When Black Farmers Prevailed: Remembering the Historic Pigford Case

Today, we recognize the historic Pigford v. Glickman case (commonly referred as the Pigford case), a class action discrimination lawsuit led by Black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Pigford case remains the largest civil rights class action suit in US history. It has become known as a united effort on the part of farmers and their supporters, as well as legal teams and social justice organizations, to address discrimination in federal farm programs.

The case was important in uncovering evidence of systemic racial discrimination within the USDA, which led to the compensation of some victims, and pushing for changes to address racial bias. It also set a precedent for future discrimination cases such as Keepseagle v. Vilsack (a suit filed by Native American farmers) and the Hispanic and Women Farmers and Ranchers Claims Resolution Process.

Originally, the Pigford case was filed as a proposed class action lawsuit by Timothy Pigford, a Black farmer from Cumberland County, NC. Dan Glickman, the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture at the time that the case was filed, was named the defendant in the case for failing to properly address claims of discrimination. Pigford claimed that based on his race he had been denied a loan approval when he applied for financial help from the USDA and that his complaints had not been investigated.

Timothy Pigford was joined by two other Black farmers, and they filed a class action lawsuit in 1997. The class action lawsuit claimed that a great many Black farmers had been discriminated against in similar situations during the time when USDA’s Office of Civil Rights was disbanded between January 1, 1981 and December 31st, 1996. These Black farmers were either denied farm loans, loan servicing and benefits, or had been given loans with unfair terms[1]. The suit would be therefore open to the claims of litigants affected during that time period.

A consent judgment was authorized in 1999, and it was announced that about $1 billion would be used to settle the claims of some 16,000 farmers. Later in 1999, a consent decree was judged appropriate because there were inconsistencies in the filing dates issued by the USDA. The consent decree allowed thousands of new claims to be accepted. It offered two different tracks for resolution and new terms for eligibility, procedures, and legal payments.[2]

There was still widespread concern that many Black farmers had not been properly notified about the first Pigford lawsuit and efforts continued to have the case reopened. The 2008 Farm Bill included a provision that allowed for the first Pigford case to be reopened and for the availability of $100 million in settlement payments. That number grew to $1.15 billion when Congress passed new legislation in 2010. The US District Court approved a second phase of the Pigford I case, known as Pigford II in 2011. The deadline for filing was May of 2012.[3]

It was noted that no money would go to prevailing claimants until 2012 or later.[4] It was later announced that checks would be received in the second quarter of 2013.

While our organization, played a small part by providing and attending trainings to assist claimants, making information available, and helping several farmers to establish their cases, we would like to recognize our partners who were leaders in the Pigford I and Pigford II cases. 

We would like to recognize the leadership of North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, Ralph Paige, former Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, and our close partners The Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG), and The Land Loss Prevention Project.

Our efforts to help victims of discrimination continue through our Farm Sustainability Program, as our staff of farm advocates work closely with farmers who have experienced lending discrimination.

For more information on the Pigford II case see this resource page on the Federation of Southern Cooperatives website and this 2011 settlement update on NSAC’s Blog.

[1] blackfarmercase.com, In Re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation Settlement
[2] academia.edu, Black Farmers United: The Struggle Against Powers and Principalities
[3] NSAC’s Blog, Black Farmer Settlement Approved by Court
[4] NSAC’s Blog, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Press Release
[5] United States Government Accountability Office

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