Black Experience

Berlin 1884: Remembering the conference that divided Africa

135 years ago today, European leaders sat around a horseshoe-shaped table to set the rules for Africa’s colonisation.

By Patrick Gathara

The African continent was irrevocably shaped by the Berlin Conference of 1884. Photo Credit: BBC

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 15, 1884, an international conference was opened by the chancellor of the newly-created German Empire at his official residence on Wilhelmstrasse, in Berlin. Sat around a horseshoe-shaped table in a room overlooking the garden with representatives from every European country, apart from Switzerland, as well as those from the United States and the Ottoman Empire. The only clue as to the purpose of the November gathering of white men was hung on the wall – a large map of Africa “drooping down like a question mark” as Nigerian historian, Professor Godfrey Uzoigwe, would comment.

Including a short break for Christmas and the New Year, the West African Conference of Berlin would last 104 days, ending on February 26, 1885. In the 135 years since, the conference has come to represent the late 19th-century European Scramble and Partition of the continent. In the popular imagination, the delegates are hunched over a map, armed with rulers and pencils, sketching out national borders on the continent with no idea of what existed on the ground they were parcelling out. Yet this is mistaken. The Berlin Conference did not begin the scramble. That was well under way. Neither did it partition the continent. Only one state, the short-lived horror that was the Congo Free State, came out of it – though strictly speaking it was not actually a creation of the conference.

It did something much worse, though, with consequences that would reverberate across the years and be felt until today. It established the rules for the conquest and partition of Africa, in the process legitimising the ideas of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world not for Africans and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans.

From the very start, the conference laid out the order of priorities. “The Powers are in the presence of three interests: That of the commercial and industrial nations, which a common necessity compels to the research of new outlets. That of the States and of the Powers summoned to exercise over the regions of the Congo an authority which will have burdens corresponding to their rights. And, lastly, that which some generous voices have already commended to your solicitude – the interests of the native populations.” It also resolutely refused to consider the question of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of laying claim to someone else’s land and resources.

Uzoigwe notes that: “Bismarck … stated in his opening remarks that delegates had not been assembled to discuss matters of sovereignty either of African states or of the European powers in Africa.” It was no accident that there were no Africans at the table – their opinions were not considered necessary. The efforts of the Sultan of Zanzibar to get himself invited to the party were summarily laughed off by the British.

American journalist Daniel De Leon described the conference as “an event unique in the history of political science … Diplomatic in form, it was economic in fact.” And it is true that while it was dressed up as a humanitarian summit to look at the welfare of locals, its agenda was almost purely economic. Few on the continent or in the African diaspora were fooled. A week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that “the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.” Six years later, another editor of a Lagos newspaper comparing the legacy conference to the slave trade said: “A forcible possession of our land has taken the place of a forcible possession of our person.” Theodore Holly, the first black Protestant Episcopal Bishop in the US, condemned the delegates as having “come together to enact into law, national rapine, robbery and murder”.

The outcome of the conference was the General Act signed and ratified by all but one of the 14 nations at the table, the US being the sole exception. Some of its main features were the establishment of a regime of free trade stretching across the middle of Africa, the development of which became the rationale for the recognition of the Congo Free State and its subsequent 13-year horror, the abolition of the overland slave trade as well as the principle of “effective occupation”.

Though the attempt to create a free trade area in Africa and therefore keep the continent from becoming both a spark for, and a theatre of conflict between the European powers, was ultimately doomed. The principle of “effective occupation” was to become the catalyst for military conquest of the African continent with far-reaching consequences for its inhabitants.

At the time of the conference, 80 percent of Africa remained under traditional and local control. The Europeans only had influence on the coast. Following it, they started grabbing chunks of land inland, ultimately creating a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that was superimposed over indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. However, to get their claims over African land accepted, European states had to demonstrate that they could actually administer the area.

Often, military victory proved to be the easy part. To govern, they found they had to contend with a confusing milieu of fluid identities and cultures and languages. The Europeans thus set about reorganising Africans into units they could understand and control. As Professor Terence Ranger noted, the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after it, African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”

That first-ever international conference on Africa established a template for how the world deals with the continent. Today, Africa is still seen primarily as a source for raw materials for the outside world and an arena for them to compete over. Conferences about the continent are rarely held on the continent itself and rarely care about the views of ordinary Africans.

The sight of African heads of state assembling in foreign capitals to beg for favours is a re-enactment of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s pleading to attend a conference where he would be the main course.

