Last spring, I drove 130 miles west of New Orleans to New Iberia, a small agricultural town located in the heart of Louisiana’s sugarcane country. The magnolias were just beginning to bloom in fragrant, white globes, and sugarcane fields stretched all the way to the flat, blue horizon. For decades, up to 5,000 of these acres were farmed by the Provost family, one of the region’s most successful black sugarcane farm families.
But today, fourth-generation farmer June Provost and his wife Angie are among the very last of Louisiana’s black sugarcane farmers — and they’re fighting desperately to retain their land and livelihood. (Months of interviews and research became a feature story I published last October in the Guardian.)
After June was driven out of business in 2015, and then Angie in 2017, the Provosts alleged discrimination and wrongdoing by local agricultural lenders, a local sugar mill, and county U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, and they’ve brought multiple lawsuits to prove they were treated differently than white farmers. June and Angie say the tactics used to force them from their land — including vandalism, intimidation, and contract and lending discrimination — have been widely deployed by various institutions to topple the entire black farming community.
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The agriculture industry is awash in such discrimination, with slavery as the original and most horrifying sin. In 1982, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights predicted that by 2000, there would be no remaining black farmers in the United States (today, fewer than 2 percent of U.S. farmers are black), and a 1997 USDA internal audit showed that loan applications for black farmers took three times longer than white farmers to be processed. The Pigford lawsuits of the 1990s and 2000s found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had consistently discriminated against black farmers during the loan process, and resulted in pay-outs (most of them $50,000) for thousands of victims.
As a country, we are long overdue to atone for the unpaid labor, trauma, and harm inflicted upon enslaved Africans — as well as for decades of Jim Crow policies, which widely placed black Americans and their descendants at a stark economic disadvantage. Today, the call for reparations is gaining momentum. Many key Democrats have expressed support for legislation sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), which would establish a commission to study the feasibility of reparations.
The first attempt at reparations came on the heels of the Civil War, when General Sherman ordered a sweeping redistribution of land across the U.S. South. Up to 400,000 acres of formerly Confederate-owned land was to be divided into 40-acre parcels and given to newly-freed slaves. But just months later, President Andrew Johnson overturned the order, and black families were evicted from their new acreage. “Forty acres and a mule” became one of many broken promises by the U.S. government to black America.
During slavery, the Louisiana sugar barons were among the most brutal perpetrators, using the bodies of enslaved black people to build and work their plantations. Such plantations produced the products that would prop up the early U.S. economy. Angie Provost’s ancestors were stolen from their home in Cameroon and forced onto slave ships bound for Louisiana sugar plantations.
Even after slavery was outlawed, many black workers were imprisoned as indentured servants under a legal system of debt peonage. Laborers worked off debt in the fields for free, but were kept perpetually in debt, forever bound to work without pay. Just as wealth, opportunity, and the institution of racism was passed to the children of white plantation owners, imprisonment by debt was often transferred to the next generation of black laborers.
In her book, Farming While Black, farmer and food sovereignty activist Leah Penniman wrote, “If African American people were paid $20 per week for our agricultural labor rather than enslaved, we would have $6.4 trillion in today’s dollars in the bank right now. This figure does not include reparations for denied credit and homeownership opportunities, exclusion from the social safety net and education, or property theft and destruction.”
But reparations aren’t only about the past. A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that “between 1983 and 2016, the median black family saw their wealth drop by more than half after adjusting for inflation, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median white household.” Today, reads the report, “the median black family today owns $3,600 — just 2 percent of the $147,000 of wealth the median white family owns.”
A similar disparity exists in land ownership. In the United States, white landowners own 98 percent of rural acreage (worth over $1 trillion), while black landowners own less than one percent (worth approximately $14 billion).
Last year, during an interview with Hank Sanders, one of the lead attorneys for the Pigford case, I asked him if he felt that the $50,000 pay-outs that black farmers received constituted justice. “I feel like we did the best we could do, but I don’t think that was justice,” he said. “When you take a farm away from people, you not only take away a way of earning a living, you also take away a lifestyle. Money can’t replace that.”
But, he said, it was a start. It was also proof of the widespread racism within the department, and the significant harm done to black farmers at the hands of the government.
“Pigford was meant to right the wrongs of discrimination, but most of the claimants awarded are out of business,” said Angie. This now includes June, who received a pay-out as a Pigford claimant, along with his father and brothers, leading Angie to believe that reparations should also include policy changes, “including extending legal limits for retaliation.”
“Those of us discriminated against — whether it’s racism or sexism — rarely speak up or fight back based on the fear of being eliminated or devalued further,” said Angie. “Taking away that fear is part of reparations.”