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Hearing on Black farmers puts Vilsack’s past and future on view

USDA's record of discrimination under scrutiny

Scott, the first African American to lead House Agriculture, will examine the state of Black farmers.
Scott, the first African American to lead House Agriculture, will examine the state of Black farmers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a Black former Agriculture Department official he once forced out of her job will testify Thursday on the department’s treatment of Black farmers.

The House Agriculture Committee hearing with Vilsack and Shirley Miller Sherrod, who oversaw the USDA’s rural development programs in Georgia until her resignation in 2010, is in a virtual format so they won’t be in the same room. Vilsack was the Agriculture secretary when the incident occurred during the Obama administration. He forced Sherrod to leave and then tried to rehire her after a review of a misleading video found no reason for her ouster. 

Vilsack and Sherrod’s testimony will highlight the department’s role in erecting barriers for Black and minority farmers’ access to programs and its potential role in addressing the cumulative effects of discrimination.

Vilsack and Sherrod met virtually on Dec. 22, 2020, when she was among several representatives of Black farm groups who spoke with him. Sherrod didn’t oppose his confirmation for another stint as Agriculture secretary, and was quoted in a news report as saying she hoped he would focus on Black farmers if confirmed. 

The December meeting came amid a backlash from some groups to his nomination to head the USDA. Black advocacy and farm organizations cited Vilsack’s role in Sherrod’s ouster in 2010 because a heavily edited video falsely implied she had discriminated against a white farmer in an incident that took place before she joined the department.

Vilsack’s critics said his treatment of Sherrod was evidence that he was not the person to lead President Joe Biden’s push for equity.

Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., called the Thursday hearing to examine the state of Black farmers, who make up less than 2 percent of all U.S. producers after decades of land loss and financial challenges. The committee cites USDA’s 1974 Census of Agriculture that showed a 60 percent decline of all farmers from 1900 to 1974 but a 90 percent reduction in the numbers of Black farmers.

Scott, the first African American to lead the committee, backed provisions in the March relief law (PL 117-2) for $4 billion in debt relief for Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and $1 billion to expand the network of institutions to provide technical assistance and access to credit. The hearing will focus on systemic discrimination in private and government institutions, including the Agriculture Department.

In addition to Vilsack and Sherrod, the committee will hear from Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; Phillip Haynie III, chairman of the National Black Growers Council; John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association; Sedrick Rowe, owner and operator of Rowe Organic Farms in Georgia; and Arnetta Cotton, co-owner and program facilitator of the Kingdom Community Development Services in Oklahoma. 

Sherrod is now the executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education Inc. and a well-known advocate for minority farmers in the state. She and her husband, Charles, were among the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, that resulted in a $1 billion settlement with USDA in 1999. Farmers sued the department and accused officials in county offices of denying African American farmers timely loans, debt restructuring and other services from 1981 to 1997 in a pattern of racial discrimination.

New Communities Inc., a trust and farm collective of about a dozen Black farmers that included the Sherrods, won a $12 million award in a second phase of Pigford for additional claimants. A federal judge found that the USDA had denied New Communities emergency USDA loans after a severe drought that the department had made to similarly situated white farmers. Without the loans, New Communities sold off most of its land and lost the remainder to foreclosure. The trust, modeled on the Israeli kibbutz system, was considered a landmark effort at economic independence for Black farmers.

In 2009, Sherrod joined the Agriculture Department when the Obama administration appointed her to the rural development post. In July 2010, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a misleadingly edited video of remarks Sherrod had made earlier in the year at an NAACP event about setting aside her initial misgivings and helping a white farmer and his family. Sherrod, whose father was fatally shot by a white farmer in a dispute over livestock, used the story to illustrate lessons she had learned.

After a media uproar followed the video’s release, the NAACP condemned her alleged remarks and USDA officials called for her to resign. Sherrod did so on July 19, 2010, although she said she had warned the department and provided an explanation several days before the video was released. A review of unedited video vindicated Sherrod.

Vilsack publicly apologized. Sherrod rejected an offer from the Obama administration of a new job at USDA headquarters to do internal anti-discrimination training and outreach.

She sued Breitbart and a co-defendant in 2011 for defamation, placing her in a false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case was settled on undisclosed terms in 2015.

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