Despite achieving independence for the most part in the 1950s and 1960s, many African countries have continued along the destructive path laid out in Berlin. Former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere declared: “We have artificial ‘nations’ carved out at the Berlin Conference in 1884, and today we are struggling to build these nations into stable units of human society… we are in danger of becoming the most Balkanised continent of the world.” Ethnicity and tribalism continue to be the bane of African politics. “The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one,” wrote Jan Nijman, Peter Muller and Harm de Blij in their book, Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. “The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa… the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.”

Now, 135 years after Berlin, it is perhaps time for introspection. While it is impossible to turn back the clock, Africans would do well to reflect on what has happened since. Teaching the real history of the subjugation of the continent would help counter the myths of “ancient hatreds” that are said to fuel the conflicts on the continent. And Africans could decide to get together on the continent to debate and decide on the relationship they want with the rest of the world rather than always having that dictated to them from abroad.

Patrick Gathara is a communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.

READ MORE AT:https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/berlin-1884-remembering-conference-divided-africa-191115110808625.html

This Little Known Fact About Black Giving Might Be Surprising

Maryann Reid

Tracey Webb
Black Benefactors Giving Circle w/Tracey Webb (bottom right)William Perrigen

Blacks give 25% more of their income annually than white households, according to a report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

Though research is limited in this area, it also states “nearly two-thirds of African-American households donated to organizations and causes, totaling $11 billion each year”. In other words, blacks are one the largest group of givers in the country. Financial contributions from the black community have been well-noted and consistent for generations, with “tithing” being an intricate part of black giving and the values of community and mutuality embedded in African traditional values carried over by slaves.  

After losing her job, Tracey Webb, founder of Black Benefactors, based in Washington D.C., started the giving circle organization in 2007 to create a collective “black giving” experience. Webb shares how black philanthropists can have influence on the causes they care about and how to do it.

Maryann Reid: What is a giving circle and is it different from being a philanthropist?

Tracey Webb: A giving circle is a group of individuals that pool their monies for charitable causes and decide together where to give it away. Studies have shown that giving circle members are more likely to volunteer, give more, and give more strategically. The root meaning of the word philanthropy literally means, love of mankind. It doesn’t mean wealth or a large donation. Giving circle members are philanthropists

Reid: What from your personal experience made you start Black Benefactors? 

Webb: My journey began when I lost my job as a nonprofit director. I couldn’t raise the funding needed to keep the organization open. I made a vow to myself that I would help other black nonprofit founders and leaders, but at the time, I didn’t know how. The concept of giving circles was introduced to me a few years earlier, so I began to research them in my spare time. Upon learning, more about how they worked, I realized it would be the perfect way to accomplish my goal of funding black led nonprofits. I came up with the name Black Benefactors to clearly show who the funding is for, and who makes the funding possible. Our giving circle members are the benefactors, which is a person who gives money to a cause. I’ve had members tell me that they didn’t see themselves as benefactors or philanthropists before, but now they do. 

Reid: What’s the first step someone should take if they want to become a philanthropist?

Webb: Since 2014, BB has hosted dinner series events featuring black philanthropists who share their giving story. A common theme among all speakers on their approach to philanthropy can be used as a first step–they identified a focus area for their giving. Usually it was influenced by their interests, or a cause they were personally affected by. One of our past speakers, Reggie Van Lee, is an art collector who established a scholarship for performing arts students at Howard University. He combined his love for the arts and philanthropy. 

Reid: What is a project that your giving circle participated in and that you’re excited about?

Webb: We launched a capacity building project this year to help strengthen black led nonprofits in the D.C. area. Through partnerships with local funders and a consulting firm, our grantee partners and grant applicants can receive in-kind support to strengthen their infrastructure. Our first workshop was held in partnership with the D.C. office of “Blacks at Bain” of Bain & Company, a global consultancy firm, on board development, and a second workshop was held with the Beckner Advancement Fund, a social justice funder based in D.C. 

Reid: Tell me about the very first grant you awarded. What was that like?

Webb: Our first grants totaling $9,000 were awarded in 2009. It was very moving for me because behind that first grant was years of planning, research, recruiting, meetings and fundraising. To be able to award a grant that was from us, for us was the best feeling in the world. I continue to experience that feeling with each grant cycle. Our grantees have shared with us that receiving a grant from black donors is impactful and for some, the first time. I’m proud to say that with each grant cycle, we’ve increased our total grant awards.  

Reid: Why is now an important time for blacks to give?

