americans with a strategic advantage, allowing them to acquire stolen land and use it as collateral for strengthening their economic position for centuries. She adds:
“As Black Americans continue to lose 30,000 acres per year in land ownership, the need for legal and economic resolutions is dire and pressing.”
In her book, Hishaw, an agricultural attorney, and founder and C.E.O. of F.A.R.M.S., an international non-profit that provides technical and legal assistance to small farmers while reducing hunger in the farming community, documents the long history of land theft against Black and Indigenous communities.
She brings to light ways in which laws and broken treaties resulted in over 95 percent of U.S. farmland being presently owned by White Americans. The book is a sobering account of how Blacks Americans went from owning upwards of 16 to 20 million acres to current estimate of 4.5 million acres.
This well-researched and documented book encourages readers to ponder the historical narrative of land tenure in the U.S., through the use of case studies, interviews with farmers, and legal and economic analysis studies. Hishaw uses her own family’s experience of land loss to demonstrate how biased policies lead to the dispossession of Black and Tribal groups from their land.
Hishaw, who possesses a bachelor's degree in biology from Tuskegee University, along with a Juris Doctorate and Legal Master's in agricultural law, from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville Law school has nearly 20 years of professional experience in the areas of civil rights, land protection, and agricultural policy. She has extensive experience working on land protection issues for local and state agencies and on civil rights matters for the U.S. Department of Agriculture within the Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.
She begins the book by offering a narrative of how her grandfather's land in Oklahoma was stolen by a lawyer representing him. Years later, it was discovered that his childhood home was replaced by an oil pump. The Hishaw family now believes that the presence of oil was known, incentivizing the theft of the land. Says Hishaw:
“I wrote “Systematic Land Theft” in dedication to my grandfather, who was raised on a farm but due to a dishonest lawyer led to my family losing ownership of the property. It offers a historical context of how Black and Indigenous people have experienced land theft due to scrupulous tactics supported by English common law.”
At the beginning of the 1900s, Hishaw says that Black families owned upwards of 16 million acres, an astonishing amount, given the nation’s racial history. Yet in 2017, USDA census figures showed that Black Americans owned a mere four million acres. Today, that figure has dwindled to 32,910, with 57 percent of these farmers having annual sales of less than $5,000. Hishaw points out that this steady decline transpired all within one century.
Pigford v. Glickman and its Implication
The 1997 class-action lawsuit, USDA Pigford v. Glickman, says Hishaw, offers arguably the best case study on how land was systematically taken from Black communities over the last century. Known as the Black farmer’s lawsuit, the $2 billion dollar settlement which called for $50,000 payouts, debt relief of USDA farm loans, and monetary damages to farmers was never fully honored by the USDA.
These farmers and their families have argued that the compensatory model used for payout did not allow for adequate compensation to Black families whose land was at one time was valued at thousands of dollars per acre. Moreover, a number of the plaintiffs involved in the original lawsuit have passed away while many among those who are remaining are still awaiting debt relief and a check from the government.
Over time there had very little movement in terms of efforts to provide debt relief to Black farmers. That is until March of 2021, when the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed. This measure of hope, however, was short lived given a federal suit on the part of White farmers claiming reverse discrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
Hishaw says that for Black farmers like Corey Lea, who lost a 72-acre farm in Kentucky in 2014, the fight to reclaim his land has been a challenge for over 15 years. She asserts that before Lea’s land was illegally foreclosed on by USDA on May 29, 2014, he was fighting to hold onto the land years before, land in Alvaton, Kentucky he had purchased in October 25, 2007.
Lea financed the purchase of the ranch through the USDA and First Bank, formerly known as “Farmers National Bank” at the time of his loan. First Bank was deemed as a guaranteed lender under USDA, meaning that it managed the loan on behalf of the USDA as the point of contact for the farmer. Five months after the purchase date, First Bank refinanced Lea’s loan but did not record the deed in the county where the land was located, as required.
Since the first mortgage was guaranteed by USDA, First Bank should have obtained permission to refinance along with written approval to switch from the “First Bank” lienholder. In other words, the USDA, as the federal government, should have been listed first with the guaranteed bank recorded as the second mortgage holder.
Hishaw adds that when Lea got behind on his payments, First Bank, as the guaranteed lender, was supposed to offer Lea debt servicing to help ease the burden (i.e. change payment date, etc.) Instead, Lea was denied servicing, loan payments were accelerated, and Lea was forced off his farm. This occurred despite a pending bankruptcy which legally was supposed to have stopped the foreclosure proceedings on the property.
Unfortunately, when the bank is a guaranteed lender of the federal government, an automatic stay of bankruptcy does not stop a foreclosure. It was only after Corey Lea was forced off his property that he received notice regarding the sale hearing.
In August of 2014, during the hearing focused on sales proceeds, First Bank was the only party present at the hearing. Because Lea’s notice was mailed to the previous foreclosed property address, he was unaware of the meeting. And contrary to legal dictates, the bank kept the proceeds of the sale instead of paying off the balance of Lea’s mortgage: Says Hishaw:
“Instead eight years have passed and Lea still has the balance of the mortgage on his credit. It wasn’t until ARPA was passed in 2021 did Lea believe he would finally receive debt relief. Unfortunately, due to the 12 lawsuits filed by White farmers the debt relief was halted in Court.”
Due to this restriction, Lea secured legal counsel and filed suit against USDA, First Bank, and several other Defendants. The Estate of Eddie Wise and the Kennedy family were also listed as Plaintiffs to the suit. On June 16, 2021, the case of Lea et.al v. Vilsack 21-cv-00468 (TNMD), was filed to enforce the provisions of ARPA.
The case, which was denied discovery for nearly 20 months was closed on January 30, 2023, without a settlement. Despite not being provided discovery, Hishaw Law which served as Lea’s Counsel supported all claims with document exhibits which were never tried in a hearing.
Hishaw’s book Systematic Land Theft features actual case studies, replete with substantiated evidence of how systematic land theft has taken place since the first Europeans landed in the U.S. There are also focused questions at the end of each chapter to assist in your own personal discovery of land ownership.
While this book primarily focuses on the Plain States of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, it shows how land theft and the loss of ownership in Black communities is systematically connected to historical federal land conservations and ownerships and the misuse of tax credits.
In light of what she considers to be one of the nation’s most silent forms of apartheid, Hishaw guides landowners and community advocates on how to utilize lived experiences and research-based solutions to recover land for Black farmers and communities.
“I will continually urge us as a people to challenge the USDA and other state and federal entities in reclaiming our collective loss of Black family land, which comprises over 15 million acres, and loss revenue of $350 billion in Black American land value. As I see it, resolutions of communal living, land trust protection, and banking initiatives, is a start to resolving the systematic tactics that have kept one race economically superior over other melanated groups.”
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