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Black farmers and their families seek settlement money

The Black Farmers Litigation Discrimination Settlement was a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming the department had unjustly denied loans to black farmers.
BY PETER WRIGHT Published: April 14, 2012

Hundreds of black farmers and their families, many of whom have lost their farms and livelihood, gathered at an Oklahoma City conference room Friday, waiting patiently for their names to be called.

They were there seeking legal advice and help filling out paperwork that will determine whether they are eligible to receive money from a $1.2 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I'm here to get what's due to me,” Frank Smith, a former farmer said. “The USDA was not fair. That's the way it was.”

Smith's grandfather, a railroad worker, started a farm near Spencer, the same one Smith lost when he attempted to get a loan from the USDA to help take care of his hogs, cattle, chickens, rabbits and other animals.

The Black Farmers Litigation Discrimination Settlement grew out of Pigford v. Glickman, a 1997 class-action lawsuit against the USDA claiming black farmers had been denied loans granted to white farmers in equivalent situations.

“Many of these folks, between 1981 and 1996, attempted to receive loans from the USDA, and were denied based upon their race,” said Greg Francis, co-lead counsel.” Many of these farmers lost their land. They lost their crops, their cattle ... they lost the opportunity to farm.”

Francis is going around the country with a team of lawyers offering advice to potential claimants, a tour entirely funded as part of the settlement. In addition to the event Friday in Oklahoma City, they were in Hugo on Thursday and will hold meetings Saturday in Tulsa.

About the settlement

The suit was settled in 1999 and set a record for a civil rights settlement.

Following the settlement, more than 60,000 people turned in claims for assistance after an Oct. 12, 1999 deadline passed, primarily because they weren't notified properly, said Willard Tillman, executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project.

After years of lobbying, Congress passed and the president signed a measure included in the 2008 Farm Bill that let late applicants pursue claims. In 2010, $1.2 billion was designated to fund the new settlement.

Tillman said this time attorneys and advocates are working hard to make sure everyone who could qualify is given due notice.

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