Response to Sara Wyant’s article entitled: ‘USDA’s Pigford case: More claims than Black farmers’

By Heather Gray* and Ralph Paige**

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

East Point, GA, June 1 – Black farmers filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997 because of long standing racial discrimination in services and credit opportunities. The lawsuit is referred to as Pigford v Vilsack (Pigford being Tim Pigford, a Black farmer in North Carolina, and Tom Vilsack the present Secretary of Agriculture) and is in its second phase. Pigford II, as it is called, is for the thousands of African Americans who filed petitions late in the lawsuit and have yet to file a claim.
Of relevance to the Pigford lawsuit, in 1983 President Ronald Reagan eliminated the Office of Civil Rights at USDA. This meant there was no place in the government for Black farmers to address their grievances. The office was not re-opened until 1996 during the Clinton administration. As noted below, it is this period that encompasses the eligibility requirements for Black farmers to participate in the Pigford lawsuit.
Under the Pigford consent decree, an eligible recipient is an African-American who:
(1) Farmed or attempted to farm between January 1981 and December 31, 1996;
(2) Applied to USDA for farm credit or program benefits and believes that he or she was
discriminated against by the USDA on the basis of race; and
(3) Made a complaint against the USDA on or before July 1, 1997.
The potential universe of farmers in Pigford II is 80,000.  Your article raises questions about  this figure.  You state, for one, that the number far exceeds Black farms in the agriculture census, which, in the recent 2007 census, was 32,938.

There are a number of things to consider in understanding this apparent anomaly, but it is perhaps best to start with the census itself.
(1) Discrimination against Black farmers has been pervasive. The discrimination did not stop with lack of services from USDA but included the census itself. Counting Black farmers was, on the whole, not prioritized by census administrators. Historically, thousands of Black farmers have not been listed on USDA files and it is only recently that there has been a concerted effort to locate and adequately count minority farmers (i.e. African America, Native American, women, Asian, Latino). But this process is in its infancy and it’s likely that the count still does not reflect the reality of the Black farming community;
(2) Over the 16 years covered by Pigford, Black farms that are reported in the census likely had more than one person attempting to use the land to produce crops – father and son, or siblings. This is no different than with white-owned farms;
(3)  The 80,000 undoubtedly includes thousands of individuals who were not familiar with the requirements of the Pigford lawsuit when they applied to participate, and they will ultimately be screened out. Please keep in mind that none of the 80,000 listed applicants has been interviewed to determine if they meet the class definition. Anecdotal evidence is that many don’t;
(4)  In some instances it is likely that more than one heir has applied to participate on behalf of a farmer who died in the 1980s. But, those applications will be combined into one, further reducing the class size at the end of the day;
(5) Many Black farmers attempted to obtain services from USDA offices and were denied and generally their names have not been recorded in USDA offices unless they actually received a loan or others services.
You refer to 163 claimants in the lawsuit being from Illinois and that in the last agriculture census there were only 78 Black farmers in the state.  You question the discrepancy and correctly surmise they might be those who attempted to farm, gave up and moved to another state.

Illinois is directly north of Mississippi. Historically, leaving the oppressive state of Mississippi was a priority for many during the heart of the Jim Crow years and into the difficult adjustment period after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and into the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many would simply go up the Mississippi River into Chicago and other areas of Illinois where there were family and friends. While your article reveals that most Black farmers in the country are in Mississippi, even today it is a common saying that “there are more Mississippi land owners in Chicago than in Mississippi.”

You also question the relevance of the late filers and the issue of not being notified. You refer to Class Counsel Attorney Alexander Pires stating that “42 meetings were held in Alabama alone.”

Notifying the potential claimants in the Pigford lawsuit was not an easy task. Southern Blacks have dispersed throughout the country. There was not a list of individuals with addresses to contact as would be case, for example, with credit card holders or stockholders. Many of the potential claimants were living all over the country and many would have made a concerted effort to leave the rural South. As a result, it took some time for the information about the lawsuit to reach the potential universe of claimants and much of it was through word of mouth.   

Further, as the late J. L. Chestnut, a prominent civil rights lawyer who was a leader in the Pigford case, told both Judge Friedman and the House Committee on the Judiciary, many eligible claimants did not come forward to attend the meetings because they simply didn’t believe it would do any good. All they knew was that no one ever before had been able to hold USDA accountable for its treatment of Blacks and there was no good reason to expect that would change soon – that is, until late in the last few weeks of the six-month application period, when the first rulings came down in favor of individual claimants. Once that word spread, those who had been too discouraged to apply came forward and the Pigford lawyers were hit with a tidal wave of applicants just after the filing deadline.
You also question the number of claimants in large cities in Ohio. You write, quoting a source, that “there are a number of legitimate cases who have long been denied their payments and will benefit from the additional funding. But many more appear to have been solicited in an attempt to game the Pigford system. For example, our source said a large number of late filers had similar zip codes in large Ohio cities, suggesting a door to door effort might have taken place to find likely candidates.” The clustering of applications does not seem unreasonable given that when families and individuals leave the South they tend to cluster together with those they know; or when families and communities anywhere in the world leave an area or move to another country they tend to gravitate toward people of a familiar culture to cushion the shock of the move. As mentioned, one of the most viable communications to seek claimants in the lawsuit was word of mouth which could well have been the case in Ohio.
And again, please keep in mind that none of the late applicants has been interviewed and many of them simply are not aware of the requirements of the class definition, or will turn out to be duplicative representatives of their deceased parents or grandparents who were denied by USDA, lost their land, and moved North.

Yet, you also provide information about the infrastructure for the lawsuit. The Pigford “consent decree set up a system for notice, claims submission, consideration, and review that involves a facilitator, arbitrator, adjudicator, and monitor, all with associated checks and balances.” The process has been a rigorous one whether for those in Track A (claimants with less documentation) or Track B (with more documentary proof of discrimination). Claimants have to prove, to the satisfaction of authorities in the various levels of the lawsuit, that they comply with the eligibility requirements. Thirty percent  of those who filed claims in the original Pigford case lost, and that doesn’t even count the literally thousands of persons who were turned away by the class lawyers without their claims being filed, once it became apparent that they didn’t meet the class qualifications. And, as I understand it, the same rigor in weeding out those who don’t qualify will be applied to the processing of Pigford II applicants.

The Pigford lawsuit has not solved all the problems for Black farmers but it has brought attention to the issue and financial relief to thousands and, as you mentioned, the Obama administration’s USDA Secretary Vilsack has vowed to address the on-going discrimination within his department. But, as J. L. Chestnut said in 2005 “Pigford was not perfect. No lawsuit or anything else crafted by the hand of man is perfect, because man is not perfect…. I will stand here and tell you that if I had understood in 1997 the magnitude, the real magnitude of mistrust that hurting Black farmers felt against their government, I would have searched for some kind of formula specifically to address that problem. I don’t know what we would have come up with. I don’t know if we could have come up with anything, but more attention would have been given to the problem. When people have been ruined by their government, it is hard for them to believe that this government now wants to help them. And I don’t care how much you advertise or where you advertise, you can’t get really to that problem in depth.”

To read Sara Wyant's May 27 article on the Pigford case, go to: 

* Heather Gray is the Director of Communications of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund

** Ralph Paige is the Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund

Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund   404-765-0991

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