Black farmers who were denied loans by federal agriculture officials are still waiting for money from a class-action discrimination settlement signed into law in 2010.
WASHINGTON – More than two years after President Obama signed a law compensating black farmers for decades of discrimination by federal agriculture officials, the farmers are still waiting for their money.
"It should not have taken this long,'' said Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association. "Justice delayed is justice denied.''
Farmers in Louisiana, Mississippi and other states say they've waited long enough.
"We have not received not one penny," said Mildred Jackson, 81,who owns a family farm in Evergreen, La. "They've been doing reviews since last year... I'm sure they have a lot of lawyers working on it. Why is it taking so long?''
Jackson is among an estimated 40,000 black farmers claiming money from the $1.2 billion settlement, which ended a landmark discrimination case against the federal Agriculture Department.
The case said the agency denied loans and other assistance to black farmers because of their race.
Most claims are from Mississippi and Alabama. Many others come from Louisiana and other Southern states. The deadline to file a claim was last May.
The claims are being reviewed by a court-approved mediation and arbitration firm. Lawyers hope the process will be finished by April.
"Everyone involved in the process is doing everything they reasonably can do to get the process completed at the earliest possible time,'' said Andrew Marks, one of three lead attorneys representing farmers. "I hope by no later than early summer the process will be completed and that successful claimants will receive their awards.''
Congress approved the $1.2 billion settlement in 2010 in what has become known as "the Pigford case."
The settlement marks the second round of payments for black farmers. Thousands received payments as part of a 1999 class-action settlement.
The second round will pay farmers who missed the first filing deadline. The maximum payment is $62,500, including $50,000 for the claim and $12,500 for taxes, Marks said. The amount depends in part on the number of successful claims.
Farmers originally were told payments would arrive by late 2012.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said his office gets daily calls from farmers asking when they will get their check.
"It's very frustrating,'' he said. "But I'm hopeful that the farmers do get the settlement and are able to put the funds to use and make a difference in their lives... They're not going to get their farms back, but if you can't pay your light bill it could make a difference on your bottom line. ''
Macie Donaldson Wiggins, 82, who once grew corn, cotton and soybeans on her family's farm in Prairie, Miss., said she filed for money from the 1999 class-action case but was told she was too late.
"It bothered me... (but) I just went on,'' she said.
Wiggins said she was excited to learn years later she could resubmit her claim. She wants to buy a hospital-style bed to help relieve breathing problems caused by her asthma.
"I've already got it planned out,'' said Wiggins, who now lives in Aberdeen. "I didn't think it was going to take this long.''
She recalled years of discrimination against black farmers by federal agriculture officials. Wiggins said her first husband, Eddie Donaldson, was denied loans in the 1990s and had to go to a community bank to borrow money. Meanwhile, she said, white neighbors received loans.
"There were a whole lot of colored people they did that way,'' she said.
Jackson, of Louisiana, said she wrote letters to the Agriculture Department in the 1970s complaining local officials weren't lending to black farmers in Avoyelles Parish. She said the situation improved after federal officials visited the parish and met with black farmers, but loan approvals were slow.
"By that time it was almost too late to get your land ready and planted,'' said Jackson, who grew soybeans and potatoes and raised cattle.
Louisiana state Rep. Roy Burrell, D-2nd District, which includes Shreveport, said he's concerned about the slow pace of the settlement process. Burrell (no relation to Thomas Burrell) said he introduced a bill in 2009 to set aside money for informational conferences on the process and other concerns, but the money wasn't approved.
"Louisiana has done nothing for its black farmers,'' said Burrell. "Everywhere you turn you're running into an institutional brick wall. So I can imagine what a black farmer with limited education is going through when he is trying to protect the assets and the legacy for his family — which is his farm.''
Burrell said farmers have raised concerns about losing their farms while waiting for settlement
payments. He said he has held teleconferences with key officials, including the state attorney general's office.
There is an "overall travesty that has taken place with black farmers throughout the nation,'' he said.
The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association has held informational meetings across the South, including Hattiesburg and West Point, Miss. A March 21 meeting is planned in Baton Rouge.
Thomas Burrell, the association's president, and other farmers complain attorneys will get a big chunk of the settlement, which allows 4.1% to 7.4% in attorney fees. The court has not determined that amount yet.
Meanwhile, Burrell said the slow process has put each black farmer at a disadvantage.
"The longer it takes to pay him — he loses his land, he loses his equipment,'' he said. "Then when you ultimately decide to pay him, he is behind the eight ball - again.''
Etta Jackson, a farmer in Prentis, Miss., says she hasn't received any updates about her claim. She was among the late filers in the first round, so she filed an application in the 2010 case.
"Sometimes, I don't believe I'm going to get anything,'' said Jackson, 58, who grows peas, beans, watermelons and peanuts. "God is good all the time, but Lord have mercy, how long is this going to take?''