|Farmers Have Opportunity to File Late Claims in Federal Loan Discrimination Suit|
After decades of federal loan discrimination, the end appears in sight for thousands of black farmers, including many in Alabama who are hoping for a financial settlement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
It’s been a long, difficult journey for farmers denied loans from their local USDA offices while they watched as applications by white farmers were generally approved.
Now, as a new year arrives, those same black farmers are hoping checks totaling $50,000 will be in the mail relatively soon.
"They weren’t very nice to me the first time I tried to get a loan, but I didn’t give up and kept going back," said Martha James, who manages a small cattle operation in Greene County. "I was disgusted, but now I’m excited it’s all over."
James is part of a large "second group" of black farmers who will be filing late loan applications as a result of a federal judge’s ruling to right numerous wrongs across the country.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman issued a ruling in late October that could launch payments to black farmers in a $1.25 billion settlement.
"I’m very pleased this has resolved itself," Friedman said, in issuing his ruling. "It will provide relief to an awful lot of people."
The payments will, in effect, provide compensation for black farmers who sought USDA loans and were initially rebuffed by federal officials at local offices, but refused to give up.
They knew they had solid legal ground to stand on because thousands of other black farmers who experienced the same discrimination dating back to the early 1980s finally received compensation, most in 1999.
Those claims were paid under the original Pigford vs. Glickman consent decree. The current group of black farmers now has an opportunity to present their arguments of discrimination by filing "late" and "late-late" claims to the federal government.
Those who have late claims to submit have 180 days to file. The period began on Nov. 14 and continues to May 11 of this year.
For many involved in the protracted legal battle, it’s been a confusing plunge into federal jurisprudence that only experienced lawyers have been able to resolve.
As a result, attorneys will be holding meetings in the Southeast during the coming weeks to provide information and to help farmers fill out formal claims.
In order to receive payment from the federal government, it will require more than a "he said, she said" claim of a loan denial. Applicants will need to furnish documented proof they had submitted a late claim petition during the initial lawsuit settlements dating back to 2000.
Not every farmer prevailed during their initial filings. During a six-month claims period that ended in 1999 nationally, thousands were approved, but thousands more missed the claims deadline.
An advocate of the federal lawsuits stemming from those complaints has been the Federation of Southern Cooperatives led by program director John Zippert who is as familiar with the legal nuances of the case as any lawyer.
"During the first round in this matter, more than $1 billion was paid out to farmers who had been denied loans," Zippert said. "It was the largest single civil rights judgment against the U.S. government. Now we’re into the second phase."
Zippert’s concerns extend far beyond the current litigation. He is worried about the decreasing number of black farmers in the country.
He said the "high point" of black-owned farming was 1920 when there were more than a million black farmers in America, tilling the soil of over 15 million acres of land.
Today, Zippert said, there are only about 25,000-30,000 black farmers working between three to four million acres. For many black farmers, it has meant working other jobs with farming often becoming secondary to family incomes.
Two Alabama farmers who were involved in the first settlement and opted to receive $50,000 payments still have a bitter taste in their mouths over the whole thing.
"Farming was all I ever wanted to do in my life, but this loan thing was hard to take," said Robert Hines, a truck farmer in Greene County. "I’ve got 10 kids and worked hard to support them."
Hines, who raises cotton, corn and sweet potatoes, pulled into the parking lot outside the Forkland Town Hall and found three customers ready to do business.
As he unloaded some of his potatoes, Hines talked about trying to obtain a loan from the USDA and receiving little cooperation. He finally decided to take the $50,000 and be done with the federal government’s loan program.
"I kept filing claims, but was never treated right," said Hines, 77. "They said they didn’t have any money, but a white farmer who applied and got his loan came back and showed it to me. That really made me mad."
John Brown, whose Dallas County family has been active in farming for four generations, said he went to the USDA office in Selma in the early 1980s and asked for a loan to buy equipment for his truck farm.
"I filled out the application, but never had a chance the way things were back then," said Brown, who saw action with his Army unit during Operation Desert Storm. "It seemed like they wanted more collateral for assets than what I had on my farm."
Brown felt the equipment he would have bought with a loan would have been collateral enough.
"I imagine if I had put my property up to cover the loan he would have felt a little more at ease," Brown said. "When you have some people in certain positions, they feel they can do what they want to do."
James, at one point, was told not to file a complaint, but went to see Zippert who helped her and she soon became a part of the second large group of Pigford plaintiffs.
If she finally receives her $50,000, James has plans on how to spend it "right now."
"I’m going to get a bush hog and another tractor to handle my own land," said James, 74. "I’m very happy Mr. Zippert helped me. It’s made a big difference."
Zippert said it could be up to a year or more before any payments are mailed, but black farmers who have been waiting a long time for their compensation indicated they are willing to wait.
Some of the initial litigants have died in the intervening years, but their heirs will be eligible for payments once final details are worked out.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.