[News] The Great Land Robbery - how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 14 13:17:03 EDT 2019


https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/this-land-was-our-land/594742/ 



  The Great Land Robbery

Vann R. Newkirk II - September 2019
------------------------------------------------------------------------


      I. Wiped Out

“You ever chop before?” Willena Scott-White was testing me. I sat with 
her in the cab of a Chevy Silverado pickup truck, swatting at the 
squadrons of giant, fluttering mosquitoes that had invaded the interior 
the last time she opened a window. I was spending the day with her 
family as they worked their fields just outside Ruleville, in 
Mississippi’s Leflore County. With her weathered brown hands, 
Scott-White gave me a pork sandwich wrapped in a grease-stained paper 
towel. I slapped my leg. Mosquitoes can bite through denim, it turns out.

Cotton sowed with planters must be chopped—thinned and weeded manually 
with hoes—to produce orderly rows of fluffy bolls. The work is 
backbreaking, and the people who do it maintain that no other job on 
Earth is quite as demanding. I had labored long hours over other crops, 
but had to admit to Scott-White, a 60-something grandmother who’d grown 
up chopping, that I’d never done it.

“Then you ain’t never worked,” she replied.

The fields alongside us as we drove were monotonous. With row crops, 
monotony is good. But as we toured 1,000 acres of land in Leflore and 
Bolivar Counties, straddling Route 61, Scott-White pointed out the 
demarcations between plots. A trio of steel silos here. A post there. A 
patch of scruffy wilderness in the distance. Each landmark was a 
reminder of the Scott legacy that she had fought to keep—or to 
regain—and she noted this with pride. Each one was also a reminder of an 
inheritance that had once been stolen.

Drive Route 61 through the Mississippi Delta and you’ll find much of the 
scenery exactly as it was 50 or 75 years ago. Imposing plantations and 
ramshackle shotgun houses still populate the countryside from Memphis to 
Vicksburg. Fields stretch to the horizon. The hands that dig into black 
Delta dirt belong to people like Willena Scott-White, African Americans 
who bear faces and names passed down from men and women who were owned 
here, who were kept here, and who chose to stay here, tending the same 
fields their forebears tended.

But some things have changed. Back in the day, snow-white bolls of King 
Cotton reigned. Now much of the land is green with soybeans. The farms 
and plantations are much larger—industrial operations with bioengineered 
plants, laser-guided tractors, and crop-dusting drones. Fewer and fewer 
farms are still owned by actual farmers. Investors in boardrooms 
throughout the country have bought hundreds of thousands of acres of 
premium Delta land. If you’re one of the millions of people who have a 
retirement account with the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, 
for instance, you might even own a little bit yourself.

TIAA is one of the largest pension firms in the United States. Together 
with its subsidiaries and associated funds, it has a portfolio of more 
than 80,000 acres in Mississippi alone, most of them in the Delta. If 
the fertile crescent of Arkansas is included, TIAA holds more than 
130,000 acres in a strip of counties along the Mississippi River. And 
TIAA is not the only big corporate landlord in the region. Hancock 
Agricultural Investment Group manages more than 65,000 acres in what it 
calls the “Delta states.” The real-estate trust Farmland Partners has 
30,000 acres in and around the Delta. AgriVest, a subsidiary of the 
Swiss bank UBS, owned 22,000 acres as of 2011. (AgriVest did not respond 
to a request for more recent information.)

Unlike their counterparts even two or three generations ago, black 
people living and working in the Delta today have been almost completely 
uprooted from the soil—as property owners, if not as laborers. In 
Washington County, Mississippi, where last February TIAA reportedly 
bought 50,000 acres for more than $200 million, black people make up 72 
percent of the population but own only 11 percent of the farmland, in 
part or in full. In Tunica County, where TIAA has acquired plantations 
from some of the oldest farm-owning white families in the state, black 
people make up 77 percent of the population but own only 6 percent of 
the farmland. In Holmes County, the third-blackest county in the nation, 
black people make up about 80 percent of the population but own only 19 
percent of the farmland. TIAA owns plantations there, too. In just a few 
years, a single company has accumulated a portfolio in the Delta almost 
equal to the remaining holdings of the African Americans who have lived 
on and shaped this land for centuries.

This is not a story about TIAA—at least not primarily. The company’s 
newfound dominance in the region is merely the topsoil covering a 
history of loss and legally sanctioned theft in which TIAA played no 
part. But TIAA’s position is instrumental in understanding both how the 
crimes of Jim Crow have been laundered by time and how the legacy of 
ill-gotten gains has become a structural part of American life. The land 
was wrested first from Native Americans, by force. It was then cleared, 
watered, and made productive for intensive agriculture by the labor of 
enslaved Africans, who after Emancipation would come to own a portion of 
it. Later, through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, 
in many cases legal /and/ coercive, occasionally violent—farmland owned 
by black people came into the hands of white people. It was aggregated 
into larger holdings, then aggregated again, eventually attracting the 
interest of Wall Street.

