What would you guess the phrase “The Last Plantation” refers to? Would you be surprised to learn it was a reference to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the last half of the 1900s? The reason the USDA was known as “The Last Plantation” was based on its treatment of Black farmers. Black farmers were treated unfairly and cruelly, just like the slaves were.
Variety magazine, the primary magazine of the entertainment industry, reported in June of 2021 that a documentary film titled “The Last Plantation” was in the works. The film follows the trials and tribulations of a Black soybean farmer and his efforts to fight the USDA discrimination.
Figure 1. An announcement of an upcoming film.
The decline in the number of Black farmers has been well documented (See Figure 2). There are multiple reasons for the decline, however, the policies and practices of the USDA greatly exacerbated the problem. One could argue that the number of white farmers has also declined, but that decline has been far less dramatic than the decline in Black farmers.
Hoffman (2009) wrote:
In 1920, at the height of Black farm ownership, one in seven U.S. farms was Black-operated; by 1992, the number had fallen to one in 100. While the USDA is not solely responsible for this (physical violence, flimsy heir-property laws and other factors are also to blame), the department has played a huge role. From discriminatory lending practices to foreclosures, the agency’s policies have directly contributed to a massive loss of Black land wealth and the rapid decline of the Black farmer, leading some to call the USDA “the last plantation.”
Historically Black Farmers have suffered from “systemic racism” in the dealings with the USDA. In 1965 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (an independent agency created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957) published an investigative report Equal Opportunity in Farm Programs: An Appraisal of Services Rendered by Agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture. It was found that Blacks had no input on USDA policy, had no representation on county agricultural committees, were refused loans and benefits, and were experiencing profound discrimination.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement Orville Freeman was USDA Secretary of Agriculture. He previously was the governor of Minnesota and had little knowledge of southern history and culture. He served as USDA Secretary from 1961 to 1969. How did he respond to the 1965 Civil Rights Commission report? The data speaks for itself. Daniel writes (2013)
By the time he [Freeman] came to the USDA, southern whites had demonstrated how viciously they would fight to preserve segregation, and as civil rights activity increased in the southern countryside, USDA officials manipulated government programs to punish activist farmers. Apparently, Freeman never realized the extent to which employees outside his executive staff, both in Washington and throughout the South, resisted implementing civil rights edicts or the fact that his aides protected him from most discrimination complaints. Without pressure from Freeman’s office, discrimination would not only continue but also flourish.
Did the racial climate in the USDA improve after the 1965 report? Sadly, no!
A 1997 USDA publication, Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture, had this summary (p. 57):
USDA must make decisive breaks with the past. Among other things, failure to change will mean that minority farmers continue toward extinction…Fundamental change will not be easy. USDA has allowed too many past reports to gather dust and too many recommendations to go unimplemented.
In 1998, the USDA’s National Commission on Small Farms reported that Black farmers were subjected to “indifference and blatant discrimination…in their interactions with USDA programs and staff” (Holloway, 2021).
A 2001 Commission on Civil Rights report found that Black farmers waited four times longer than white farmers for farm loans in the Mississippi delta region. The report (p. 103) found that:
African American farmers have had to obtain legal redress to seek enforcement of federal civil rights law for discriminatory treatment from the Department [USDA]. Black farmers often wait years to receive an acknowledgement from the USDA of their complaint. As a result, many complaints are unresolved. The farmers’ effort to obtain legal action has only exacerbated the decreasing number of black-owned farms, due to the passage of time and the lack of farm services. Farmers also contend that local FSA offices often do not enforce the decisions of their USDA appeals.
A 2008 General Accounting Office (GAO) report questioned the credibility and accuracy of the data provided by the USDA. The report (p. 5) concluded that “Much of the data the USDA reported to Congress and the public on the participation of minority farmers in USDA programs are unreliable…”
A 2019 investigative report titled “How USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers” found that the data on the number of Black farmers in the 2014 Census of Agriculture had been inflated. As a result of this malpractice “it helped obscure practices at USDA that were discriminatory, damaging and ongoing…The false narrative inflated USDA’s record on civil rights and further hurt Black farmers—the very people the department claimed it had made historic efforts to help.”
One example of the discrimination flourishing occurred in April of 1965 when the USDA Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) director in Mississippi was told by a powerful U.S. Congressman from the state to ignore federal pressure to integrate county committees. The ASCS director complied because he was afraid federal appropriations would be slashed (Daniel, 2007).
When farmers borrow money from USDA, the local USDA offices, with input from county committees, decide which farmers obtain loans. In many cases, loans for Black farmers would take two or three times longer to receive compared to loans for white farmers, according to USDA documents. As such, Black farmers had to wait to plant crops and so their yield suffered.
The decision to deny loans and to foreclose on farms was made by the county committee. P. J. Haynie, a fifth-generation farmer in Virginia stated, “The County Committee was the guillotine” (Spiegel, 2021). So, who bought the land when it was foreclosed on? Perhaps the white farmers on the loan committee or their friends.
Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials—especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South—spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s (Hoffman, 2009)
How many USDA agencies operate in your county? Count them up. There are some 3,000 counties in the United States and a typical county has four or five USDA agencies operating in the county. When I was in high school and college during the 1960s my home county in Texas had offices for the Farmers Home Administration, Soil Conservation Service, Production Credit Association, Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service, Federal Land Bank, and the Cooperative Extension Service. At the local level all the employees including the clerks and secretaries were white. The advisory and decision-making committees for these agencies were white. This pattern was repeated across the South. So, it should be no surprise that Black farmers were discriminated against.
During the 1960s I had dealings with all the local USDA agencies except one (the FHA). I borrowed money from the Production Credit Association to buy cattle for my SAE, while in college I investigated getting a loan from the Federal Land Bank to buy the homeplace from my mother, I had a land use plan developed by the Soil Conservation Service, I received mohair and wool subsidies from the ASCS, and I obtained bulletins from the Extension Service (I would have been in the 4-H but I was told that you could not be in both 4-H and FFA). I was treated well and received great service. But I am white.
Unfortunately, Black farmers across the south did not have the same experience that I did. Pete Daniel, in his 2013 book, Dispossession gives numerous examples of how Black farmers were treated by local USDA agencies:
In 1969, Georgia farmer James R. Wimberly, owner of a 100-acre farm in Dodge County, complained that a county USDA staffer told him his farm was too small to bother with and that “all of the assistance needs to go to the large Farmers or large land owners because they have a lot invested in farming.”
A local white citizen (Mr. Smith) usually financed Preston Flakes’s spring planting, and he held a first mortgage on the farm for $720. When Smith learned of Flakes’s NAACP membership, he refused to loan him money for the 1956 crop and added that “he wouldn’t help any more ‘n———.’”
A farmer in Mississippi received mail from the NAACP, Because of this the Greenville Production Credit Association and all other potential credit sources refused to lend him money.
Francis Atlas attempted to register to vote in 1948, 1950 and 1960 in Louisiana. Each time he was rejected. He was subpoenaed to testify before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to tell his story, which he did. When he returned home no gin would handle his cotton, the neighbor who normally combined his soybean crop refused to do so and the farm supply stores refused to deal with him.
Winson Hudson of Mississippi had to smuggle a letter complaining about the FHA to her congressman because her mail was monitored by whites. Somehow the letter ended up back in the hands of the county FHA supervisor who called Hudson and her husband into his office and told them he ran the county, and they would just have to deal with him.
These are samples of thousands of complaints (and I am accurate when I say thousands) regarding the USDA treatment of Black farmers. Some Black farmers even got sympathetic white farmers to take their cotton to the gin because the white farmer would get a higher price than the Black farmer would receive. The USDA local officials routinely reported the crop yield of Black farmers lower than they actually were in processing loan applications. The discrimination was blatant.
Figure 3. An illustration by Marco Ventura that appeared in The Nation, November 15/22/2021 illustrating the plight of the Black farmer.
I felt very inadequate in writing this Footnote. There is no way I could adequately do justice to this topic in the self-imposed space limitations to which I restrict myself. There are really no words to describe how unjustly Black farmers have been treated in the past.
For your edification and professional development, I would highly recommend the book Dispossession The subheading reads Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. The author is Pete Daniel, former President of the Southern Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. The publisher is the University of North Carolina Press.
One book reviewer wrote “Dispossession is a very gripping and valuable book, a combination of detailed history and personal stories, making plain how African American farmers were systematically deprived of their land and livelihood by the white-controlled agri-government during the third quarter of the twentieth century.”
In addition to learning something about our shared history, there is a take home message in this Footnote. Are we guilty of discrimination in our agricultural education programs? Do we treat all of our students, regardless of color or background, with dignity and respect? Are our classroom and operating practices welcoming for all students? Could we be accused of being The Last Plantation?
Next week we examine the landmark lawsuit brought against the USDA by Black farmers. They won, sort of. Stay tuned.
Have your students do a Google search for the term “Black farmers in America.” Ask them to read one document they find and then share their findings with the class. Summarize what they have learned.
The PBS News Hour has several excellent videos focused on how Black farmers have historically been wronged. Show those videos to your students and discuss.
Daniel, Pete (2007). African American Farmers and Civil Rights. The Journal of Southern History, 73(1), 3–38. https://doi.org/10.2307/27649315
Daniel, Pete (2013). Dispossession. The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill.
Hoffman, Jessica (1/6/2009). The Last Plantation. Colorlines.
Holloway, Kali (11/1/2021). How Thousands of Black Farmers were Forced Off Their Land. The Nation.
Spiegel, Bill (2/5/2021). USDA: The Last Plantation. Successful Farming.