A Look to the Past in Hope for the Future
by Amanda Lima, Archives Assistant
For the past 53 years, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund has dedicated their time and effort to serving disadvantaged Black farmers, land owners and cooperatives. It is no secret that since 1920 Black farmers have faced incredible pressures politically, socially and environmentally, forcing a decline of Black farmland ownership. In 1989 in “The Minority Farmer: A Disappearing American Resource,” a report issued by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Governmental Operations, it was feared that “minority operated farmers [were on] the verge of extinction.” A 1982 Civil Rights Commission report noted that “...unless government policy is changed, there will be virtually no black farm operators by the year 2000.” Black-owned land still exists in the year 2021, but the pressures to limit Black land ownership remain.
This issue has been incredibly prevalent with the rise of COVID-19; as with any natural disaster or period of economic decline, Black farmers have been disproportionately affected. In 2020, reports from FSC note that a COVID-19 assessment revealed 78% of Black farmers were seeking financial assistance to cover a loss of income, 65% experienced a lack of resources and 78% did not apply for financial assistance because they were unaware of the resources available to them. Cornelius Blanding, the current FSC executive director, notes that rural communities “suffer more because the impact of the blow of disasters and failed economies hurt twice as much; limited resources can’t support the help or assistance needed; and whatever support that is available takes twice as long to get there.” However, regardless of how the odds are stacked, FSC’s work makes a hopeful future attainable.
In 1992, Jerry Pennick, FSC’s then-director of the Land Assistance Fund, said, “The opportunity to acquire, retain and develop land is there. The question is, are we as people ready and willing to seize that opportunity.” The FSC 1992 annual report notes that the fight to protect Black land ownership has always fallen on the shoulders of Black people. Pennick’s article, “Black Land Loss,” in that same annual report, notes that history has proven that the pressures faced by Black landowners was never “a national issue worthy of presidential and congressional action.” As seen in FSC’s extensive collection, federal government funding to support Black farmers was entirely dependent on which presidential administration was in power. What was deemed a positive flow of support, seen in the Carter years, for example, could be ended almost instantaneously, as it did during the Reagan Administration.
Inconsistent federal support for Black land ownership has forced organizations like the FSC to learn tried-and-true methods to achieve their goals. When asked in 1992 what could be done, Pennick listed three main actions in order to save Black-owned land: “legally securing land, organizing at the grassroot level, and applying appropriate pressure, particularly with lending institutions, when necessary.” Pennick also noted the importance of consistent pressure to obtain national legislation. He stated that it is incredibly important to “keep Black America a part of America’s agricultural system” in order to permanently reverse the loss of Black land.
FSC continues to value these same methods to protect Black agricultural efforts. They are no stranger to disaster and, when facing the current COVID-19 epidemic, FSC has vowed to continue their work by obtaining resources and securing an equal distribution of COVID-19 funds for farmers at the individual level. The entire concept behind the creation of cooperatives is why FSC is such a strong organization. Sharing resources and support on a personal level has promoted the continuation of Black farms during tough times.
In order to promote long-lasting change, FSC has recently endorsed and aided the effort for the “Justice for Black Farmers Act,” a revolutionary piece of legislation that will address the discrimination experienced by Black farmers. FSC has also demanded reforms to the Department of Agriculture, whose history with Black farmers has always been a prejudiced one. In response to the bill, Cornelius Blanding said, “It is a long time coming and definitely a giant leap in the direction of justice, equity and recognizing the value of Black farmers to agriculture and our nation.” This legislation hopes to restore land lost by Black farmers, protect the remaining Black farmers from land loss, end discrimination within the USDA and provide resources and services to empower Black farming.
Regardless of this historic bill’s turnout, the Federation’s efforts continue. Their history is a turbulent one of incredible losses, but also remarkable gains. Throughout the decades, thousands of Black farms have been saved, and to this day they continue to receive love and strength from the cooperative effort.
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Humanities Collections and Reference Resources. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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