Owners of small farms everywhere, black and white alike, have long been 
buffeted by larger economic forces. But what happened to black 
landowners in the South, and particularly in the Delta, is distinct, and 
was propelled not only by economic change but also by white racism and 
local white power. A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 
percent of black agricultural landowners in America. They have lost 12 
million acres over the past century. But even that statement falsely 
consigns the losses to long-ago history. In fact, the losses mostly 
occurred within living memory, from the 1950s onward. Today, except for 
a handful of farmers like the Scotts who have been able to keep or get 
back some land, black people in this most productive corner of the Deep 
South own almost nothing of the bounty under their feet.


      II. “Land Hunger”

Land has always been the main battleground of racial conflict in 
Mississippi. During Reconstruction, fierce resistance from the planters 
who had dominated antebellum society effectively killed any promise of 
land or protection from the Freedmen’s Bureau, forcing masses of black 
laborers back into de facto bondage. But the sheer size of the black 
population—black people were a majority in Mississippi until the 
1930s—meant that thousands were able to secure tenuous footholds as 
landowners between Emancipation and the Great Depression.

Driven by what W. E. B. Du Bois called “land hunger” among freedmen 
during Reconstruction, two generations of black workers squirreled away 
money and went after every available and affordable plot they could, no 
matter how marginal or hopeless. Some found sympathetic white landowners 
who would sell to them. Some squatted on unused land or acquired the few 
homesteads available to black people. Some followed visionary leaders to 
all-black utopian agrarian experiments, such as Mound Bayou, in Bolivar 
County.

It was never much, and it was never close to just, but by the early 20th 
century, black people had something to hold on to. In 1900, according to 
the historian James C. Cobb, black landowners in Tunica County 
outnumbered white ones three to one. According to the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture, there were 25,000 black farm operators in 1910, an increase 
of almost 20 percent from 1900. Black farmland in Mississippi totaled 
2.2 million acres in 1910—some 14 percent of all black-owned 
agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state.

The foothold was never secure. From the beginning, even the most 
enterprising black landowners found themselves fighting a war of 
attrition, often fraught with legal obstacles that made passing title to 
future generations difficult. Bohlen Lucas, one of the few black 
Democratic politicians in the Delta during Reconstruction (most black 
politicians at the time were Republicans), was born enslaved and managed 
to buy a 200-acre farm from his former overseer. But, like many farmers, 
who often have to borrow against expected harvests to pay for equipment, 
supplies, and the rent or mortgage on their land, Lucas depended on 
credit extended by powerful lenders. In his case, credit depended 
specifically on white patronage, given in exchange for his help voting 
out the Reconstruction government—after which his patrons abandoned him. 
He was left with 20 acres.

In Humphreys County, Lewis Spearman avoided the pitfalls of white 
patronage by buying less valuable wooded tracts and grazing cattle there 
as he moved into cotton. But when cotton crashed in the 1880s, Spearman, 
over his head in debt, crashed with it.

Around the turn of the century, in Leflore County, a black farm 
organizer and proponent of self-sufficiency—referred to as a 
“notoriously bad Negro” in the local newspapers—led a black populist 
awakening, marching defiantly and by some accounts bringing boycotts 
against white merchants. White farmers responded with a posse that may 
have killed as many as 100 black farmers and sharecroppers along with 
women and children. The fate of the “bad Negro” in question, named 
Oliver Cromwell, is uncertain. Some sources say he escaped to Jackson, 
and into anonymity.

Like so many of his forebears, Ed Scott Sr., Willena Scott-White’s 
grandfather, acquired his land through not much more than force of will. 
As recorded in the thick binders of family history that Willena had 
brought along in the truck, and that we flipped through between 
stretches of work in the fields, his life had attained the gloss of 
folklore. He was born in 1886 in western Alabama, a generation removed 
from bondage. Spurred by that same land hunger, Scott took his young 
family to the Delta, seeking opportunities to farm his own property. He 
sharecropped and rented, and managed large farms for white planters, who 
valued his ability to run their sprawling estates. One of these men was 
Palmer H. Brooks, who owned a 7,000-acre plantation in Mississippi’s 
Leflore and Sunflower Counties. Brooks was uncommonly progressive, 
encouraging entrepreneurship among the black laborers on his plantation, 
building schools and churches for them, and providing loans. Scott was 
ready when Brooks decided to sell plots to black laborers, and he bought 
his first 100 acres.

Unlike Bohlen Lucas, Scott largely avoided politics. Unlike Lewis 
Spearman, he paid his debts and kept some close white allies—a 
necessity, since he usually rejected government assistance. And unlike 
Oliver Cromwell, he led his community under the rules already in place, 
appearing content with what he’d earned for his family in an environment 
of total segregation. He leveraged technical skills and a talent for 
management to impress sympathetic white people and disarm hostile ones. 
“Granddaddy always had nice vehicles,” Scott-White told me. They were a 
trapping of pride in a life of toil. As was true in most rural areas at 
the time, a new truck was not just a flashy sign of prosperity but also 
a sort of credit score. Wearing starched dress shirts served the same 
purpose, elevating Scott in certain respects—always within limits—even 
above some white farmers who drove into town in dirty overalls. The 
trucks got shinier as his holdings grew. By the time Scott died, in 
1957, he had amassed more than 1,000 acres of farmland.

