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Black Owners Lose Grasp on Family Farms

by Kristin Collins

ENFIELD, N.C. - If a man's life could be summed up in numbers, then Roland Hardy's amounted to this: 294 acres. This land where he was born, and where he died, was to be his legacy - a guarantee that his heirs would never know the poverty that his enslaved ancestors did.

Instead, less than a year after his death, the Halifax County property is in foreclosure, and his widow is fighting to remain in their home.

The Hardy family has joined the ranks of thousands of black land owners across North Carolina and the nation watching the land they worked to amass slip away.

Small farms such as Hardy's, both black- and white-owned, are going out of business statewide as agriculture shifts toward industrialized operations and younger generations abandon farming. But blacks are losing their land faster than whites, researchers say, often because of foreclosure, lost deeds or disputes among heirs.

The loss of land is keenly felt by some blacks returning to the South to find that their family land is mired in debt or split among so many heirs that it is all but useless.

"We're losing a way of life, farming," said Lloyd Wright, a land loss activist and former director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Civil Rights. "But we're also talking about a loss of wealth for the entire African-American community."

The national Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey shows that the amount of farmland owned by blacks has declined by half, to about 7 million acres, since 1920, while white ownership has remained about constant.

The USDA's Census of Agriculture also shows that, nationally and in North Carolina, black farmers have disappeared at rates far greater than whites.

State Sen. Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that in a time when all farms are threatened by development, black farmers face even greater challenges than their white neighbors. Their farms were often smaller and less profitable, and their heirs have become more scattered as many blacks migrated north.

"Farmers are being squeezed from all sides," Albertson said. "And it's probably worse for them."

Land granted power

Land ownership has a special significance for black families, many of whom are only a few generations removed from slavery. Even after emancipation in 1863, many blacks remained sharecroppers with little hope of escaping poverty.

Only after blacks began to amass their own land in the early 1900s, thanks in part to government programs, were they able to form communities, build schools and churches. And when the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, it was land ownership that afforded blacks the independence to speak out.

"My grandfather taught us early on that if you didn't have any land, you didn't have any power in this country," said John Boyd, 42, a Virginia farmer who founded the National Black Farmers Association. "He taught us that his raggedy farm was better than a good job because nobody could fire him."

Many in Boyd's generation did not take that advice. They fled farms for city jobs. Now, as some try to return to their family farms, they are finding that land ownership is no guarantee.

Elsie Herring, 59, of Duplin County in rural eastern North Carolina, grew up on land that her grandfather bought in the late 1800s.

Her father worked from sunup to sundown with few tools but a mule, a plow and the hands of his children. Many mornings, she rose at dawn to work the fields before she left for school.

She was one of 15 children, most of whom abandoned the hardscrabble farm life and moved north. Herring, who returned to Duplin County from New York in 1993, said she always assumed that her family land would be there for her retirement.

She didn't know that the land had never been transferred out of her long-dead grandfather's name.

Herring said her mother tried to deed the property to her children before her death in 2001, but a string of disputes and missing property records have left them with no clear claim.

Another farmer's hog barns now sit on land that Herring believes belongs to her family.

"It's a terrible thing," Herring said, "knowing that your grandparents were here, your parents were here, and you're just being erased."

Experts say that poor estate planning plays a role in many cases of black land loss. But they also say the loss is inextricably linked to discrimination.

In a 1999 lawsuit settlement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture admitted to decades of discriminatory lending practices, which crippled black farmers and propped up white ones.

Wright, who lives in Maryland, said he found hundreds of cases of discrimination when he ran the civil rights office in 1996 and 1997.

Wright said he once investigated a farmer's claim that he was being unfairly denied the chance to restructure a loan and avoid foreclosure. He looked at 10 requests for loan restructuring in that same county. The five from white farmers had all been granted. The five black farmers had all been forced into foreclosure.

Advocates say that even those who managed to hold onto their land were left financially vulnerable.

And they say racism in the USDA is only one hurdle that black owners have faced: from government programs that sold them flood-prone land to poor outreach for minority farmers, which left them ignorant of programs that could have helped, to a segregated education system that left them unprepared to manage their businesses and plan estates.

Life's work unravels

Virginia Dade thought her family had cleared all those hurdles. Her father, Roland Hardy, had managed not just to subsist, but to prosper.

He farmed as many as 2,500 acres some years in this community about 75 miles northeast of Raleigh.

And though she is an accountant in Maryland, Dade, 58, always planned to retire to the farm where she was born.

But shortly before her father's death last year, things started to unravel.

The bank cut off the money that allowed him to plant his crop, saying he owed more than $300,000. Dade says her father swore that he had paid faithfully on all his loans, and that his records bear that out.

But in December, the farm, including the house where her mother still lives, went into foreclosure.

They saved it only by bidding on the land when it went up for auction - and then declaring bankruptcy.

© 2008 Myrtle Beach Online

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