After facing centuries of racism that stripped a majority of them of their lands, a new bill could help Black farmers reclaim some of the acres once stolen from them.
The Justice for Black Farmers Act was introduced by U.S. senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand “to address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers, to require reforms within the Department of Agriculture to prevent future discrimination and for other purposes.”
If approved, the bill would provide land grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allow Black farmers to reclaim up to 160 acres each at no charge.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Black farmers owned an estimated 20 million acres of land, according to Mother Jones. In 1920, there were over 949,000 Black American farmers, according to ABC News.
Today, that number has plunged by 98 percent due to the acts of racism that forced entire Black communities from their lands, and systemic racism within the USDA itself — which failed to provide adequate financial assistance and loans to Black farmers during the Great Depression, causing them to lose much of their land.
Booker told Mother Jones the bill was an attempt to reverse “destructive forces that were unleashed upon Black farmers over the past century — one of the dark corners of shame in American history.”
In addition to the land grants, the bill would establish an Equitable Land Access Service in the USDA. Annually, $8 billion would be dedicated to purchasing land for new and existing Black farmers and providing grants at a the rate of 20,000 per year over nine years. The bill would also dedicate funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and nonprofits with agriculture programs and missions.
The ultimate goal would be to “help new Black farmers get up and running, provide farmer training and provide other assistance ,including support for development of farmer cooperatives.”
Black farmers and advocates acknowledged the bill would not be a cure-all for the long-standing discrimination they’ve faced, but said it would be a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction … but we need to create pipelines for African Americans to be educated on a 21st-Century farm,” 29-year-old North Carolina farmer Kamal Bell told ABC News. “The production aspect of how to stay in business isn’t taught to you. … We learned this on our own and from other Black farmers we ended up meeting.”
New York farmer and educator Leah Penniman celebrated the legislation and said the bill provided “an “opportunity to reverse and correct the millions of acres of land loss within the Black farming community and fortify the next generation of Black farmers with the foundation they need for successful careers in agriculture.”
“I never dared to imagine that such an elegant, fair, and courageous piece of legislation as the Justice for Black Farmers Act could be introduced,” Penniman continued.
For those who are skeptical, Booker cites instances in the past when white settlers were granted large acres of land, including the 1850 Donation Land Claim in Oregon and the Homestead Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.
Booker added that the bill provides an “equitable balancing of the scales after decades of systematic racism within the USDA that disadvantaged Black farmers, excluded them from loans and other programs, [and] prevented them from holding on to their land.”