Scott-White guided me right up to the Quiver River, where the legend of 
her family began. It was a choked, green-brown gurgle of a thing, the 
kind of lazy waterway that one imagines to be brimming with fat, yawning 
catfish and snakes. “Mr. Brooks sold all of the land on the east side of 
this river to black folks,” Scott-White told me. She swept her arm to 
encompass the endless acres. “All of these were once owned by black 
families.


      III. The Great Dispossession

That era of black ownership*, *in the Delta and throughout the country, 
was already fading by the time Scott died. As the historian Pete Daniel 
recounts, half a million black-owned farms across the country failed in 
the 25 years after 1950. Joe Brooks, the former president of the 
Emergency Land Fund, a group founded in 1972 to fight the problem of 
dispossession, has estimated that something on the order of 6 million 
acres was lost by black farmers from 1950 to 1969. That’s an average of 
820 acres a day—an area the size of New York’s Central Park erased with 
each sunset. Black-owned cotton farms in the South almost completely 
disappeared, diminishing from 87,000 to just over 3,000 in the 1960s 
alone. According to the Census of Agriculture, the racial disparity in 
farm acreage increased in Mississippi from 1950 to 1964, when black 
farmers lost almost 800,000 acres of land. An analysis for /The 
Atlantic/ by a research team that included Dania Francis, at the 
University of Massachusetts, and Darrick Hamilton, at Ohio State, 
translates this land loss into a financial loss—including both property 
and income—of $3.7 billion to $6.6 billion in today’s dollars.

This was a silent and devastating catastrophe, one created and 
maintained by federal policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal 
life raft for agriculture helped start the trend in 1937 with the 
establishment of the Farm Security Administration, an agency within the 
Department of Agriculture. Although the FSA ostensibly existed to help 
the country’s small farmers, as happened with much of the rest of the 
New Deal, white administrators often ignored or targeted poor black 
people—denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people. 
After Roosevelt’s death, in 1945, conservatives in Congress replaced the 
FSA with the Farmers Home Administration, or FmHA. The FmHA quickly 
transformed the FSA’s programs for small farmers, establishing the 
sinews of the loan-and-subsidy structure that undergirds American 
agriculture today. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s administration 
created the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, or 
ASCS, a complementary program to the FmHA that also provided loans to 
farmers. The ASCS was a federal effort—also within the Department of 
Agriculture—but, crucially, the members of committees doling out money 
and credit were elected locally, during a time when black people were 
prohibited from voting.

Through these programs, and through massive crop and surplus purchasing, 
the USDA became the safety net, price-setter, chief investor, and sole 
regulator for most of the farm economy in places like the Delta. The 
department could offer better loan terms to risky farmers than banks and 
other lenders, and mostly outcompeted private credit. In his book 
/Dispossession/, Daniel calls the setup “agrigovernment.” Land-grant 
universities pumped out both farm operators and the USDA agents who 
connected those operators to federal money. Large plantations ballooned 
into even larger industrial crop factories as small farms collapsed. The 
mega-farms held sway over agricultural policy, resulting in more money, 
at better interest rates, for the plantations themselves. At every level 
of agrigovernment, the leaders were white.

Major audits and investigations of the USDA have found that illegal 
pressures levied through its loan programs created massive transfers of 
wealth from black to white farmers, especially in the period just after 
the 1950s. In 1965, the United States Commission on Civil Rights 
uncovered blatant and dramatic racial differences in the level of 
federal investment in farmers. The commission found that in a sample of 
counties across the South, the FmHA provided much larger loans for small 
and medium-size white-owned farms, relative to net worth, than it did 
for similarly sized black-owned farms—evidence that racial 
discrimination “has served to accelerate the displacement and 
impoverishment of the Negro farmer.”

In Sunflower County, a man named Ted Keenan told investigators that in 
1956, local banks had denied him loans after a bad crop because of his 
position with the NAACP, where he openly advocated for voting rights. 
The FmHA had denied him loans as well. Keenan described how Eugene 
Fisackerly, the leader of the White Citizens’ Council in Sunflower 
County, together with representatives of Senator James Eastland, a 
notorious white supremacist who maintained a large plantation there, had 
intimidated him into renouncing his affiliation with the NAACP and 
agreeing not to vote. Only then did Eastland’s man call the local FmHA 
agent, prompting him to reconsider Keenan’s loan.

A landmark 2001 investigation by the Associated Press into extortion, 
exploitation, and theft directed against black farmers uncovered more 
than 100 cases like Keenan’s. In the 1950s and ’60s, Norman Weathersby, 
a Holmes County Chevrolet dealer who enjoyed a local monopoly on trucks 
and heavy farm equipment, required black farmers to put up land as 
collateral for loans on equipment. A close friend of his, William 
Strider, was the local FmHA agent. Black farmers in the area claimed 
that the two ran a racket: Strider would slow-walk them on FmHA loans, 
which meant they would then default on Weathersby’s loans and lose their 
land to him. Strider and Weathersby were reportedly free to run this 
racket because black farmers were shut out by local banks.

