By Barbara Barrett
Monday, December 13, 2010; A17
President Obama's signature last week on a landmark discrimination settlement will do more than send money to more than 75,000 black farmers across the country.
Activists say it also sends a message that the U.S. government has acknowledged years of discrimination against tens of thousands of Americans, and that it wants to make things right.
"It means some progress has been made," said Timothy Ward, 51, of Goldsboro, N.C. "It sure seems there was some wrongdoing. Now we need to go ahead and put this behind us."
Most are expected to receive an average of $50,000 from the $1.15 billion settlement that Obama signed into law Wednesday.
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 that were made to black farmers were, on average, far less than those to white farmers, according to a report this past 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 H. Holder Jr. said last week.
The case has consumed families, many of whom have ties to agriculture through generations of farming.
In the mid-1980s, Ward had to modernize his hog farm to meet new regulations. He went to the USDA for a loan, "but I never heard anything." Unable to upgrade, he eventually sold the farm.
John Boyd of Baskerville, Va., had a pile 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," Boyd said. He now is president of the Black Farmers Association, and he has lobbied Congress for years to force the government to settle with black farmers.
Thousands of black farmers were paid after a settlement with the federal government in 1999. But tens of thousands missed the deadline to apply, and Boyd and other activists said the government hadn't done enough to find affected farmers.
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, 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 received money in the first Pigford settlement. But Grant has remained active as head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association in Tillery.
Many farmers in Pigford II, he noted, are years into foreclosure proceedings or already are working to move away from farming.