Webb: Now is an important time to support a giving circle like ours because there are initiatives to increase funding and resources to black led businesses, but what about black-led nonprofits? Only 3% of national foundation funding is allocated to these organizations, which are often underfunded, if funded at all, and under-resourced. Because of this reason, we aim to fill this critical gap in resources by funding black-led nonprofits at the highest level possible each grant cycle instead of awarding several small grants. 

Reid: How can someone start giving if they only have $500? Is that enough?

Webb: Absolutely. In fact, two of our past grants were in the amount of $500 for the purchase of wish list items. To get started, if there’s a giving circle in your community, consider donating to one or more of their grantees. Giving circles are more likely to support small organizations and $500 can go a long way. Or, leverage your $500 with others by joining or donating to a giving circle for a larger gift. I’d also like to add that you can start giving at any amount. 

Reid: What is in the future for Black Benefactors?

Webb: We are undergoing a restructuring process to better serve our members, grantee partners and the community. During this time, we’re accepting donations to support our grant making. Looking into my Black Benefactors crystal ball, I see new members, larger grant awards and a youth component in our future. 

Reid: How can someone support black philanthropy now?

Webb: Learn more about the history and impact of black giving circles by reading “The Sweetness of Circles” here, an op-ed that I co-authored with Akira Barclay and Valaida Fullwood, and start planning now to celebrate Black Philanthropy Month in August 2020 by visiting www.blackphilanthropymonth.com.  Most importantly, share how you give black year-round with #BPM365

“Time for an Awakening” with Bro.Elliott, 11-3-19 Special Guest: Dr. Jeff Menzise Clinical Psychology, Spiritual Life Coach

“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 11/03/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guest was Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Spiritual Life Coach, Dr. Jeff Menzise. “The African Origin Of Freemasonry” was among the topics discussed with our guest.

“Time for an Awakening” with Bro.Elliott 10-27-19 special guest: Documentary Filmmaker, Producer, Jeremiah Camara

“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 10/27/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guest was Documentary Filmmaker, Producer, Jeremiah Camara. Is there is a correlation between the number of churches in the Black Community coexisting with poverty and powerlessness? We talked about this and related topics with our guest, producer of the movies “Contradiction” and ” ‘The Religious Roots of Racism in America”, Jeremiah Camara.

“Time for an Awakening”with Bro.Elliott Sun 10-20-19 Guests: New Orleans Radio Host W. C. Johnson & Activist Anderson Washington

“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 10/20/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guests was Activist, Organizer, New Orleans talk show and radio host, BaBa W.C.Johnson, and Activist, Organizer,Anderson Washington.  Our guest talked about serious issues the people have with the NAACP in Louisiana and their silence about perceived racist Congressman and his keynote address to the LA NAACP.

“Time For An Awakening” with Bro.Elliott, Sunday 9-29-19 guest Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson

“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 9/29/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) our guest was Historian, Author, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson. Dr. Jackson discussed her book ” Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence”, the role of violence on the long road to black freedom, and how our ancestors increasingly called for violent resistance to slavery.

“Time for an Awakening” with Bro.Elliott, Sunday 9-08-19 guest Dr. Runoko Rashidi

“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 9/08/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST)  our guest was Historian, Lecturer, Anthropologist, Dr. Runoko Rashidi.  Along with taking about some of his recent travels and primary research, we discussed all things “Black” on the continent and the diaspora with our special guest, Runoko Rashidi.

“Time for an Awakening” with Bro. Elliott, Friday 9-06-19 guest Akil Parker

“Time For An Awakening” for Friday 9/06/2019 at 8:00 PM (EST) our guest was Activist, Educator, Akil Parker. The methodology of “Histematics” as a teaching tool for our children, was one of the many topics discussed with our guest.

“Time for an Awakening” with Bro.Elliott Sun 8-18-19 guest Shakina Chinedu

“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 8/18/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guest was Shakina Chinedu of the African Diaspora Returnees Association. Sister  Chinedu told us about the organization , primarily set up to offer help and support to diasporians returning home and to campaign  for general citizenship, and how it relates to us here in the Diaspora.

The Great Land Robbery: The shameful story of how 1 million black families have been ripped from their farms

Vann R. Newkirk III September 2019

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.

A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America.

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.

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.

From March 1901: W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Freedmen’s Bureau’

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.”

III. The Great Dispossession

That era of black ownership, in 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.

READ MORE AT: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/this-land-was-our-land/594742/

Scroll to top