Analyzing the history of federal programs, the Emergency Land Fund 
emphasizes a key distinction. While most of the black land loss appears 
on its face to have been through /legal /mechanisms—“the tax sale; the 
partition sale; and the foreclosure”—it mainly stemmed from /illegal 
/pressures, including discrimination in federal and state programs, 
swindles by lawyers and speculators, unlawful denials of private loans, 
and even outright acts of violence or intimidation. Discriminatory loan 
servicing and loan denial by white-controlled FmHA and ASCS committees 
forced black farmers into foreclosure, after which their property could 
be purchased by wealthy landowners, almost all of whom were white. 
Discrimination by private lenders had the same result. Many black 
farmers who escaped foreclosure were defrauded by white tax assessors 
who set assessments too high, leading to unaffordable tax obligations. 
The inevitable result: tax sales, where, again, the land was purchased 
by wealthy white people. Black people’s lack of access to legal services 
complicated inheritances and put family claims to title in jeopardy. 
Lynchings, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation were 
sometimes used to dispossess black farmers, and even when land wasn’t a 
motivation for such actions, much of the violence left land without an 
owner.

In interviews with researchers from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of 
American History in 1985, Henry Woodard Sr., an African American who had 
bought land in the 1950s in Tunica County, said he had managed to keep 
up for years through a combination of his own industry, small loans from 
the FmHA and white banks, and the rental of additional land from other 
hard-pressed black landowners. Then, in 1966, the activist James 
Meredith—whose 1962 fight to integrate Ole Miss sparked deadly riots and 
a wave of white backlash—embarked on the famous March Against Fear 
<https://time.com/4356404/james-meredith-50th-anniversary-march-against-fear/>. 
The next planting season, Woodard recalled, his white lenders ignored 
him. “I sensed that it was because of this march,” he said. “And it was 
a lady told me—I was at the post office and she told me, she said, 
‘Henry, you Negroes, y’all want to live like white folks. Y’all don’t 
know how white folks live. But y’all are gonna have to be on your own 
now.’ ”

Woodard’s story would have been familiar to countless farmers in the 
Delta. In Holmes County, a crucible of the voting-rights movement, a 
black effort to integrate the local ASCS committees was so successful 
that it was subject to surveillance and sabotage by the Mississippi 
State Sovereignty Commission, an official agency created by Governor J. 
P. Coleman in 1956 to resist integration. Black landowners involved in 
running for the committees or organizing for votes faced fierce 
retaliation. In 1965, /The New Republic/ reported that in Issaquena 
County, just north of Vicksburg, the “insurance of Negroes active in the 
ASCS elections had been canceled, loans were denied to Negroes on all 
crops but cotton, and ballots were not mailed to Negro wives who were 
co-owners of land.” Even in the decades after the passage of the 1965 
Voting Rights Act, formal and informal complaints against the USDA 
poured out of the Delta.

These cases of dispossession can only be called theft. While the 
civil-rights era is remembered as a time of victories against 
disenfranchisement and segregation, many realities never changed. The 
engine of white wealth built on kleptocracy—which powered both Jim Crow 
and its slave-state precursor—continued to run. The black population in 
Mississippi declined by almost one-fifth from 1950 to 1970, as the white 
population increased by the exact same percentage. Farmers slipped away 
one by one into the night, appearing later as laborers in Chicago and 
Detroit. By the time black people truly gained the ballot in 
Mississippi, they were a clear minority, held in thrall to a white 
conservative supermajority.

Mass dispossession did not require a central organizing force or a grand 
conspiracy. Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled 
or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all 
pushed in a single direction. But some white people undeniably would 
have organized it this way if they could have. The civil-rights leader 
Bayard Rustin reported in 1956 that documents taken from the office of 
Robert Patterson, one of the founding fathers of the White Citizens’ 
Councils, proposed a “master plan” to force hundreds of thousands of 
black people from Mississippi in order to reduce their potential voting 
power. Patterson envisioned, in Rustin’s words, “the decline of the 
small independent farmer” and ample doses of “economic pressure.”

An upheaval of this scale and speed—the destruction of black farming, an 
occupation that had defined the African American experience—might in any 
other context be described as a revolution, or seen as a historical 
fulcrum. But it came and went with little remark.


      IV. The Catfish Boom

World War II**transformed America in many ways. It certainly transformed 
a generation of southern black men. That generation included Medgar 
Evers, a future civil-rights martyr, assassinated while leading the 
Mississippi NAACP; he served in a segregated transportation company in 
Europe during the war. It included Willena’s father, Ed Scott Jr., who 
also served in a segregated transportation company. These men were less 
patient, more defiant, and in many ways more reckless than their fathers 
and grandfathers had been. They chafed under a system that forced them 
to relearn how to bow and scrape, as if the war had never happened. In 
the younger Scott’s case, wartime service sharpened his inherited land 
hunger, pushing him to seek more land and greater financial 
independence, both for himself and for his community. One of his 
siblings told his biographer, Julian Rankin, that the family’s deepest 
conviction was that “a million years from now … this land will still be 
Scotts’ land.”

