Three hundred black farmers took over a U.S. Department of Agriculture regional office in Brownsville, Tenn., yesterday to protest what organizers called the agency's failure to process loan applications from growers who were counting on the money to plant this year's crops.
"These farmers are still waiting for word to see if they can get money," said Tom Burrell, a board member of the Tennessee chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, one of several groups that organized the protest. "But now, for all intents and purposes, the planting season is over. This is nothing but business as usual."
Authorities reported no injuries in the building's takeover, after which about half of the farmers remained inside throughout the day. USDA officials said its employees were sent home for the day.
"They were very nice," said Gary Grant, a North Carolina farmer and president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists. "They had been very accommodating. Typical USDA. 'We're going to be very nice to you. Here's the bathroom. Here's the water fountain.' We didn't come to use the bathroom and the water fountain. The men came for their money."
In 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit brought by African American farmers who said they had been denied loans by regional bureaus when white farmers had not been. As of February, the agency had paid more than $615 million on slightly less than half of the 22,600 claims filed, according to statistics posted on the agency's Web site.
Over the years, the lawsuit said, loan rejections to African American growers, which often came under catastrophic conditions, led to massive losses, foreclosures and, ultimately, the loss of farms. In 1920, there were 925,000 black farmers, according to USDA and Census records. Today, there are about 15,000.
"We're at a point right now where we're all but extinct," Burrell said. "This is the last stand for black farmers. If we don't get a victory in the next six months, it's curtains for the black farmer. This is all a part of a conspiracy to get rid of us."
Alisa Harrison, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said the takeover of the bureau, which houses a Farm Services Agency office that makes loans, was unfortunate.
"When you take the kind of action they took today, you disrupt the work the employees are there to do," Harrison said. "There is a place to process disputes in a professional manner. If you look at the last couple of years, we've significantly increased our staffing and resources regarding these types of matters."
Yesterday's protesters came from 16 states by car, train and pickup truck to support five black Tennessee growers. Protest organizers said the five had applied for loans in Fayette County, but the loan applications were sent to Haywood County, where they sat for more than a month.
The farmers -- Coach Perkins, James Hood, Barton Nelson, Earnest Campbell and Gerald Pettaway -- entered into agreements for land, fuel, fertilizer and seed with the understanding that the money was coming, Burrell said. When the planting season ended with the start of July, there was no money. Now they face thousands of dollars of debt.
The protesters demanded to speak with Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman in Washington, to have the loans of the five farmers processed, and to have negotiations on speeding up the processing of claims related to the lawsuit before vacating the building at 1191 Dupree St. in Brownsville.
"We are willing to stay in this building until we get what's necessary," said Burrell, who lost his Tennessee farm to foreclosure in 1981.
Attorney James Myart, another organizer, said the protesters would be nonviolent. "If police touch us, we're going to go limp," he said. "They'll need a large number of officers to carry us out."
For Grant it was a stinging reminder of how his father, Matthew, suffered in Tillery, N.C. The USDA foreclosed on Matthew Grant's farm because he was delinquent by $10,000 on a loan four times that amount.
Grant said the USDA would not adjust the terms for repayment of the loan, even though the delinquency resulted from three years of catastrophic weather. Grant said he proved that the agency adjusted repayment terms for white farmers who suffered from the same conditions.
Matthew Grant died in December, five months after his wife.
"The fact that they died before this was settled is just awful," Grant said of his father's claim under the class action suit. "What the USDA is doing is waiting for these people to die, thinking their children won't pick up the fight. They tried to prevent me from becoming the substitute executor of my father's estate. That's how determined they are."