There Were Nearly a Million Black Farmers in 1920. Why Have They Disappeared?
John Boyd Jr’s grandfather Thomas, the son of a slave, slept with the deed to his farm under his mattress. He worried constantly that his land would be taken away.
Twenty miles away and three generations later, Boyd lives on his own 210-acre farm, in a big white colonial house with rows of soybeans that go almost up to the front door, like other people have grass. One hundred cattle, a cluster of guinea hogs, three goats and a small herding dog named Fatso, whom Boyd calls his best friend, live there.
He feels more secure on his plot of land than Thomas did. But Boyd is an aberration.
The number of black farmers in America peaked in 1920, when there were 949,889. Today, of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers, only 1.3%, or 45,508, are black, according to new figures from the US Department of Agriculture released this month. They own a mere 0.52% of America’s farmland. By comparison, 95% of US farmers are white.
The black farmers who have managed to hold on to their farms eke out a living today. They make less than $40,000 annually, compared with over $190,000 by white farmers, which is probably because their average acreage is about one-quarter that of white farmers.
As a fourth-generation farmer, Boyd has witnessed other black farmers do the same thing he’s done: claw at the dirt in an attempt to hold on to it. And Boyd has devoted himself to helping other black farmers, always remembering the words he heard his grandfather Thomas mumble over and over: “The land don’t know color. The land never mistreated me, people do.”
Today he’s come to understand two things: how the long fight he put up is just a drop in a rusted-out bucket, and exactly why there are so few black farmers left.
In Baskerville, Virginia, huge sunrises turn ponds into fiery gulfs. Strangers in cars wave as they pass. Food is fried and smothered. Things move slowly. This is also Trump country, with support displayed on bumper stickers and hand-painted roadside signs. “Dixieland”, as Boyd calls it, has palpable racial tension.
He is a big man with deep-set eyes usually in the shadow of a cowboy hat brim. His voice could rumble floorboards. Boyd, 53, seems most content bouncing in the seat of his tractor, smoke tufts marking his trail. He’ll harvest the soybeans he’s busy planting today in the fall, once they’re about knee-high.
He needs 45 bushels from each acre to make a profit. To avoid being docked – getting priced down for moisture or debris in the bushels – he will ask his wife, Kara Brewer Boyd, to enlist her white stepfather to sell the beans for him. When the other man takes Boyd’s beans, he’s not docked but complimented.
“I lose money if I sell them myself,” he says. “In 2019, that shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn’t be losing money because I’m black.”
Boyd’s had time to get used to this mistreatment. His struggle for equal footing started as soon as he bought his first farm for $51,000 at age 18 in 1984. He went to the Farmers Home Administration, a lending branch of the USDA, about 90 miles from Baskerville to apply for operating loans. Year after year, his applications were denied or delayed.
“Looked at your application and we ain’t gonna be able to help you this year,” he says the loan officer would tell him. Once, Boyd says, a white farmer interrupted their meeting, exchanged quick pleasantries with the loan officer, and walked out, having not even applied, with a check for $157,000. “And I’m begging for $5,000,” Boyd recalls, shaking his head.
In subsequent visits, the loan officer told Boyd he better learn to talk to him like other black folks did, took naps during meetings, threw Boyd’s applications straight into the trash and spat his chewing tobacco on Boyd’s shirt, claiming to have missed his spittoon.
The officer only took meetings with the nine black farmers in the county on Wednesdays. “He would leave the door open and speak loudly and boastfully so that we could hear just how bad he was talking to each one of us,” Boyd says.
Boyd filed six complaints against the officer for discriminatory treatment and eventually the USDA Civil Rights Office of Virginia investigated the officer, who admitted to the treatment Boyd noted in his complaints. Boyd then filed and won the first-ever discrimination lawsuit against the USDA.
The successful investigation on Boyd’s behalf prompted other black farmers to come forward with their stories, and in 1995 Boyd founded the National Black Farmers Association after meeting with many black farmers and hearing similar USDA experiences.
“All these farmers were coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘You think what happened to you is bad? You should hear my story!’” he says. “I was just trying to save my farm. But then I saw this was a huge national issue.”
In 1997, Boyd and 400 other black farmers sued the USDA in the landmark lawsuit Pigford v Glickman, which alleged that from 1981 to 1997, USDA officials ignored complaints brought to them by black farmers and that they were denied loans and other support because of rampant discrimination. In 1999, the government settled the case for $1bn, and more than 16,000 black farmers received $50,000 each.
But Boyd didn’t know his work was just beginning.