Upon his return to the Delta, Scott continued down his father’s hard 
path, avoiding any interface with the FmHA and the public portions of 
the agrigovernment system, which by that time had spread its tendrils 
throughout Sunflower and Leflore Counties. He leaned on the friendships 
he and his father had made with local business owners and farmers, and 
secured credit for growing his holdings from friendly white bankers. 
Influenced by the civil-rights movement and its emphasis on community 
solidarity and activism, Scott borrowed from Oliver Cromwell’s 
self-sufficiency playbook too. He used his status to provide 
opportunities for other black farmers and laborers. “Daddy said that 
everyone who worked for us would always be able to eat,” Willena 
Scott-White told me. He made sure of more than that. Scott sent 
relatives’ and tenants’ children to school, paid for books, helped 
people open bank accounts and buy their own land. When civil-rights 
activists made their way down for Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, in 1964, 
he packed up meals and brought them to rallies.

When Scott-White thinks of her father, who died in 2015, she seems to 
become a young girl again. With allowances for nostalgia, she recalls a 
certain kind of country poorness-but-not-poverty, whereby children ran 
barefoot and worked from the moment they could walk, but ate well, lived 
in houses with solid floors and tight roofs, and went to high school and 
college if they showed skill. “We lived in something like a utopia,” 
Scott-White told me. But things changed at the tail end of the 1970s. 
Plummeting commodity prices forced highly leveraged farmers to seek 
loans wherever they could find them. Combined with the accelerating 
inflation of that decade, the beginnings of the farm-credit crisis made 
farming at scale without federal assistance impossible. Yet federal 
help—even then, two decades after the Civil Rights Act—was not available 
for most black farmers. According to a 2005 article in /The Nation/, “In 
1984 and 1985, at the height of the farm crisis, the USDA lent a total 
of $1.3 billion to nearly 16,000 farmers to help them maintain their 
land. Only 209 of those farmers were black.”

As Rankin tells it in his biography, /Catfish Dream/, Scott made his 
first visit to an FmHA office in 1978. With the assistance of Vance 
Nimrod, a white man who worked with the black-owned Delta Foundation, a 
nonprofit promoting economic advancement for black Mississippians, Scott 
secured an operating loan for a season of soybeans and rice from the 
FmHA agent Delbert Edwards. The first time was easy—although, crucially, 
Nimrod accompanied him to the Leflore County office, in Greenwood. When 
Scott returned the next year without Nimrod, driving a shiny new truck 
the way his father used to, Edwards asked where Nimrod was. According to 
Rankin, Scott told the agent that Nimrod had only come to help secure 
that first loan; he wasn’t a business partner. When Edwards saw Scott’s 
vehicle, he seemed perplexed. “Who told you to buy a new truck?” he 
asked. Edwards ended up denying the requested loan amount.

At the same time, Edwards and the FmHA were moving to help local white 
farmers weather the storm, often by advising them to get into raising 
catfish. Commercial catfish farming was a relatively new industry, and 
it had found a home in the Delta as prices for row crops crashed and new 
legislation gave the USDA power and incentive to build up domestic fish 
farming. FmHA agents pushed white farmers to convert wide fields on the 
floodplain into giant catfish ponds, many of which would become 
contract-growing hubs for Delta Pride Catfish, a cooperative that 
quickly evolved into a local monopoly. The federal government poured 
millions of dollars into the catfish boom by way of FmHA loans, many of 
which were seized on by the largest white landowners, and kept those 
white landowners solvent. Mississippi became the catfish capital of the 
world in the 1970s. But the FmHA did not reach out to Scott, nor is 
there evidence that it supported the ambitions of any black farmers who 
might have wanted to get into catfish.

Scott decided to get into catfish anyway, digging eight ponds in fields 
where rice had grown the season before. He found his own catfish stocks 
and learned the ins and outs of the industry pretty much on his own. 
Scott finished digging his ponds in 1981, at which point, according to 
Rankin, Edwards of the FmHA visited the property and told him 
point-blank: “Don’t think I’m giving you any damn money for that dirt 
you’re moving.” The Mississippi FmHA would eventually compel Edwards to 
provide loans for Scott’s catfish operation for 1981 and 1982. But as 
court records show, the amount approved was far less than what white 
catfish farmers usually got—white farmers sometimes received double or 
triple the amount per acre that Scott did—and enough to stock only four 
of the eight ponds. (Edwards could not be reached for comment on any of 
the episodes recounted here.)

Scott’s Fresh Catfish opened in 1983. As a marker outside the old 
processing shed now indicates, it was the first catfish plant in the 
country owned by an African American. But discrimination doomed the 
enterprise before it really began. Without enough capital, Scott was 
never able to raise fish at the volume he needed. He claimed in court 
and later to Rankin that he had also been denied a chance to purchase 
stock in Delta Pride—a requirement to become a contract grower—because 
he was black. Without access to a cooperative, he had to do the 
processing and packaging himself, adding to the cost of his product. In 
2006, Delta Pride and Country Select Catfish were combined into a new 
business entity, Consolidated Catfish Producers. When reached for 
comment, a spokesperson for Consolidated Catfish said that no employee 
at the new company could “definitively answer” questions about Scott or 
alleged discrimination against him.

