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Historical photographs courtesy of Library of Congress, American Memory. Pigford v. Glickman photograph courtesy of Concerned Citizens of Tillery, Remembering Tillery History Project.

African Americans have an extraordinary history with the land as their journey has involved enslavement, freedom, economic

exploitation through agricultural maneuvers, such as the sharecropping and tenant farming systems, as well as, economic and social independence through landownership. Despite the myriad of traumatic experiences associated with working on the land, African Americans have always revered the land as being essential to their economic, social and spiritual well-being. Through ingenuity, resourcefulness and self-determination, a desire for agricultural reclamation has also become a significant part of their experience with the land.

After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, over four million Africans were freed from American chattel enslavement with hopes of accessing land. Due to the agricultural economy of the time, they desired a homestead that would provide the opportunity to raise their families and be the foundation for economic indepedence. Notable efforts at the end of the Civil War to redistribute the land to newly freed Africans included General Sherman's Field Order No. 15, efforts by the Bureau for Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as the "Freedman's Bureau"), and the Southern Homestead Act. Yet, these isolated efforts were reversed and abandoned.

In spite of perennial neglect and hostility from the federal government and the southern states, by 1910 African Americans had acquired over 15 million acres of farmland and approximately 218,000 African American farmers cultivated the land. These efforts allowed for African American economic independence and laid the foundation for their sociopolitical advancement. However, over the last century, the impressive economic gains achieved during a span of fifty years have been substantially eroded. According to recent U.S. census data, African Americans own less than 2 million acres of farmland and comprise less than 1% of all U.S. farmers. The vast majority of this remarkable loss in wealth and land has occurred in the Black Belt South.

The Black Belt is a crescent-shaped region extending from southern Maryland to eastern Texas. Historically, known for its dark, fertile soil and reliance on a plantation economy based in agriculture, the Black Belt is also characterized by its high concentration of African Americans. Many residents are descendants of enslaved Africans who remain connected to their ancenstral lands either as farmers or heir property landowners. This community is part of an often forgotten legacy of significant agricultural contributions grounded in the traditions of ancient African agricultural systems. Moreover, this community includes the agricultural scientists who produced invaluable research and innovative techniques out of Tuskegee Institute and other 1890 Land Grant Colleges. Additionally, this region also has a custom of communal approaches to economic advances through agricultural pursuits such as farm cooperatives, dating back to the late 19th century to the mid-20th century cooperatives inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.

The alarming rate of African American land loss in the region has resulted from a confluence of factors, including institutional discrimination, structural dispossession processes and systems (i.e., foreclosures, partition sales, adverse possession, and tax sales), heir property conflicts, outright theft, encroachment of industrial agriculture, and lack of access to legal services. In conjunction with the economic devastation caused by the loss of land and livelihoods, many rural communities throughout the Black Belt region confront generational persistent poverty, poor educational systems and high unemployment.

Today, many challenges resulting from decades of inequity and injustice still exist for African American farmers and landowners, specifically in the Black Belt region. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), called the "people's department" by President Abraham Lincoln, has a long history of discriminatory practices against African American farmers. In 1983, the Reagan Administration closed the USDA Civil Rights Office, the primary division charged with investigating civil rights complaints, leaving thousands of discrimination complaints unattended and unanswered. In 1996, former Secretary of Agriculture, Daniel Glickman, ordered an internal audit and reopened the USDA Civil Rights Office. The internal audit was documented in the 1997 Civil Rights Action Report (CRAT), which stated that the lack of program and loan support and blatant internal discriminatory practices that targeted African Americans resulted in the loss of millions of acres of land owned by them. Moreover, the report highlighted the USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA), which is responsible for the operation, distribution and management of ownership loans as contributing heavily to African American farmer land loss through its discriminatory processes. The CRAT report concluded that due to a complicated application process, a discriminatory County Committee system, and a non-diverse staff, often untrained and hostile toward diversity initiatives, the USDA institutionalized persistent barriers that resulted in significant African American land loss. Sadly, the discriminatory culture and practices documented in the CRAT report have been raised in several commissioned civil rights reports dating back to 1964 and continue to the present. The accumulation of such pervasive discrimination laid the foundation for the filing of the historic Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman class action lawsuits filed by African American farmers against the USDA in August 1997.

The Black Belt Justice Center is committed to addressing the root causes and dismantling the structural mechanisms that continue to dispossess African American farmers and landowners of their wealth-creating asset - the land. The Black Belt Justice Center recognizes the valuable community assets within the Black Belt region - the traditional knowledge and expertise of the farmers that cultivate the land, the successful development of farmer cooperatives, and the infinite potential of thousands of underutilized acres of heir property. The driving force behind the work of the Black Belt Justice Center is the preservation and regeneration of African American ancestral lands and land-based livelihoods.

Copyright 2012 Black Belt Justice Center. All rights reserved.

Black Belt Justice Center is a 501(c)3 organization.

EIN/Tax ID # 45-4441783