After that settlement made news, more black farmers came forward saying they didn’t know about the lawsuit in time to apply for the money. This time, Boyd wasn’t a plaintiff but an advocate on behalf of more than 80,000 late claimants. In 2000, he began making trips to Washington to wait in hallways for politicians whose faces he’d studied in congressional dictionaries, hoping to find a sponsor to push to reopen the case. “That was a lonely battle out there on Capitol Hill. That was a bunch of lonely meetings,” he says.
He drove his old Mercedes the 200 miles to Washington, sometimes two or three times a week. When that approach seemed too subtle, the trip by mule and wagon took 17 days. By sputtering tractor, it took five. Sometimes he slept outside Capitol Hill in the wagon. Sometimes his cousin Ernest kept him company on the trip. Other times, farmers and their wives came with signs bearing slogans like, “Black farmers have waited long enough.”
Meanwhile, he went to funerals of older black farmers who died hoping for compensation. His own crops and relationships suffered, most notably with his children.
“There were a lot of down times where I would go home and [Congress] would have recess and I would see family members. ‘Are you still working on that? Man, you need to give that up. You ain’t never going to win that,’” Boyd recalls them telling him. “There were many times where I said, I don’t know if I want to do this any more.”
Finally, after eight years, Boyd got then-Senator Barack Obama to be the lead sponsor of the measure to reopen the case, and Congress set aside $100m to assess the late claims. In December 2010, as president, Obama signed a bill authorizing $1.25bn in compensation to the late claimants, settling the lawsuit known as Pigford II.
The bill and a photo of Boyd shaking hands with Obama hang framed near the fireplace in his brick-floored living room. The pen Nancy Pelosi used to sign it is around the house somewhere, too. For Boyd, that moment, the ink absorbing into the paper, was the peak, the reward.
One night last November, Kara Boyd fell asleep in the recliner in the living room with her laptop open the night before the NBFA conference that month. She was in the throes of a near-all-nighter, getting last-minute details set.
Into the evening, she’d been on the phone with the printer making sure the welcome letter from Shreveport’s mayor, boasting that the conference would draw more than 700 members from 42 states, was in the conference booklet. The Boyds see this free annual gathering as a chance to forge a support network for black farmers, and outline the USDA resources available to them. Their intentions and those of attendees haven’t always aligned.
Inside the lobby of a hotel in downtown Shreveport, Louisiana, Boyd wore his favorite hat – the rigid black size 7.5 Stetson – and a pressed black suit. He was holding a cup of coffee, as usual, and shaking hands. But he was distracted and looking around, seemingly to gauge who’d shown up. The audience of mostly men sat at half-full or empty linen-covered banquet tables. Some had put on suits with their cowboy boots, some of the wives were dressed for church.
Throughout the two-day conference, Kara and USDA and bank representatives, who by design were mostly black, led discussions on how to apply for various loans, how to obtain a farm serial number and get wills in order.
Two older women came in an hour late, after driving from Alabama 10 hours overnight through a storm. They slowly sat down, whispering to other attendees, “Has he gone over the lawsuits yet?”
People have shown up to every conference believing they can still fill out an application for the $50,000 from the Pigford II case, but the deadline was six years ago. Some farmers mistake the postcards announcing the conference for calls for applications, “because they’re older and there’s a lot of illiteracy”, Kara says, matter-of-factly.
The NBFA grant recipient Michael Coleman, 25, runs 14 head of cattle in Mississippi and majors in animal science at Alcorn State University, a historically black school. He presented a PowerPoint on cattle husbandry.
“These white cattle farmers are so much ahead of us it’s like we’re playing catch-up. They already know how to get the grant money, they already have old money,” Coleman says. “I mean, my dad was a sharecropper who worked 40 years in a factory 12 hours a day. Growing up, my father didn’t know about these programs.”
Nearly half of all black-owned farms are cattle operations, but with so few black farmers overall, the crowds at livestock markets are mostly white. “I haven’t been called out my name,” he says, using slang for a racial slur, “but I’m not too sure how they treat or price the animals once they figure out you’re a black farmer,” Coleman says.
His family’s three-acre plot of land is split among relatives – a common state of affairs across black farmers, who often lacked access to legal resources and passed along their property without a will or clear title. Unclear ownership can lead to major problems, including not being able to receive a farm serial number from the USDA, which is needed to apply for any federal loan and other financial assistance programs. According to the Census Bureau, 80% of land owned by black people has been lost since 1910 due to this issue.
A breakthrough came when the 2018 farm bill was signed into law a few days before Christmas, making it possible for farmers to show other forms of documentation besides a will to get a farm serial number.
On the last day of the Shreveport conference, Coleman, in a nice gray suit, received a loud applause for his presentation. Then Kara announced it was time for lawsuit updates, and passed the microphone to Boyd.
