- Vann Newkirkstaff writer at The Atlantic magazine, where he covers politics and policy.
Over the 20th century, black people in the U.S. were dispossessed of 12 million acres of land. Half of that loss — 6 million acres — occurred over just two decades, from 1950 to 1969, a period largely associated with the civil rights struggle. This mass land dispossession, which affected 98% of black agricultural land owners, is part of the pattern of institutional racism and discrimination that has contributed to the racial wealth gap in the United States. Many of the driving forces behind this land theft were legal and originated in federal policies, as documented by Vann Newkirk, staff writer at The Atlantic. His latest piece for the magazine is the September cover story: “The Great Land Robbery: The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Over the 20th century, black people in the U.S. were dispossessed of 12 million acres of land. Half of that loss, 6 million acres, occurred over just two decades, from 1950 to 1969, a period largely associated with the civil rights struggle. This mass land dispossession, which affected 98% of black agricultural landowners, is part of the pattern of institutional racism and discrimination that’s contributed to the racial wealth gap in the United States. Many of the driving forces behind this land theft were legal and originated in federal policies.
In a new article on the history of this massive land theft, our next guest writes, “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.”
Vann Newkirk is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy. His new piece, The Atlantic’s September cover story, is headlined “The Great Land Robbery.”
Can you tell us what this robbery is, Vann?
VANN NEWKIRK II: Yes. So, the robbery refers to, over the course mostly of the 20th century, in the mid-20th century and beyond, federally funded and federally directed, in some cases, discriminatory effort against African-American farmers, that wound up, by several mechanisms, with those farmers losing, like you said, 6 million acres of land over just 19 years, from 1950 to 1969, and most of it concentrated around the civil rights movement, with a lot of that land being taken, a lot of those funds being denied purposefully, with the intent of keeping black folks from protesting for their civil rights.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain this period, this pivotal period, when millions of acres were taken from black Americans, 1950 to 1969.
VANN NEWKIRK II: Right. The federal government has — they installed a couple of programs during the Great Depression that basically created American agriculture as we know it today. They subsidized — heavily subsidized crop growing and controlled prices when commodity prices went too low. And they also promoted the creation of larger and larger and more and more consolidated farms.
Those efforts served to drive lots of small farmers, of all races, off their farms, but it actually manifested, in a kind of novel and even more dire way, in heavily black places in the United States. So, black folks didn’t have a whole lot of land, but they did have sizable holdings in places like Mississippi, which I wrote about. But what those federal reforms did is they gave the money to locally elected boards, and in places across the Deep South, black folks could not vote on those boards. So, basically, it gave the plantation owners, their children, their grandchildren, the people who had been on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War and their descendants — it gave them even more power to dispossess and disenfranchise black farmers. And they used that power pretty extensively, to the tune of almost the entirety of black farming collapsing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a video of Willena Scott-White, who is featured in your piece, Vann. The Scott family is one of the few families who were able to reclaim land that was possessed by the USDA. She talks here about what happened to her father’s land and what that land means to her family.
WILLENA SCOTT-WHITE: It grieves me that we were denied a history. And that’s how I see it. I’m going to try not to cry. It’s dear to me that my children know what my ancestors went through for us to be where we are and who we are, because I’m a firm believer that if we don’t know our history, then we repeat the mistakes over and over again. My dad’s land was taken. It was not foreclosed on by USDA. My dad went in and applied for money to irrigate his beans, because it was so hot. The county agent refused to give him a loan to water his crops. He said, “Y’all not supposed to be farming like this. Y’all farming like white folk.” So he cut everything in half that year. This is when they started not being able to get enough money to farm with.
AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] Atlantic studios. Vann, can you tell us the story of the Scott family, how their land was lost, how they came to regain it?
