Black farmers consider new suit over denied loans

Published 1:23 pm Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Black farmers who couldn’t get loans from the federal government but missed opportunities from a lawsuit over the discrimination may have another chance to bring the issue to court, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary said.

Michael Espy told farmers at a Saturday meeting of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association in Pine Bluff that there could be another chance for those affected to get money for their woes.

“We’re going to make them pay you today,” Espy said.

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Thousands of black farmers across the country alleged in a class-action lawsuit that they routinely were denied loans because of their race. As part of a settlement for the 1997 court case, the Department of Agriculture agreed to allow farmers to seek a $50,000 settlement in cases where the government determined discrimination happened. By 2003, it had paid $634 million in 12,690 cases but denied 8,540 cases.

However, not all eligible farmers knew about the date to file for the first case or knew about the opportunity to receive loans and land, Espy said.

“It’s not your fault,” Espy said. “They didn’t tell you about it.”

In May, Congress passed the Farm Bill, which reopened the case for those black farmers or their heirs who filed late for the original case.

“This is your 40 acres and a mule,” Espy said. “We’re already at 15,000 clients and we’re going to get more.”

Thomas Burrell, the association’s president, said his group remains interested in opening a second case for those farmers who did not file with the first lawsuit, but who fit the qualifications.

Bobby Willingham, a Pine Bluff cattle farmer who attended the meeting, said he probably would join in on the second lawsuit. He filed with the first case and won $50,000, but was not notified of the other benefits he could received.

“I might as well,” Willingham told the Pine Bluff Commercial newspaper. “I could get more fencing, more cattle, more land.”