By Meagan Harkins
School of Journalism and New Media Student
It took 29 years of fighting, but the Scott family is once again working their farm in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. They, along with thousands of others across the nation, were forced to leave their land due to discriminatory practices that affected mostly African Americans and Native Americans for decades. Now, an amendment recently passed through Congress that goes into effect in 2020 will help right some of these wrongs.
The Scott family’s fields are currently muddy and lifeless now that the leaves are off the trees and winter has set in, but come spring the farm will once again sprout soybeans and rice plants.
“Growing up and owning your own farm, you really don’t think about it, but it becomes a part of you,” said Willena Scott-White, regarding her family’s land.
According to some estimates, during the 21st century, African Americans lost 90% of the 14 million acres owned by former slaves and their families in the 20th century. Much of this can be attributed to their difficulties in getting the financing they need to retain their land.
For example, White said her father, Ed Scott, went to the Farm Service Agency (FSA) for two consecutive years to apply for operating funds and both times he was accompanied by his white male consultant.
“They thought (the consultant) was the farmer and my dad was working for him,” she said. With the consultant by his side, her father received the required funds.
The third year, however, the consultant did not go with Scott. The agent asked where the farm owner was.
“That was when they cut the money in half,” White said.
At that point, things went from bad to worse. The FSA reported to Scott’s insurance company that he “wasn’t going to be able to pay his note and that they could go on and foreclose his land.” The foreclosure process of their 1,300 acres began in January 1983, four months before the note’s due date in April of that year.
Nearly three decades later, the courts decided that the Scotts had been discriminated against. Key to the case were records of loan approvals and other program benefits given to similar white-owned farms, but not to the Scotts.
“It hurts emotionally but my mom and dad never taught racism, they never taught hatred,” White said.
For Others, the Battle Goes On
Families currently fighting with similar land ownership disputes are finding new hope in the 2018 Farm Bill’s Amendment 1067. It is designed to put millions of dollars in the hands of landowners seeking to regain their multi-generational farmland in 2020. According to court documents, the bill gives the United States Department of Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, the authority to create a relending program “to resolve ownership and succession of farmland.”
At the Southern Rural Development Center (SRDC), which works to strengthen rural development in the Southeast, Russ Garner serves as a research associate.
“The $5 million will be in the form of loans to cooperatives, credit unions and nonprofits, then what they’ll do is turn around and assist landowners,” Garner said of the funds appropriated through the bill.
The 2019 amendment was proposed by U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and it passed the Senate 91-1 in October.
According to SRDC Director and Mississippi State University agricultural economics professor Steve Turner, the money will help families like the Scotts and those who are in land ownership disputes revolving around “heirs’ property.” Such property is not legally transferred through a proper will and continues to be subdivided among descendants with the creation of each generation.
“If land is heirs’ property, it’s neutralized,” Turner said. “It cannot be used to its fullest.” The reason is that heir owners do not have land titles that are required to access loans and other governmental and private resources.
“Heir property owners do not own any particular part of a parcel but instead own a fractional interest in the undivided whole,” Garner said.
“If you can’t access USDA farm programs, that’s a real barrier for that family and for that group of people,” Turner said. “That’s partly why it was addressed in the latest farm bill.” He said that new sections of the bill will help owners of heirs’ property gain legal access to USDA programs for agriculture and rural development.
Both Turner and Garner said the impact is concentrated heavily in the rural southeastern U.S., particularly among African Americans and Native Americans. Studies have found heirs’ property to be highly correlated with poverty.
“They might not think about a will and people usually go to an attorney, and that costs money, too,” Turner said of landowners.
Turner also said that the bill won’t rectify things quickly. “It’s a slow process,” he said. The Scott family knows that waiting for justice can take its toll.
“I don’t have a hatred, but I have a hurt feeling that it happened to me and it happened to so many others,” White said. “It’s a hurt feeling because so many farmers didn’t have anybody to help them, they didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Also to aid cases like the Scott’s farm, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) helps preserve family real estate despite the overused power of partitioning through forced sales and its effects on the most vulnerable. It has been enacted in 14 states and introduced in 12 states.
The latest Farm Bill encourages state legislatures to pass UPHPA, as there is preferential consideration for the bill’s loans in states with it enacted, Garner said.
Turner encourages families to create wills as early as possible.
“The problem is it gets compounded throughout generations,” he said.
Luckily for farmers, some attorneys now specialize in areas like heirs’ property and discriminatory property claims.
“This issue is becoming much more visible, which is a good thing,” Turner said. “It’s not just in rural areas, it’s not just in agriculture.”