The Mississippi Delta’s History of Black Land Theft – The Atlantic

The Great Land Robbery

The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms

Zora J. MurffVANN R. NEWKIRK II


 A sign on a utility pole to deter hunters, near the old Scott-family homestead, Drew, Mississippi; Willena’s brother Isaac Daniel Scott Sr. amid soybeans in Mound Bayou.

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.

Willena Scott-White’s son Joseph White cutting grass at the edge of a field on Scott-family land, Mound Bayou, Mississippi (Zora J. Murff)
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.”

Members of the extended Scott family. From the right: Isaac Daniel Scott Sr. and his wife, Lucy Chatman-Scott; Willena Scott-White; and Willena’s son Joseph White, with his daughter, Jade Marie White. (Zora J. Murff)

III. The Great Dispossession

that era of black ownershipin 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.

More: The Mississippi Delta’s History of Black Land Theft – The Atlantic

White Americans clueless about actually living with racism | Miami Herald


BY LEONARD PITTS JR.

Living in America is exhausting for African Americans, who face racism and indignity every day. But too many whites are more angry about hearing about racism that they are about racism itself.

“I’m simply tired, tired and tired of hearing about race,” he wrote last month in an email. He signed himself a “former racist” and in a postscript, wanted me to know that he used to have “a black friend” with whom he ate breakfast on workdays.

Take Ed as an example of the pushback that comes when you grapple with America’s original sin, as happens not infrequently in this space. Invariably, some people — almost always white people — will declare themselves well and truly fed up with the topic. “Tired, tired and tired,” to borrow Ed’s words.

And Lord, where to begin?

In a nation of mass incarceration, job and housing discrimination and resurgent white nationalism, Ed and people like him think the real issue is how race makes them feel? It is hard to even imagine the level of cognitive myopia that allows them to suggest that while missing the glaringly obvious. To wit: If race is so fatiguing for a white man to hear about, what do you figure it must be like for a black man to live?

“Tired?” Give me a break, Ed.

The latest from Leonard Pitts, Jr.: The Last Thing You Surrender

In a career that now spans 43 years, Leonard Pitts, Jr. has worked as a columnist, a college professor, a radio producer and a lecturer. But those are just the job titles. If you ask him what he does – what he is – he’ll tell you now what he would have told you then.

He is a writer.

Millions of people are glad he is. They read him every week in one of the most popular newspaper columns in the country. Many more have come to know him through a series of critically-acclaimed books, including his latest, a novel of race, faith and World War II called The Last Thing You Surrender.

Source: White Americans clueless about actually living with racism | Miami Herald

How Racism Takes 7 Different Forms

Members of the Arkansas based white pride organization ‘White Revolution’ meet with locals to protest illegal immigration on May 21, 2005 in Danville, Arkansas. avid S. Holloway/Getty Images

“Racism exists when ideas and assumptions about racial categories are used to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy and racially structured society that unjustly limits access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of race.

Racism also occurs when this kind of unjust social structure is produced by the failure to account for race and its historical and contemporary roles in society.Contrary to a dictionary definition, racism, as defined based on social science research and theory, is about much more than race-based prejudice—it exists when an imbalance in power and social status is generated by how we understand and act upon race.”

Source: How Racism Takes 7 Different Forms

Fourth of July’s ugly truth exposed: The Declaration of Independence is sexist, racist, prejudiced | Salon.com

“It is painful to write about the shortcomings of the Declaration of Independence. The historic document was officially approved by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 — a mere two days after the Lee Resolution formally declared the American colonies to be independent of the British Empire. Because the American colonists ultimately prevailed in their revolution against King George III, the document has been immortalized as one of the opening salvos in the ongoing fight for human freedom that continues to this very day. Without this seminal text, every social justice movement that has followed would never have come to pass.Yet despite its overwhelmingly positive impact on history, the Declaration of Independence was also a product of its time — and bears some of the shortcomings of its era, including sexism, racism and prejudice against Native Americans. Here is a look at the events leading up to the creation of that document, as well as involved in its actual signing, which one must inspect for a more rounded look at this period in history: . . .”

Source: Fourth of July’s ugly truth exposed: The Declaration of Independence is sexist, racist, prejudiced | Salon.com

A Brief History of US Concentration Camps | Black Agenda Report

“The Union Army re-captured freed slaves throughout the South and pressed them into hard labor in disease-ridden ‘contraband camps.’’

concentration camp (noun): a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution.– Oxford English Dictionary

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has ignited a firestorm of criticism, from both the left and the right as well as the mainstream media, for calling US immigrant detention centers “concentration camps.” To her credit, Ocasio-Cortez has refused to back down, citing academic experts and blasting the Trump administration for forcibly holding undocumented migrants “where they are brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.” She also cited history. “The US ran concentration camps before, when we rounded up Japanese people during World War II,” she tweeted. “It is such a shameful history that we largely ignore it. These camps occur throughout history.” Indeed they do. What follows is an overview of US civilian concentration camps through the centuries. Prisoner-of-war camps, as horrific as they have been, have been excluded due to their legal status under the Geneva Conventions, and for brevity’s sake.”

Source: A Brief History of US Concentration Camps | Black Agenda Report

Slavery Reparations Could Cost Up to $14 Trillion, According to New Calculation

The Permanent Memorial to Honor the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in New York City, acknowledges a tragic chapter in the nation’s history. Some have argued that reparations for slavery would help heal long-festering racial strife. EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS

” In 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman promised slaves that they’d receive 40 acres and a mule. Land was even set aside, but the promise was recanted by President Andrew Johnson. Ever since, the issue of reparations has come up many times, often fiercely debated. Although most Americans generally don’t support reparations, according to University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer, it matters greatly how the question is worded, who would get reparations and in what form. For example, the idea of reparations paid in educational benefits are more popular than others, Craemer says.

On the other hand, one of the cases often made against reparations is that it’d be impractically difficult to calculate how to fairly take and give so many years after the fact. But in a new paper, published in the journal Social Science Quarterly, Craemer makes the case that there are other examples of historical reparations paid many decades later after “damages” were incurred. He also has come up with what he says is the most economically sound estimate to date of what reparations could cost: between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion.

Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves—men, women and children—worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865, when slavery was officially abolished. He multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year (more than making up for inflation). There is a range because the amount of time worked isn’t a hard figure.

Previous estimates of reparations have ranged from around $36 billion to $10 trillion (in 2009 dollars), Craemer says. Those calculations mostly looked at wealth created by slaves as opposed to services provided, resulting in underestimates. Craemer believes that “the economic assumptions underlying [his method] are more sound” than those used in previous papers.

The paper also illustrates several historical examples in which reparations were paid, many decades later, despite being initially unpopular—showing that repayment of age-old claims is not without precedent . . .

Reparations will never bring one life back, and it’s totally inadequate to the terror of the [past], but having a meaningful symbol of reparations is a good thing, not just for recipients but for the people who provide it,” he says.”

Source: Slavery Reparations Could Cost Up to $14 Trillion, According to New Calculation

Report: The Department Of Education Has Spent $1 Billion On Charter School Waste And Fraud

“In many cases, CSP awarded grants to schools that never even opened, or closed soon after opening. In 2015, Innovative Schools Development Corporation pulled in a three-year federal grant for $609,000 to open a STEM school. The school promised to enroll 250 students, but it wanted to open in a county that already had twenty charter schools, and enrollment never topped thirty students, nor did it secure the rest of its needed funding. Its charter was revoked before it even opened.”

Source: Report: The Department Of Education Has Spent $1 Billion On Charter School Waste And Fraud

%d bloggers like this: