USDA, Black Farmers Settle Bias Lawsuit
Paul Solomon, shown on his Screven County, Ga., farm,
joined a class action lawsuit against the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. (AP Photo)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A1
A federal judge yesterday tentatively approved a historic agreement
requiring the Department of Agriculture to pay hundreds of millions
of dollars to black farmers who say they were denied government
loans and other assistance because of their race.
The agreement settles a class action lawsuit filed in 1997 by more
than 1,000 black farmers and marks the first time that the
government has agreed to compensate them as a group for racial bias
that has been documented by various federal officials for years.
Discrimination by USDA officials has been cited by civil rights
advocates and others as a major reason why the ranks of black
farmers have dwindled at three times the rate of white farmers.
Blacks now account for less than 1 percent of the nation's farmers.
The deal is one of the largest racial discrimination settlements in
federal history and puts to rest an issue that has long been a major
embarrassment for the Agriculture Department. The vast agency is
derisively referred to as the "last plantation" by many black
farmers and by many of the department's own minority employees who
see it as a bastion of racial prejudice.
In the end, the agreement could cost the federal government $400
million or more, depending on the number of farmers who step forward
with claims. Plaintiff attorneys said that as many as 4,000
claimants roughly one in four of the nation's black farmers
could end up taking part in the deal, although USDA officials
dispute that figure.
The black farmers alleged that for years they have been either
denied government loans or given loans smaller than those awarded to
white farmers who had similar credit histories and assets. Loan
decisions are crucial to farmers who often borrow money, based on
the next crop, to cover their considerable operating expenses. And
the Agriculture Department is the lender of last resort for those
shut out of the private credit market.
"This, in my view, is the most important civil rights litigation in
years," said J.L. Chestnut, one of the attorneys representing the
black farmers. "This case is fundamental. We are talking about land,
the basis of capital."
The vast majority of farmers are slated to each receive tax-free
payments of $50,000. In addition, the government will forgive the
USDA debts owed by the farmers, which Chestnut said typically range
from $75,000 to $150,000.
A second but smaller category of farmers would include those who
have well-documented discrimination cases. These farmers would agree
to have their cases settled by a court-appointed arbitrator, who
could award judgments much larger than $50,000.
A third category would be made up of farmers who would essentially
exclude themselves from the settlement and continue to pursue
individual administrative cases with the department.
In addition to cash payments and debt forgiveness, all claimants
would be given priority on future government loans and could have
foreclosed farmlands returned to them if they are still in the
federal government's inventory.
"This is a victory for black people," said John W. Boyd Jr., a
Baskerville, Va., farmer and president of the National Black Farmers
Association, a group founded in 1995 to fight the perceived racism
in USDA loan programs. "I think this is fair to many farmers who
would not have been able to get any compensation otherwise. Many of
the farmers who were discriminated against don't have all the
documentation needed to make their case."
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said he hopes the agreement
closes "a painful chapter" in the department's history. "We do not
admit or deny any of the specific allegations in the lawsuit," he
said, "but the fact that we are settling with a significant amount
of money does indicate that we believe there is substantial
For years, farm advocates, civil rights officials and members of
Congress have cited discrimination in the Agriculture Department's
huge loan programs as a major factor in the disappearance of many of
the nation's black farmers. Between 1982 and 1992, the number of
black farmers in the United States dropped by 43 percent, to 18,800.
The next agricultural census report, scheduled to be released in
several months, is expected to find far fewer black farmers.
Through the years, charges of racial discrimination have been
acknowledged in individual cases by top USDA officials. But under
President Ronald Reagan, the department dismantled its civil rights
enforcement apparatus, leaving bias complaints to mostly go
In the past two years, activism grew around the issue, with groups
such as the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus joining the
farmers in protests and calls for government action. Subsequently,
Glickman met with black farmers and promised to address their
concerns. Just over a year ago, a group of farmers met with
President Clinton. Last year, administration officials pushed a
change in the law that allowed farmers to pursue discrimination
claims that were more than two years old.
In October, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman ruled that black
farmers could pursue a lawsuit they filed in 1997 as a class action.
The class includes all black farmers who worked between 1983 and
1997 and filed a discrimination complaint with the department or
some other government agency.
While many farmers view the settlement as a successful end to a long
struggle, others said it does too little to redress discrimination
that has gone on for years.
Ben Hillsman Jr., 47, an Army veteran and former Tennessee state
trooper, filed a discrimination complaint against the Agriculture
Department in 1988 after officials denied his application for a
government loan to purchase a "very productive" 290-acre farm to
expand his operation. When he appealed the loan denial, it was
reversed. But by then, his option to purchase the farm had expired.
He said it was later sold to a white farmer.
"This settlement is not adequate for me. You can't put a price tag
on your health, the disrespect, the embarrassment in the community,"
said Hillsman, who now leases out his 400-acre cotton and peanut
farm in Halifax County, N.C. "To have risked my life as a state
police officer and then be a veteran for this country, then to have
to go through this, is enough to make you hate people."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company