Scott was in his 60s by the time his plant got off the ground. The 
effort took a toll. He slowly went blind. Arthritis claimed his joints. 
His heart began to fail. The plant limped quietly through the ’80s and 
then shut down. Lenders began the process of foreclosing on some of 
Scott’s cropland as early as 1983. In 1995, the FmHA approved a request 
from Scott to lease most of his remaining acres. The USDA itself had 
claimed most of his land by the late 1980s.

The downfall of the Scott catfish enterprise was proof of the strength 
and endurance of what the federal government would later state could be 
seen as a federally funded “conspiracy to force minority and 
disadvantaged farmers off their land through discriminatory loan 
practices.” The Scotts were not small-timers. They had the kind of work 
ethic and country savvy that are usually respected around the Delta. 
When the powers that be finally prevailed over Ed Scott Jr., they had 
completed something decisive, something that even today feels as if it 
cannot be undone.


      V. Farmers in Suits

But land is never really lost, not in America. Twelve million acres of 
farmland in a country that has become a global breadbasket carries 
immense value, and the dispossessed land in the Delta is some of the 
most productive in America. The soil on the alluvial plain is rich. The 
region is warm and wet. Much of the land is perfect for industrialized 
agriculture.

Some white landowners, like Norman Weathersby, themselves the 
beneficiaries of government-funded dispossession, left land to their 
children. Some sold off to their peers, and others saw their land 
gobbled up by even larger white-owned farms. Nowadays, as fewer and 
fewer of the children of aging white landowners want to continue 
farming, more land has wound up in the hands of trusts and investors. 
Over the past 20 years, the real power brokers in the Delta are less 
likely to be good ol’ boys and more likely to be suited venture 
capitalists, hedge-fund managers, and agribusiness consultants who run 
farms with the cold precision of giant circuit boards.

One new addition to the mix is pension funds. Previously, farmland had 
never been a choice asset class for large-scale investing. In 1981, what 
was then called the General Accounting Office (now the Government 
Accountability Office) released a report exploring a proposal by a firm 
seeking pension-investment opportunities in farmland. The report 
essentially laughed off the prospect. The authors found that only about 
one dollar of every $4,429 in retirement funds was invested in farmland.

But commodity prices increased, and land values rose. In 2008, a 
weakened dollar forced major funds to broaden their search for hedges 
against inflation. “The market in agricultural land in the U.S. is 
currently experiencing a boom,” an industry analyst, Tom Vulcan, wrote 
that year. He took note of the recent entry of TIAA-CREF, which had 
“spent some $340 million on farmland across seven states.” TIAA, as the 
company is now called, would soon become the biggest pension-fund player 
in the agricultural real-estate game across the globe. In 2010, TIAA 
bought a controlling interest in Westchester Group, a major 
agricultural-asset manager. In 2014, it bought Nuveen, another large 
asset-management firm. In 2015, with Nuveen directing its overall 
investment strategy and Westchester and other smaller subsidiaries 
operating as purchasers and managers, TIAA raised $3 billion for a new 
global farmland-investment partnership. By the close of 2016, Nuveen’s 
management portfolio included nearly 2 million acres of farmland, worth 
close to $6 billion.

Investment in farmland has proved troublesome for TIAA in Mississippi 
and elsewhere. TIAA is a pension company originally set up for teachers 
and professors and people in the nonprofit world. It has cultivated a 
reputation for social responsibility: promoting environmental 
sustainability and respecting land rights, labor rights, and resource 
rights. TIAA has endorsed the United Nations–affiliated Principles for 
Responsible Investment, which include special provisions for investment 
in farmland, including specific guidelines with regard to 
sustainability, leasing practices, and establishing the provenance of 
tracts of land.

The company has faced pushback for its move into agriculture. In 2015, 
the international nonprofit Grain <https://www.grain.org/>, which 
advocates for local control of farmland by small farmers, released the 
results of an investigation accusing TIAA’s farmland-investment arm of 
skirting laws 
<https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5336-foreign-pension-funds-and-land-grabbing-in-brazil> 
limiting foreign land acquisition in its purchase of more than half a 
million acres in Brazil. The report found that TIAA had violated 
multiple UN guidelines in creating a joint venture with a Brazilian firm 
to invest in farmland without transparency. The Grain report alleges 
that when Brazil tightened laws designed to restrict foreign investment, 
TIAA purchased 49 percent of a Brazilian company that then acted as its 
proxy. According to /The New York Times/ 
<https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/world/americas/tiaa-cref-us-investment-giant-accused-of-land-grabs-in-brazil.html>, 
TIAA and its subsidiaries also appear to have acquired land titles from 
Euclides de Carli, a businessman often described in Brazil as a big-time 
/grileiro/—a member of a class of landlords and land grabbers who use a 
mix of legitimate means, fraud, and violence to force small farmers off 
their land. In response to criticism of TIAA’s Brazil portfolio, Jose 
Minaya, then the head of private-markets asset management at TIAA, told 
WNYC’s /The Takeaway/ 
<https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/tiaa-cref-accused-illegaly-investments-brazil>: 
“We believe and know that we are in compliance with the law, and we are 
transparent about what we do in Brazil. From a title perspective, our 
standards are very focused around not displacing individuals or 
indigenous people, respecting land rights as well as human rights … In 
every property that we have acquired, we don’t just do due diligence on 
that property. We do due diligence on the sellers, whether it’s an 
individual or whether it’s an entity.”

