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Black Farmers Again Seek Settlements From Decade-Old Discrimination Lawsuit

Photo by Polina V. Yamshchikov
Talmadge West plucks a walnut from a tree on his farm in Hayti, MO on Wednesday, August 25.

By Jessica Naudziunas


Columbia, Mo –

Talmadge West has returned to the rural Bootheel to retire. Though his family legacy is rooted in corn, soybeans and cotton native to this part of the state, West doesn't farm. He's kept his family history alive with a garden. He walks around his backyard, eating a meal along the way.

From the beginning, West says, black farmers in Pemiscot County were set up to struggle.

"This is what they would do, give em the baddest land in this county. Woods, swamps. You can't grow nothing yet. It might take five, six, seven, ten years, and it still may not be cleaned up."

West was among twenty-thousand farmers nationwide who received a portion of a $1 billion class-action government lawsuit over unchecked, widespread discrimination.

But many Hayti, Missouri farmers were shut out of the settlement earlier this decade, even as they presented evidence of enduring similar discrimination. For some faulty or late filing others were never told such an option existed.

That's Louise Tipler, she and her husband were denied the first time around. We've moved from West's backyard to a church in Hayti, where more than a dozen former black farmers have gathered. Most of them in their 60s and 70s, and they sit in one big group in the pews. Each one shares their story, and the person next to them agrees: farm loans were approved based on skin color. Years later the USDA admitted to embedded racism nationwide throughout its ranks.

"We talk about equal rights. We talk about justice. And I feel that for the black farmers, there was no jus there IS no justice for the black farmers."

Louise Tipler says their family has owned farmland in the county since 1947. Her husband, Curtis, farmed all eighty acres and worked a swing-shift to build their life. The couple tried to join the lawsuit based on denied loans, but the USDA claimed it could not find records of a Tipler-run farm anywhere in Pemiscot County. Curtis Tipler says this is impossible.

"We had to clear a spot to put a house on, the outhouse, the little smokehouse. Then, we cleared up about 11 acres to plant some cotton. All by hand. 80 acres."

"They had denied a claim that there was no record of us ever farming, but we knew that that information was wrong, and we have been waiting since that time."

Turns out many farmers like the Tiplers were left out. So, Congress approved a second settlement. But efforts to fund it have died seven times waiting for support.

In Hayti, those qualified don't farm anymore, so the money won't be used to revive family land. The people in Hayti say at one time there were almost thirty black farmers now there are none.

"It's really become this eye or something onto race in this country."

That's Spencer Wood. He's led research at Kansas State University on black land ownership.

"Whole communities are destroyed, and we are effectively creating a country side that is something like 98% 99% white. It has a lot of implications beyond the farming livelihood of the individual families."

Wood says fewer landowners means less power in the black community. Meanwhile, frustrated farmers are waiting for Congress to act

John Boyd Jr. is president of The National Black Farmers Association.

"It is becoming more and more difficult to explain to the black farmers, we're not on this bill"

Boyd says black farmers have given up on the USDA and uses the firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod as an example. This summer, a blogger posted an out-of-context clip from a video of Sherrod, who is black. The clip suggested her blatant racism toward a white farmer. What the clip didn't show was her reflection on how she had to do everything she could for the farmer regardless of what he looked like. The suggestion that Sherrod discriminated against a white farmer was enough to publically oust her from her position.

"The government can move this swiftly at the highest levels from the White House to the USDA to fire a black person, and here we've been complaining about the Department of Agriculture and the way it has treated black farmers and no one has been fired."

Boyd has met with every member of the Senate about funding the second settlement. Whether it's the growing deficit or the online world's low hum asserting fraudulent claims, something is holding back the money. So, today Boyd plans to take his tractor from Virginia to Capitol Hill every day the Senate is in session. Those who have followed this case since the 90s, like Spencer Wood and Boyd, say they'll see resolution, but with midterm elections on the way, farmers, like those in Hayti, may be pushed to the margins for another season.

This story was produced for Harvest Public Media, a collaborative reporting project involving six public broadcasting stations in the Midwest. Follow Harvest Public Media on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook.

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