How Black Americans Were Robbed of Their Land

My dad’s land was taken, and that’s how I see it. Over the course of the entire 20th century, we know that black farmers have lost about 12 million acres of land total. We are just being forced out. They’re trying to force us out. These cases of dispossession can only be called theft. Okay, just about ready. Mound Bayou is a historic all-black town. Formed many years ago in the 1800s by two former slaves. We don’t have the overt racism that we used to have against people out in the public. Now we deal with it with employment, economics, banks. We still deal with it and until we overcome all of that The Delta will forever struggle, is my belief. Now I’ma help them get this polypipe loaded, so they can start putting the polypipe down. I’ve been doing this all of my life. As a kid, we went to the field until it was dark. Either cotton chopping or cotton picking. The Mississippi Delta is this area between these rivers in the northwest of Mississippi that has some of the most fertile land in the United States, in the continent really. If you go out there, you will see rows and rows of cotton, of soybeans, every single type of crop you can imagine. But in the early 20th century almost all the land was owned by white folks. It was homesteaded out by the federal government or was otherwise inaccessible to black folks. My grandpapa, Ed Scott Sr., started purchasing land back in 1938. They came from Hale County, Alabama and they moved to Mississippi in 1919 before my dad was born. My grandmama hated it here, but in Alabama, black people could only sharecrop, no one would sell them land. Very few could get that historic 40 acres and a mule. Ed Scott Sr. was almost supernaturally gifted at farming. He knows exactly how to rotate the crops, how to plant things in a way that gets the highest yield And that gave him his own economic gravity that local white businessmen could not ignore. Eventually a plantation owner decides to sell Ed Scott Sr. a plot of land. When he passed in 1957, the family had acquired acres and acres of land. Ed Scott’s son, Ed Scott Jr, takes over the farm. He is part of the generation of men that goes off to war during World War II. And when this generation of black men comes back, their white peers are granted so many free things from the GI bill. They get free education. Lots of them get free homes. They get things they can pass onto their children. But the black men among that number are denied many of those opportunities. My dad went to World War II and when he came back, his dad wanted him to go and finish school. But farming was in his blood My dad was the smartest one of his siblings and the hardest worker of his siblings. Every now and then he would say ” God ain’t going to make no more land, so you better hold what you got.” When Ed Scott Jr. takes over the farm, he’s operating it through one of the most turbulent times in American history. Freedom! In 1953, the first bus boycotts. 1954, Brown v. Board. 1955, Emmett Till is lynched. When he owned his land, he actually had 57 families who lived on his land and worked with him. And it was like a community. Whatever we needed was on our farm. We would put up peaches, we would put up peas and butter beans. And everybody got their share to carry them across the winter. It was like a utopia. Modern farming requires debt in order to grow your crops and in order to collect a harvest. Over the last hundred years, the federal government has become more and more of a player in providing the credit to those farmers. Much of the administration of this federal money was done by locally elected committees. And what do we know about voting in the south at that time? We know black people could not vote. The people who ended up controlling all that were the great grandchildren of the plantation owners, and why would they ever give a black farmer money to start his own farm? And so, between 1950 and 1969, black farmers lose something on the order of 6 million acres of land across the country. But the Scotts were able to hold on to most of their land until the farm crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Rising fuel costs, increasing cost of production, new taxes: these changes will have a significant impact on the well-being of family farmers. Federal legislators are slashing farm programs to pay for the deficit. As farming in America collapses in the 70s and 80s, there’s a lifeline in the Mississippi Delta: Catfish. The federal government, they pour a whole bunch of federal money into taking these poor white farmers who are struggling, and getting them into catfish. The people who are left out of that are the black farmers. Ed Scott Jr sees what’s happening. He sees catfish as a way out. He converts most of his farms into eight giant catfish ponds with no help from the federal government. He digs them himself. He builds the very first catfish plant owned and operated by an African American in the United States. And it becomes this inspirational story across the south of a black person who has literally beat all the odds to create something new. My dad loved clothes and he loved to dress. Even on a daily basis he wore what we call khaki suits which would have been a khaki shirt with matching pants. And they had to be starched and ironed. He always had a nice new car but he kept it closed up in a shed so no one would know he had it. He did not commingle. Meaning, what white people would call “staying in your place.” Wasn’t no blacks supposed to have a car. There’s gonna come a time when they think you’re uppity. And that’s exactly what happened to the Scotts. It wasn’t just because we were black, it’s because we were doing so well. We were doing so well. Blacks were never successful at getting enough money to farm with from USDA. So when they went in to get the money for the crop, they gave them half of what they need. Which was the way of keeping blacks from being successful. Because if you’re going to grow beans and you say, “I need this much for fertilizer, I need this much for crop protection, I need this much for seeds and I need this much for watering,” and you only get half of that, there’s no way for you to produce a good crop. It’s documented. They did not offer him the same loan terms. They regularly offered him much smaller loans than they did white farmers in the area. The county agent, he refused to give him a loan. So he could not feed his fish, could not water his crops. They foreclosed on his land. At its peak, the Scotts’ farm spanned across 1000 acres. Now it was down to just 300. Who want it? Black Farmers! When? Now! In 1997, thousands of black farmers sued the USDA for discrimination. What’s known as the black farmer’s lawsuit is actually called Pigford v. Glickman. One of the largest class action lawsuits filed on behalf of black farmers against the USDA and the federal government. There is a wide disparity in the way the department of agriculture treats black farmers versus white farmers. Because of the practice, the discriminatory practices of USDA, I was put out of business. My family was destroyed, and basically they just destroyed my life. The Scotts become one of the marquee families in this lawsuit. OK, this is just where we were working on the lawsuit and I had to go back and show where my daddy had taken out promissory notes with USDA as the backer. I tried to keep everything I could. Now the government, the US Department of Agriculture in this case, admits they discriminated against black farmers, unfairly denying them federal loans, for instance. I’m very pleased after the judge approved the settlement so that we could begin to process these cases and black farmers could begin to receive long overdue settlements. The federal government paid out just north
of $2 billion and upwards of 70,000 successful claims were made by black farmers in the south. The Scotts received one of the largest settlements out of this lawsuit because, unlike lots of people, they had the documents to show exactly the ways in which the federal government discriminated against them. Most farmers were lucky to get $20,000. I’ll give you an exact figure later but
it was a little over 7 million dollars. He was blind but we made sure that he signed the documents to buy his land back. And he presented the check to the same man who was instrumental in taking this land. He was still in office. It took the Scott family nearly 30 years, the space of a generation, to buy their land back. Land Hunger, as W.E.B. Dubois describes it, is this almost mystical drive to seek and to own something in this United States among people who were once property themselves. If you look at the Scotts, you look at what the land meant to them. It wasn’t just money. It was destiny, it was something to hold onto. It was a purpose and something that held their family together through generations. It grieves me that we were denied a history and that’s how I see it. And I’m going to try not to cry. It’s dear to me that my children know what my ancestors went through for us to be where we are and who we are. And for my dad, having the land and keeping the land, that was his dream. That was the heritage. The land was a heritage.


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