TIAA’s land dealings have faced scrutiny in the United States as well. 
In 2012, the National Family Farm Coalition found 
<https://www.nffc.net/Issues/Corporate%20Control/TIAA-CREF%20Backgrounder_2.3.13.pdf> 
that the entry into agriculture of deep-pocketed institutional 
investors—TIAA being an example—had made it pretty much impossible for 
smaller farmers to compete. Institutional investment has removed 
millions of acres from farmers’ hands, more or less permanently. 
“Pension funds not only have the power to outbid smaller, local farmers, 
they also have the long-term goal of retaining farmland for 
generations,” the report noted.

Asked about TIAA’s record, a spokesperson for Nuveen maintained that the 
company has built its Delta portfolio following ethical-investment 
guidelines 
<https://www.tiaa.org/public/pdf/how_we_invest_in_farmland.pdf>: “We 
have a long history of investing responsibly in farmland, in keeping 
with our corporate values and the UN-backed Principles for Responsible 
Investment (PRI). As a long-term owner, we bring capital, professional 
expertise, and sustainable farming practices to each farm we own, and we 
are always looking to partner with expansion-minded tenants who will 
embrace that approach and act as good stewards of the land.” The company 
did not comment on the history of any individual tract in its Delta 
portfolio.

But even assuming that every acre under management by big corporate 
interests in the Delta has been acquired by way of ethical-investment 
principles, the nature of the mid-century dispossession and its multiple 
layers of legitimation raise the question of whether responsible 
investment in farmland there is even possible. As a people and a class, 
black farmers were plainly targets, but the deed histories of tax sales 
and foreclosures don’t reveal whether individual debtors were moved off 
the land because of discrimination and its legal tools.

In addition, land records are spotty in rural areas, especially records 
from the 1950s and ’60s, and in some cases it’s unclear exactly which 
records the investors used to meet internal requirements. According to 
Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, a campaigner and organizer at ActionAid, an 
anti-poverty and food-justice nonprofit, “It’s been a struggle to get 
this information.” The organization has tried to follow the trails of 
deeds and has asked TIAA—which manages ActionAid’s own pension plan—for 
an analysis of the provenance of its Delta portfolio. Such an analysis 
has not been provided.

What we do know is that, whatever the specific lineage of each acre, 
Wall Street investors have found a lucrative new asset class whose 
origins lie in part in mass dispossession. We know that the vast 
majority of black farmland in the country is no longer in black hands, 
and that black farmers have suffered far more hardships than white 
farmers have. The historian Debra A. Reid points out that “between 1920 
and 1997, the number of African Americans who farmed decreased by 98 
percent, while white Americans who farmed declined by 66 percent.” 
Referring to the cases studied in their 2001 investigation, Dolores 
Barclay and Todd Lewan of the Associated Press observed that virtually 
all of the property lost by black farmers “is owned by whites or 
corporations.” The foundation of these portfolios was a system of 
plantations whose owners created the agrigovernment system and absorbed 
thousands of small black-owned farms into ever larger white-owned farms. 
America has its own /grileiros/, and they stand on land that was once 
someone else’s.


      VI. A Deeper Excavation

As we drove through the patchwork remnants of the Scotts’ land, Willena 
Scott-White took me to the site of Scott’s Fresh Catfish. Gleaming steel 
silos had turned into rusting hulks. The ponds were thick with weeds and 
debris. The exterior walls of the plant itself had collapsed. Rusted 
beams lay atop ruined machinery. Fire ants and kudzu had begun nature’s 
reclamation.

Late in Ed Scott Jr.’s life, as he slipped into Alzheimer’s, Willena and 
his lawyer, Phil Fraas, fought to keep his original hopes alive. In the 
/Pigford v. Glickman/ lawsuit of 1997, thousands of black farmers and 
their families won settlements against the USDA for discrimination that 
had occurred between 1981 and the end of 1996; the outlays ultimately 
reached a total of $2 billion. The Scotts were one of those families, 
and after a long battle to prove their case—with the assistance of 
Scott-White’s meticulous notes and family history—in 2012 the family was 
awarded more than $6 million in economic damages, plus almost $400,000 
in other damages and debt forgiveness. The court also helped the Scotts 
reclaim land possessed by the department. In a 1999 ruling, Judge Paul 
L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia 
acknowledged that forcing the federal government to compensate black 
farmers would “not undo all that has been done” in centuries of 
government-sponsored racism. But for the Scotts, it was a start.

