Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

Black Farmers, Land Loss and the Racial Economic Gap


Wealth typically grows over time, compounding interest and assets, then transfers from generation to generation. Most Blacks in the United States have not had the opportunity to expand their family’s assets over time due to discrimination and racial inequities. Understanding the history of Blacks’ owning land is a key to appreciating how the racial economic gap has grown in America.    

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin interviews author Natalie Baszile who wrote an impressive anthology, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, detailing the historical and current problems surrounding the land loss of black farmers. Together Terry and Natalie discuss the historical implications from colonial times and how they impact the more recent declines of Black land ownership from government-supported programs such as the United States Department of Agriculture. 




ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  The racial inequality gap has been a recurring topic in this series since our first episode when we spoke with author and Detroit cultural affairs director Rochelle Riley. Today we are beginning the first of a two-part discussion on the role that intergenerational land loss plays in perpetuating and exacerbating the inequity between blacks and whites in America. In this episode, we’re going to introduce the issue, and in the next episode, we’ll be talking about ways that trust and estate practitioners are grappling with this problem.

Today I’m delighted to welcome a dear friend and inspiration, bestselling author Natalie Baszile, author of the novel Queen Sugar, which was adapted into the hugely successful television series of the same name on the Oprah Winfrey Network. And Natalie’s newest book, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, is a beautiful anthology, an exploration and celebration of black farming in America.

Natalie, your book includes several stories that really bring the emotional heart to the question of intergenerational wealth for African Americans, especially a connection with farming. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the history of African Americans and the American government with respect to property and land to set the table for the discussion.

Overview of African Americans History with Respect to Property and Land

Natalie Baszile:  Sure. Well, thank you for having me, Terry. When we really talk about this issue of black land ownership and intergenerational wealth, we really do have to take a step back, and we have to look at all of the policies and practices that are baked into the American experiment that have everything to do with why white people in this country have had access to land ownership, and black people have not. And we can trace this all the way back to as early as 1618, before the United States was even the United States.

And we can look at the Headright System, which was a system that was established in the colonies that guaranteed land ownership, the awarding of 100 acres to any white person coming from Europe over to the United States. They were automatically given land if they agreed to settle in the United States and begin to farm. You can cast forward to 1705 and the Virginia statute that required masters upon manumitting their indentured servants, their white indentured servants. They were required to give these people 50 acres of land, 30 shillings, 10 bushels of corn, and a musket.

So, this was a way of encouraging land ownership and really giving these formally indentured servants a safety net so that they could prosper. Black people, black indentured servants, and then black enslaved people were not given that kind of launching pad when they were free. You begin to cast forward through history. You look at FDR’s New Deal and all of the ways that black people were left out of that. You look at the Housing Act and all of the ways that black people were redlined and segregated into certain neighborhoods, and those were the only places that they could find homes where whites were allowed to buy property anywhere they wanted.

You look at what happened with the USDA and the fact that they are really – the USDA is an agency, a government agency, that was designed to help black farmers. And they have a long history of deploying discriminatory practices that have prevented black people from owning land, and being able to pass that land on to the next generation. And it has everything to do with why black people today are at such a dramatic turning point where we don’t have the land and the intergenerational to be able to pass on to the next generation.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  This is really incredible that even before the 1600s, before we were a country, that the American policies that were in place were depriving African Americans of land and property, at the same time investing that same kind of energy and freedom wages for whites which, if you follow interest and how it compounds, it really becomes much clearer how obvious it is why this inequality gap has occurred.

Natalie Baszile: That’s correct.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  Wow. I wonder if you could tell us a couple of stories, perhaps, about how some of these policies have had a direct impact on actual real people, some people that you might have referred to or identified or told the stories about in your book?

We Are Each Other’s Harvest

Natalie Baszile:  Sure. We Are Each Other’s Harvest really tells the story of African Americans’ connection to the land from emancipation to the present. And I focus on black farmers because in this country, agriculture and land ownership is really part of the American narrative. It’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are, how we move forward, how we operate as a society. And land ownership implies access to wealth. There’s a whole host of privileges that come along with land ownership.

And so, I wanted to tell the story of farming, black farmers, because it was a glaring example of how black people in this country who want to participate in the American experiment have really been barred from doing so. And so, we have to look at what happened to black people in this country from emancipation to 1920. By 1920, there were approximately 925,000 black farmers in this country.

This is in spite of all of the laws and the statues that I described earlier because black people upon emancipation, understood that land is power. This is a way to get ahead. This about food sovereignty. This is about being independent. This is about owning something that people cannot take away from you. And so, by 1920 there were about 925,000 black farmers in this country. In 2017, there were less than 45,000 black farmers.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  Wow.

Natalie Baszile:  So, in less than a generation, the number of black farmers had dwindled from approximately 14% where we owned 14 million acres of land in this country down to less than two percent.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  Wow.

Natalie Baszile:  Why is that? It has everything to do with discriminatory practices deployed by the USDA, the government agency that was established to help American farmers. So, when this agency was formed, the idea was that they would help American farmers with technology, and innovation, and information as well as being a source of loans so that farmers could get the crops, get the equipment and the seeds and everything they needed at the beginning of the harvest season.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  This timing’s really important for farmers, right?

U.S. Department of Agriculture and Black Farmers

Natalie Baszile:  Timing is everything. Timing is everything. But because these federal dollars, when they trickled down to local rural communities, those dollars were controlled by local USDA agents all across the South and the Midwest and the West. And these local agents really treated those federal funds like their own personal funds. And they were the people who were deciding who got access to this money, and who didn’t. And so, systematically, at the local level, these USDA agents who were often farmers themselves were, when the black farmers would come in to apply for their loans for the next harvest season, the next growing season, their applications were destroyed, literally torn up.

If they managed to get through the process and they weren’t denied, their applications weren’t flat-out denied, then their loans, the payment on the loans, was delayed. Well, as a farmer at the beginning of the season in January when you need to be buying your seeds and your fertilizer and all this kind of stuff, if you don’t get the money that you need until May or June or July, it is virtually impossible for you to then be able to continue with your farming and have a viable crop.

And this was happening to black farmers year after year after year, generation after generation after generation where they were falling farther and farther behind because if you don’t have the seeds, you can’t plant in time. If you can’t plant in time, you can’t harvest in time. If you can’t harvest in time, you don’t have the money to pay back the loan. And so black farmers, over generations, were falling farther and farther and farther behind.

And on top of this, these USDA agents who had forced these black farmers to oftentimes be overcollateralized where they didn’t just have to put up their farm as collateral but also their houses, all their personal assets, as they began to default on these loans by no fault of their own, then these USDA agents would come in and seize their farms, seize all of their assets. And so, when people talk about what is the biggest reason for black land loss in this country, it has everything to do with these discriminatory practices deployed by the USDA.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  Wow. And as you said, the local agents who probably had a conflict of interest because they were in competition with these farmers.

Natalie Baszile:  Absolutely, absolutely.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  It’s really disturbing. I wonder if there are any individual stories that you can tell us about, any of the people that you actually talked to, or that you’ve interviewed, or who shared stories with you and about how some of these policies on them and their ability to function and whether they have hope.

One Black Farming Family’s Story

Natalie Baszile:  Sure. So, one of the families I interviewed for We Are Each Other’s Harvest, they’re a wonderful family. They’re the Nelson family in Sondheimer, Louisiana. And they are fourth and fifth-generation farmers, black farmers. Mr. Nelson and his four adult sons farm in their community around Sondheimer, Louisiana, which is in the northern part of Louisiana. And when I spent the day with them, they told me this amazing story of all of the ways that they have persevered in the face of this discrimination that they have experienced.

And Adrian, the youngest son who went to the University of Louisiana at Monroe, got a business administration degree, he told me the story of going with his dad to the local USDA office because he’d applied for a loan. He’d done all the calculations. His application was correct. But again, it was being delayed. And so, he went to the USDA office, and this time he took his iPhone with him. And he put in on the counter and really asked the local agent to explain why exactly his loan was being delayed. And wouldn’t you know it, because there was this device that was recording the conversation, all of a sudden, they found the paperwork. They approved the loan.

And you think about this kind of thing happening to older black farmers who didn’t have technology that they could use to record these conversations and document this discrimination. And it was just one example of how really these black farmers have suffered generation after generation after generation, really with very little recourse. But the Nelsons, the brothers are dynamic. They are ambitious.

They have a real vision for farming, and farming is in their blood, they told me. And they were such an inspiration to me because even though they farm on land that they call dry land, they’re dry farmers, they don’t even have irrigated crops or irrigated fields, and yet they continue to persevere. And so, they’re an example of a family who just have an amazing story, and they are lovely young men and just a tight-knit family. And I was just so inspired by their story.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  It’s amazing that people continue to get up and keep doing what they have to do despite these obstacles that are facing them, even if it’s the federal government. Fortunately for us, we have things like cellphones that help to reveal some truths that didn’t exist before and books like yours that help to tell these stories and really to help us to confront these realities that we’re dealing with. So, I just want to thank you so much for taking the time out to share your story and to share your book with us. We Are Each Other’s Harvest is really, like I said, a lovely book.

And you’ve really helped us to get a sense of setting the table for the impact of how racist policies and practices and discrimination have caused harm and led to increased problems with the racial inequality gap in the United States. And at our next episode, we’ll be looking forward to talking to Genius Award fellow Professor Thomas Mitchell who’s been doing work on trying to create some laws and uniform laws and practices that can help us to undo this land loss. And ACTEC Fellow David Dietrich will also be here with us to talk about that. But I just want to thank you, Natalie, again. Thank you so much for taking the time and spending it with us and helping us to grow.

Natalie Baszile:  You’re welcome, Terry. It’s been a pleasure.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  Thank you so much.

Please visit ACTEC, for more information on this topic and some of the references they used in their research. And make sure you subscribe to ACTEC’s YouTube channel to be informed of new videos as they become available.

Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

ACTEC’s diversity, equity, and inclusivity video series analyzes issues surrounding racism, sexism, and discrimination in all its forms to combat inequality.