Righting the Wrongs

Bobby Wilson | 03.08.2021

The following is an op-ed by Food First’s Vice President, Bobby Wilson.

In 2020, African Americans affirmed the power of our collective voice by voting in the last election like we never voted before. As a result of the black vote, “the hands that once picked the cotton” were the hands that picked the President (Run, Jesse, Run! 1984). Today, Black farmers have renewed hope that our government is engaging in a concerted effort to right its decades of wrongs.

We are hoping that the $5 billion Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, as part of the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief stimulus package, will benefit the thousands of black farmers who have lost land, and subsequently, their ability to make a living for their families. Decades of abuse against African American farmers have led to families being divided, heads of households’ credit ratings being destroyed, and many more travesties that negatively impacted families of color for hundreds of years.

As we wrestle with the challenges that were created by years of inequitable policies and procedures, and now by a global pandemic, we find ourselves caught between the past and the future. In recent weeks, I have had the privilege to share in an exchange of ideas with newly elected Senator Rafael Warnock’s staff about the proposed use of these five billion dollars for black farmers. I have also spent time with Congressman David Scott, who serves as chair of the agriculture subcommittee, discussing the possibilities of how the government can make retribution to black farmers for their losses by righting the wrongs.

Of tremendous
concern to me is how can we be intentional about looking ahead without minimizing the reality and relevance of the pain and suffering that led us to the “why” of where we are today. How committed is the government to righting the wrongs and being equitable in its distribution of resources so that we can begin to prepare the next generation of African American farmers in this country in ways that are sustainable?

Without question, I feel very strongly that the wrongs should be made right. I am reminded of an 84year-old farmer and his family from whom the government took more than 950 acres. I am also reminded of the fact that when Pickford 1 and Pickford 2 went into motion, the government, in a retaliatory move, began to garnish farmers’ checks because of the lawsuit.

America’s long history of wrongs that have been perpetrated upon African American farmers and other people of color in this country continues to plague this country.

Two major examples are the smallpox epidemic in 1837 where it was asserted that the United States Army deliberately infected Mandan Indians by distributing blankets that had been exposed to smallpox, and the Tuskegee Airmen experiment in 1932. In the Tuskegee Airmen experiment, 600 African American male participants, primarily sharecroppers, many who had never visited a doctor, were recruited with the promise of free medical care in Macon County, Alabama and were enrolled in an experiment, which aimed to study the full progression of syphilis. These African American men were lied to and told that they were being treated for bad blood. This almost resembles the promise of the 40 acres and a mule.

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Despite years of suffering injustices, all while there was a deliberate intent to maintain white supremacy, African Americans have maintained a loyalty to this country and continue to serve “our” government despite the lack of truth, trust, and transparency. The Tuskegee Airmen continued to fly hundreds of successful missions which included more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.

Enough cannot be said about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his sacrificial commitment to shine the light on America’s system of deliberate social injustice and to fight for social justice using non-violence as a mantra and a model.

Today, there are certain dubious “leaders” and “elected officials” who, on January 6, 2021, actively participated in the overthrow of the government and who are now sitting at the table as part of the judge and jury for those actions that they and others like them perpetrated. Their lies and their rhetoric are tantamount to a modern-day injection of smallpox or syphilis in our society.

Today, there are certain dubious “leaders” and “elected officials” who, on January 6, 2021, actively participated in the overthrow of the government and who are now sitting at the table as part of the judge and jury for those actions that they and others like them perpetrated. Their lies and their rhetoric are tantamount to a modern-day injection of smallpox or syphilis in our society.

Emerging from this out-of-the-box thinking is the idea that federal land can be repurposed into an agriculture training centers or ag-cities. New and beginning farmers would be able to receive agricultural training in whatever area of agriculture they choose. Once they have completed their training, they would be given a plot of land or given the finances to locate a plot of land in some part of the USA where they could reestablish themselves as farmers. Not only would America be making retribution for the wrongs, but the USDA would be creating a new generation of farmers and co-creating self-sustaining communities that are now empowered with the skills and resources to grow not only their own food, but food for the nation.

By moving forward with a creative and innovative move of this kind, we can incorporate a 21st Century learning design for agriculture that will teach farmers to adjust their techniques to deal with complex problems that might arise from global warming, develop resiliency for future challenges, co-create innovations in agriculture, create jobs, build self-esteem within the African American community, restore faith in the government, and establish a new trajectory for creating legacies of generational wealth rather than generational poverty.

There is no doubt in my mind that hundreds, if not thousands, of African American farmers have lost all hope of ever being a part of America’s agricultural legacy. Countless others have lost their livelihoods because of injustices that have been perpetrated against them by those who have power and privilege and who have made a conscious effort to take advantage of the African American farmer by taking their land.

For an 84-year-old black farmer who lost more than 900 acres of land to the government, it is difficult to factor the actual cost to right this lifetime and years of wrongs. Not only was it extremely devastating to him to lose his land, but it has been equally devastating for the generations that followed in his family. I am not surprised that children and grandchildren of African American farmers do not want to pursue farming as their livelihood. Primarily, this is the result of what they have seen first-hand and what it has done to their ancestors. They do not understand role of organizations like the Federation of Southern Coops, Rainbow P.U.S.H, and Food First who have been working diligently to level the economic playing field by restoring fields of agricultural dreams to African Americans.

There was a time when our ancestors discouraged us from becoming farmers because of their own frustrations with a system that had been allowed for decades to step on our dreams. The fact that we were not treated the same as those with power and privilege is still a reality today. As the author of this article, I do not mind sharing with you that it took me more than two years to close on a USDA farm loan. It takes those with power and privilege on an average, 30-60 days, to get the same loan. Had I not had the means and determination to go the distance of more than twenty-four months, I would not be able to tell this story and bring credibility from my own lived experience.

With Representative David Scott chairing the Ag Sub-Committee, Senators Warnock and Booker making plans to fight not only for what has happened in the past, but what should happen in the future, I believe that that African American farmers finally are getting closer to the room where “a seat at the table” has been reserved. With Secretary Tom Vilsack serving a second

administration as Secretary of Agriculture, he now has a better understanding of what actions and decisions fall within his purview. Since being confirmed, he has created an urban agriculture sub-committee. With urban agriculture now being recognized for its increasing importance with respect to our food systems, there are many urban farmers like myself whose voices should be included in these discussions. It is my hope that this committee will represent the diverse perspectives of those who will be impacted by its decisions. To help ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion, inviting African American farmers to have a seat at the table and to be part of co-creating a futuristic view of what agriculture will look like as we move forward is a step in the right direction.

I feel very strongly that Secretary Vilsack will continue to fight to right the wrongs. He returns with bold, new ideas and a vision for the future. One of those ideas is an urban agriculture subcommittee that will play an important role in the totality of our food system. Under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, we anticipate the government will acknowledge years of inequity and that the decisions that come from through him and this committee will ensure that equity, diversity, and inclusion are at the forefront of every decision that is made on behalf of minority farmers. Covid-19 has turned out to have somewhat of a “double-edged sword” effect. Indeed, it has brought to light many of the unjust polices that historically resulted in the abuse and misuse of the African American farmer. On the other hand, the pandemic has placed demands on our leaders to address these inequities, to be intentional about righting the wrongs, restoring opportunities for those who have a desire to be part of the expanding agriculture movement of the future.

It would serve us all well to expect some exciting news and developments to be announced that will promote a 21st Century agricultural learning design and benefit African American farmers.

Cover photo by USDA.