“The telling factor, looking at it from the long view, is that at the 
time of World War I there were 1 million black farmers, and in 1992 
there were 18,000,” Fraas told me. The settlements stemming from 
/Pigford/ cover only specific recent claims of discrimination, and none 
stretching back to the period of the civil-rights era, when the great 
bulk of black-owned farms disappeared. Most people have not pushed for 
any kind of deeper excavation.

Any such excavation would quickly make plain the consequences of what 
occurred. During my drive with Scott-White, we traveled through parts of 
Leflore, Sunflower, and Washington Counties, three of the counties 
singled out by Opportunity Insights, a Harvard University research 
group, as among the worst in the country in terms of a child’s prospects 
for upward mobility. Ten counties in the Delta are among the poorest 50 
in America. According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control 
and Prevention on all 74,000 U.S. census tracts, four tracts in the 
Delta are among the lowest 100 when it comes to average life expectancy. 
More than 30 tracts in the Delta have an average life expectancy below 
70. (The national average is 79.) In some Delta counties, the infant 
mortality rate is more than double the nationwide rate. As if to add 
gratuitous insult to injury, a new analysis from ProPublica finds that, 
as a result of the Internal Revenue Service’s intense scrutiny of 
low-income taxpayers, the Delta is audited by the IRS more heavily than 
any other place in the country 
<https://projects.propublica.org/graphics/eitc-audit>. In sum, the areas 
of deepest poverty and under the darkest shadow of death are the ones 
where dispossession was the most far-reaching.

The consequences of dispossession had long been predicted. Fannie Lou 
Hamer, a Sunflower County activist whose 1964 speech to a Democratic 
National Convention committee 
<http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/flhamer.html> 
galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, spoke often of the need 
for land reform as a precondition for true freedom. Hamer’s utopian 
Freedom Farm experiment stressed cooperative landownership, and she said 
the concentration of land in the hands of a few landowners was “at the 
base of our struggle for survival.” In her analysis, mass dispossession 
should be seen as mass extraction. Even as the U.S. government invested 
billions in white farmers, it continued to extract wealth from black 
farmers in the Delta. Each black farmer who left the region, from 
Reconstruction onward, represented a tiny withdrawal from one side of a 
cosmic balance sheet and a deposit on the other side. This dynamic would 
only continue, in other ways and other places, as the Great Migration 
brought black families to northern cities.

This cosmic balance sheet underpins the national conversation—ever more 
robust—about reparations for black Americans. In that conversation, 
given momentum in part by the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The 
Case for Reparations” 
<https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/> 
in this magazine in 2014, I hear echoes of Mississippi. I hear echoes of 
Hamer, the Scotts, Henry Woodard Sr., and others who petitioned the 
federal government to hold itself accountable for a history of 
extraction that has extended well beyond enslavement. But that 
conversation too easily becomes technical. How do we quantify 
discrimination? How do we define who was discriminated against? How do 
we repay those people according to what has been defined and quantified? 
The idea of reparations sometimes seems like a problem of economic 
rightsizing—something for the quants and wonks to work out.

Economics is, of course, a major consideration. According to the 
researchers Francis and Hamilton, “The dispossession of black 
agricultural land resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of 
dollars of black wealth. We must emphasize this estimate is conservative 
… Depending on multiplier effects, rates of returns, and other factors, 
it could reach into the trillions.” The large wealth gap between white 
and black families today exists in part because of this historic loss.

But money does not define every dimension of land theft. Were it not for 
dispossession, Mississippi today might well be a majority-black state, 
with a radically different political destiny. Imagine the difference in 
our national politics if the center of gravity of black electoral 
strength had remained in the South after the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Politics aside, how can reparations truly address the lives ruined, the 
family histories lost, the connection to the land severed? In America, 
land has always had a significance that exceeds its economic value. For 
a people who were once chattel themselves, real property has carried an 
almost mystical import. There’s a reason the fabled promise that spread 
among freedmen after the Civil War was not a check, a job, or a 
refundable tax credit, but 40 acres of farmland to call home. The 
history of the Delta suggests that any conversation about reparations 
might need to be /more /qualitative and intangible than it is. And it 
must consider the land.

Land hunger is ineffable, an indescribable yearning, and yet it is 
something that Americans, perhaps uniquely, feel and understand. That 
yearning tugged at me hardest as Willena Scott-White rounded out her 
tour of the fields, the afternoon slipping away. Out among the Scotts’ 
fields is a clearing with a lone, tall tree. In the clearing is a small 
cemetery. A handful of crooked, weathered tombstones stand sentinel. 
This is where Ed Scott Jr. is buried, and where some of Willena’s older 
siblings now rest. Willena posed for a picture beside her parents’ 
grave. She told me that this is where her own bones will rest after her 
work on Earth is done.

“This is/our/ land,” she said.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

/This article appears in the September 2019 print edition with the 
headline “This Land Was Our Land.”/

-- 
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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