VANN NEWKIRK II: Willena’s grandfather, Ed Scott Sr., he came from Alabama and got over to Mississippi in the late 19th century. He became a titan in his corner of Mississippi, was just an incredibly gifted farmer, was in many ways more well respected than some local white farmers by the white establishment. And he was one of those farmers who was just talented and lucky enough to be able to purchase of plot of land, his first 100 acres, from a local guy, P.H. Brooks, a white landowner. And he became one of the early middle-size landowners, black landowners, in the region. He encouraged all of his children to get their own plots of land — they kept it all in common — and, over the course of his lifetime, built up, just through sheer talent and force of will, about a thousand acres of land. His son, Ed Scott Jr., took over in the middle of the 20th century. He fought in World War II, came back and also became an incredibly talented farmer and farm manager. He also added to those landholdings.
What both of them did that marked them as really unique is they managed to not really dabble in or seek out federal funds. They relied — they emphasized, heavily, self-sustainability and leaning on private funding to keep their farm afloat. But in the 1970s and ’80s, when we had the major farm crisis and inflation crisis, Ed Scott Jr. had to reach out for federal money. And like Willena said, when he started reaching out, he got a little bit the first year, but then you see the local power structures realize, this guy is maybe farming like white folks. The trucks he drives are a little too shiny.
And the real difficulty comes when he tries to get into catfish farming, which is heavily subsidized by the federal government. They only offer him the dollar amount that’s about half of the average comparable white farmer, who is, frankly, way less competent than Ed Scott Jr., in the region. He gets half the money they get. So, even starting out on that endeavor, the catfish endeavor, it’s doomed from the start. And so, they lose a lot of their land pretty quickly over the '80s and early ’90s. And Willena kind of shepherded him through the major black farmers' lawsuit, where they won a lot of it back, on a discrimination case against the USDA.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about how, ultimately, Wall Street got very interested in the land. You write, for example, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, TIAA, one of the largest pension firms in the country, as well as other corporate entities, that all owned tens of thousands of acres of land in Mississippi and surrounding states — how did these companies come to own this land? And what about the issue of reparations?
VANN NEWKIRK II: Farmland wasn’t originally considered a really valuable investment asset. Farmland is volatile. It’s difficult to predict from year to year what your yields are going to be, what your rents are going to be. It is an asset that has been considered really below sort of the sterling grade of investment classes. But after the Great Recession, when the dollar weakened, and with the future threats of both climate change and overpopulation really placing a premium both on land and on arable land for the production of food, that’s only going to increase in value, farmland became much more attractive to large investors, particularly pension funds. TIAA, which I write about in the piece, is kind of emblematic of the very sudden interest of pension funds in farmland across the United States. Right now pension funds in the Mississippi Delta own more land than black folks do there.
And how that connects to my story is, farmland — most of the farmland in the U.S. is owned already. So, where are investors going to look for land from? And it’s going to be where it’s coming up for auction, where it already is packaged into really large parcels. And that happens most often in the places where it’s been stolen from black folks or is being stolen from black folks. So, the Mississippi Delta is where some of the largest portfolios in the U.S. are.
Connecting to reparations, for one, you know, Wall Street is a major interest right now in farmland that was once owned by black folks. And we have to reckon with that. And we have to reckon with the fact that it was United States federal policy that allowed that. So, how do we reckon with the fact that now this lucrative asset class is making money for lots of people, lots of people across the country who have pension funds, maybe even outside the country, and it’s not making money for the African-American farmers and descendants of those farmers who lived there, who were enslaved there and who made the land — and who were basically tied to it and were discriminated against there? I think reparations has to be a part of that conversation. You have to start thinking about, if the federal government took this money away, they’ve got to find a way to invest it back into them. And if you think about this as a federal investment in white farmers, in Wall Street, eventually, why wouldn’t it be ethical, why wouldn’t it be necessary, for the federal government to invest in black farmers the same way?
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about something like 12 million acres of land. That’s about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Your final comment, Vann?
VANN NEWKIRK II: Yeah, 12 million acres, it is a staggering amount of land. And it amounts to something north of hundreds of billions to perhaps trillions of dollars’ worth of land, legacy, culture lost. That’s something —that’s titanic. And whatever policy comes next has to be just as titanic.
AMY GOODMAN: Vann Newkirk, we want to thank you so much for being with us, staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy. We will link to your latest piece, The Atlantic’s September cover story, “The Great Land Robbery: The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms.”