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A Quest to Be Heard

John Boyd fights for the rights of black farmers in the farm fields of American and the hallways of Capitol Hill.

"National Black Farmers Association," he added after a moment.

Eight-and-a-half years, and he was still introducing himself.

Earlier that day, Boyd had been just another farmer trying to get soybean seed in the ground during the short window that is planting season. He picked up his cousin and a hired hand just after daybreak to begin working on a 116-acre tract of land, hustled back to his house to change into a pinstriped suit and black cowboy boots, and grabbed a cup of coffee and a copy of the congressional directory.

Through his windshield of his old Mercedes, he took a last look at his farmhouse and the small room in front that houses the National Black Farmers Association.

For several miles, he drove past neat rows of freshly planted tobacco and tiny sprouts of soybeans on Virginia Route 47, and imagined the owners of those fields: white men with shiny, green John Deere tractors who never have had to beg the government for a farm loan. He drove past the feed store and described the sales clerks inside: all white, and all greeting him tersely because he has "refused to quit pushing for justice for the black farmer." He drove past the barbershop he goes to, where the old black farmers say things to him such as, "When I look around in the country, I can't tell if my president is black or not."

Boyd doesn't disagree with them. "There's still inequality in jobs, in ownership. We are the first fired," he said, past South Hill now and nearing the interstate. "They don't want me to have my farm. Look like to me they don't want black people to have anything of substance."

His voice carried traces of bitterness, the product of years of heartache that he said began in 1994, when he was 28 and his farm was nearing foreclosure. Year after year, he had been applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for operating loans. Year after year, the applications were denied or delayed. Now a white farm service loan officer was tearing up Boyd's application in his face and cursing at him, and Boyd was cursing back.

"What is it about me that doesn't qualify?" he demanded, and then he went home to tell his wife that again there would be no loan to plant crops. They argued about the farm and their debts. Boyd told her he refused to let the farm go. The small towns around South Hill are as far back as Boyd can trace his family line. His father was raised on a farm with 12 brothers and sisters. His grandfather Thomas was a farmer. His great-grandfather was born a slave on the Boyd plantation, just outside of South Hill.

Soon after the argument, Boyd's marriage fell apart, his ex-wife moved his only son off the farm to Richmond, and the government began the process of seizing Boyd's land. A USDA employee drove a "For Sale" sign in his yard. Boyd took his chain saw and sliced the sign in half, but his anger didn't make the foreclosure any less threatening.

"That was the first time in my life that I actually felt helpless," Boyd said. "It's really worse than a fistfight, because in a fistfight I can get a few licks in."

Then Boyd heard about a way to throw a punch without going to jail: He joined a lawsuit. Black farmers were suing the government, saying they should be compensated for all the loans they didn't receive because of discriminatory lending practices. In 1999, the government settled the case for $1 billion. Sixteen thousand farmers received at least $50,000 apiece and debt forgiveness, and Boyd was one of them.

He bought a new tractor. He paid off his chicken coop, leased farmland in neighboring counties and bought beef cattle.

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