Speaking more slowly than he had the whole conference, he intoned, “I wanna do this because I’m frustrated. Every meeting I walk into, people are asking me, ‘When can I get my check?’ And it’s not truthful.”
There is a website set up on the order of Judge Friedman, who presided over the first Pigford case, which states, in bolded text, that the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association has been telling farmers they can still apply for the $50,000 if they mail in $100. It’s not just inaccurate, it’s also a heartbreaking scam, according to the judge.
As Boyd spoke, Kara pulled up the site on screen and asked everyone to show it to someone else, so they would know definitively that the case is closed.
“We have people out here taking advantage of elderly black people,” Boyd raises his voice. “Why would you send someone $100? Do not do that!”
Kara rattled the number for Judge Friedman’s clerk off the top of her head in case anyone had lingering questions. It is just a recorded message stating the case is settled and done.
“I’m merely giving you the facts. Am I being clear today?” Boyd asked. “Mmmhmm,” the farmers answer collectively. He repeated twice: “Nothing is pending in court. The case is closed and settled.”
Back home in Baskerville, Kara reflected on the conference. “It went well. There was no drama. There was no confrontation. No one left upset,” she says. “They came this year with the understanding that the case has been settled.”
She will continue to answer the calls she gets every day about the money. That evening, it is a man from Alabama. Through a tangle of words he finally gets across to her that he’s heard about the $50,000. “For black people working on farms … I thought they’d reopened it and everything? … Ah, it’s already closed out? … Oh, OK.”
“And don’t pay anyone $100 for an application because the settlement is over,” Kara replies. “I can give you the number to the claims administrator so you can hear it from them as well.”
“Oh, I believe you, ma’am,” he assures her, and hangs up.
Boyd has been asking since 2017 for a meeting with Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, to no avail.
“I’d like to ask him why does it take so long to receive benefits as a black farmer? I know white farmers in my community who went through the same program [for a soybean subsidy] and had their money a long time ago. I’m still waiting.”
The new USDA census data shows a small spike in the number of black farmers, from 44,609 in 2012 to 45,508 in the 2019 report, but Boyd is unimpressed.
“They’re not getting any money. that doesn’t fix anything,” he says. “Farmers need operating money every year. You need credit every year. We need access to credit. We’re clearly not getting it,” he recites like a mantra.
For Boyd himself, ever the aberration, the outlook seems a little less bleak.
His only son (he also has a daughter, Sydni, 14) John Wesley “Wes” Boyd III, 27, helped with the harvest last fall. He’s been splitting his time over the last year or so between Baskerville and Richmond, an hour and a half away, where he has 12 credits left to finish at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Before he was a year old, Wes’s mom took him and left the farm – largely because of financial frustrations, Boyd says.
“The guy’s never been in a tractor until last year. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying to throw his ass in there, because I was,” Boyd says about his son. “Whites males do just a little better getting their kids into the tractor. My kids never saw me do nothing but struggle to stay on my farm.”
Boyd’s years of advocating in Washington were a sacrifice.
Wes remembers it clearly. “When I was like 12, it was the first time my dad was like, ‘I’m actually not coming this weekend to get you. And then that became more regular for the next few years,” Wes says. “I was just really uninterested in going down there, not specifically to avoid farming, but just because I was mad at my dad.”
A year and a half ago, when the History Channel began filming a reality show about American families who farm, Boyd asked for his son to be featured. “That was the first time he was like, ‘I want you here,’” Wes says. “And that was when I really started … I mean, our bonding is very recent. Very recent.”
Wes moved into a trailer last year across the street from a smaller, 160-acre plot in Baskerville that Boyd owns. His double-cuffed slim jeans awkwardly rest on top of a borrowed pair of his dad’s cowboy boots. “I usually wear Vans,” he says.
Once he graduates, Wes wants to focus on farming, and plans to ask his dad for 10 acres of land and 10 cattle, try for an operating farm loan and then slowly pay his dad back.
Boyd has cautioned him about the discrimination he’ll face: “It’s like, ‘I’m going to teach you how to walk and talk and carry yourself and demand a certain level of respect, and so that when it does come, you can hold your ground,’” Wes says. Boyd needs him to get up to speed fast.
A 15-minute drive from the main property, past a cluster of one-room clapboard cabins falling in on themselves, is Hardage Farm. It used to be worked by slaves. Pools of water dammed off the Roanoke River basin form lakes that look like mirrors arranged carefully around its wild 886 acres. With the mineral-rich soil, yields should be high. Boyd has plans for tobacco, soybeans, recently legalized hemp and a hydroponics system.
The Boyds signed a purchase agreement for Hardage in October and finally closed the deal on Friday. It is the largest property a Boyd has ever owned.