WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's signature last week on a landmark discrimination settlement will do more than send money to black farming families across the country. Activists say it also sends a message: The U.S. government has acknowledged years of discrimination against tens of thousands of Americans, and it wants to make things right.
"It means some progress has been made," said Timothy Ward of Goldsboro, N.C. "It sure seems there was some wrongdoing. Now we need to go ahead and put this behind us."
More than 75,000 black farmers are expected to share part of a $1.15 billion settlement that Obama signed into law Wednesday. Most are expected to receive an average of $50,000.
The settlement, known as Pigford II, continues the government's response to a class-action case in the 1990s, Pigford vs. Glickman, which chronicled decades of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers were denied loans. Some were told they had no right to farm.
Payments and loans to black farmers were, on average, far less than those to white farmers, according to a report this summer from the Congressional Research Service.
"This is a settlement that addressed a historical wrong, I mean something that this country is not about, and should not be about," Attorney General Eric Holder said last week.
The case has consumed families, many of whom have historical ties to agriculture through generations of farming.
Ward, 51, grew up the son of a sharecropper. He served as an officer in Future Farmers of America in high school and planned to start his own small hog farm. When he wanted to buy more land, and when new regulations demanded modernized hog houses in the mid-1980s, he went to the USDA for a loan.
"But I never heard anything back from them," Ward said.
He couldn't upgrade his farm. Eventually he sold what he had.
"Money makes things happen," Ward said. "If you don't have it, then (the farm) doesn't exist anymore."
It turned out that black farmers across the country were documenting similar experiences.
John Boyd of Baskerville, Va., had a whole sheath of loan applications sitting, untouched, at his local USDA office. One agent tore up one of his applications in front of him and spit on him, he said in an interview.
"The discrimination was real; it was real for me," said Boyd. He now is president of the Black Farmers Association, which has chapters in 42 states, and he has lobbied Congress for years to force the U.S. government to settle with black farmers.
Thousands of black farmers were paid after an initial settlement was reached with the federal government in 1999. But tens of thousands of farmers missed the deadline to apply, and Boyd and other activists said the government hadn't done enough outreach to find affected farmers.
Ward was among those who weren't paid. As an Army Reservist, he said, he was called up in the response to Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, then missed the Sept. 15, 1999, deadline to apply.
Farmers who hoped for another settlement met strong opposition. Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa predicted widespread fraud and called the settlement "a modern-day slavery reparations program."
A new Senate version of the bill specifically included provisions to investigate each application to prevent fraud, something Boyd said he believed in anyway.
Boyd credited North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan with pushing the bill through Congress this year.
"I think we would've been a step farther back if she hadn't been on this," Boyd said.
Hagan worked with Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, to get the bill through the Senate.
The settlement still must be approved by a federal judge overseeing the Pigford case, but Boyd expects that to happen quickly.
It then will take an estimated six months for the USDA to begin cutting checks to affected farmers, and some activists remain wary of how well the government will follow through.
"It's a bittersweet victory," said Gary Grant of Tillery, N.C. His parents lost their home to foreclosure, and his family was paid in the first Pigford settlement. But Grant has remained active as head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association in Tillery.
Many of the farmers in Pigford II, he pointed out, are years into foreclosure proceedings or already are working to move away from farming.
"How can people jump for joy?" Grant asked. "There may be a few who will be saying, 'It's good riddance. I got rid of the land. I got $50,000. I don't owe anybody.'"
But he wonders how the USDA will handle claims, and whether the agency will truly become more welcoming to black farmers.
"I believe there are people who are destined to farm," Grant said, "who love working in the soil, and I believe they ought to have an opportunity to do that."
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Questions and answers about the claims
Q. Who do individual farmers contact to file a claim related to Pigford II?
A. Individuals seeking information about the lawsuit and how to file a claim should contact the website or phone number established by the attorneys representing the farmers in this case:www.blackfarmercase.com, 1-866-950-5547. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot provide legal advice on how to file a claim.
Q. Who will be eligible?
A. Any individual who previously submitted a late 5(g) claim in Pigford I to either the Court, the Pigford Facilitator, the Pigford Monitor, the Pigford Adjudicator, or the Pigford Facilitator, and did not receive a determination on the merits of his/her claim is eligible to participate in the Pigford II settlement agreement and become a Class member.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
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