BY STU SINGER
TILLERY, North Carolina - Eighty-year-old Matthew Grant farmed for more than 50 years in northeast North Carolina. His hard work and refusal to bow to the bankers, businessmen, and government officials trying to drive him out of farming and take his land are an example of the force behind the historic fight by Black farmers today. Grant's struggle makes concrete the reason why about 600 plaintiffs launched a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for discrimination in granting loans to farmers who are Black.
A Militant reporting and sales team accompanied Matthew and his son Gary Grant, one of the leaders of the Black farmers' fight against the government, into a court room in Jackson, North Carolina, in mid-October. The occasion was a hearing on the effort of the Meherrin Agricultural and Chemical Co. to renew a 1981 judgment against Matthew Grant. The case started with the company trying to collect a $23,000 debt for seed, fertilizer, and chemicals Grant got on credit in 1979. Almost all farm suppliers run their own credit operations, typically charging 15 to 18 percent interest compounded monthly from the time the farmer needs the supplies to plant or harvest and repayable when the crop has been sold. Grant's 1979 crop was ruined by drought and he could not repay the bill to Meherrin.
He turned to the "lender of last resort," the USDA, which has programs in place, won by farmers over decades of struggle, to protect farmers in exactly these kinds of cases. But the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) of the USDA turned Matthew Grant down, claiming that at the age of 61 he was too old to farm. Since white farmers older than him were readily given loans as a result of the same drought, this is one of the thousands of documented cases of racist discrimination by the government agency.
Their judgment about his age is quite a joke for Matthew and everyone who knows him. He continued as an active farmer for almost 20 more years, and has outlived most of the individuals who were fighting him in the early 1980s. The first day we talked to him he had to leave early to get new fuel injectors to install in an old tractor.
Matthew showed us a copy of the 1981 court judgment against him. The court ordered him to pay $23,054 plus 15 percent the first year and 8 percent a year after that, plus $3,458 in lawyers fees, plus unspecified court costs.
Seventeen years later, the company wants $35-$40,000 in cash. But they know they can't collect that so they want title to land that Matthew Grant still owns - it was his father's original homestead, and although he has not been farming it, he rents it out.
In this year's hearing, the new company lawyer blamed some technical errors in the original judgment on the old age and illness of the company lawyer in 1981. But Gary Grant said that the original company lawyer, who dragged his father into court in 1981, "wasn't senile. He was just a racist bigot." Matthew added, "He was someone who just had no pity on anyone."
The passage of time poses a number of problems for the company and the court. Not only are the judge, court clerk, and original lawyer dead, but the court documents have been destroyed. The October 15 hearing amounted to a 20-minute session with the judge in his chambers, with Grant's lawyer and the company lawyer. They came out and the judge briefly announced that he was continuing the case to see if the parties can agree to a settlement. Gary Grant said this was a positive result, reflecting weakness in the company case. But it was not a positive experience. "This is the debt crisis of Black farmers in the raw," Gary said. "They spend 20 minutes discussing your fate without you even being present - about a case that is 20 years old."
Matthew Grant's life covers decades of work, struggle, and combat. He grew up on the 58-acre farm in Northampton County that his father bought in 1921 and cleaned up. His grandfather had a farm across the field from his. "My grandfather's father was a slave in Northampton County working for a man named Fly."
Toward the end of the 1930s the family could not survive on the farm any more and moved to Newport News, Virginia, about 100 miles north. After working very low paying jobs and surviving mainly from his mother's wages, Matthew and other relatives finally got jobs at the large shipyard in Newport News that was gearing up for World War II. "I worked punching holes in steel plates for rivets. The pay was 38 cents an hour, going up to 98 cents an hour. I supported bringing in the CIO union, but the company stopped that by setting up the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association, a company union."
In 1947 as production declined in the yard, he quit before being laid off and returned to the farm in Northampton County.
It took the rise of the civil rights movement and 30 more years before workers at Newport News Shipbuilding were able to smash the Peninsula Shipbuilders and win recognition and a contract for an AFL-CIO union, Local 8888 of the United Steelworkers of America.
In 1947 Matthew Grant applied for and was accepted in a federal government resettlement program around Tillery in the Roanoke River flood plain. Matthew and Florenza Grant and their young children got a small house, 40 acres of land, a mule, and seed and tools to start up a farm. The resettlement projects were open to Black and white farmers, but the areas were segregated, and whites got better land and houses.
The Tillery Resettlement went through a big crisis when the Roanoke River flooded and many of the Black farmers in the flood plain were wiped out. White farmers on higher ground survived better.
Matthew Grant continued farming, rented more land, bought equipment, and did fairly well until about 1976 when a hurricane blew down his crops and he had to start borrowing from the USDA. He got $46,000 that year, but was turned away the next. "They put me in jail, though not behind bars. I'm still in jail. I can't get credit to farm."
Florenza Grant worked the farm along with Matthew and their children. She recalled that in 1954, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court decision against school segregation, the Grants helped organize the first NAACP chapter in Tillery. That year she registered to vote, one of the first Blacks to do so.
"There was a literacy test," she explained, "where the clerk read a section of the constitution and you had to write it down and then read it back to him. When I was waiting to take the test, a young white woman came in to register and they just waved her through. When I complained, the clerk said it was because of the grandfather clause. I told him one of my grandfathers was white, but he said that didn't count and I had to take the test. `Give it here,' I told him." Florenza said she had to help the clerk pronounce words he didn't know.
The "grandfather clause" was a Jim Crow law in North Carolina and other southern states. You did not have to take a literacy test to register to vote if your grandfather could vote, that is, if you were white.
The decades of discrimination have produced distorted farmer and land ownership relations in areas such as Tillery. The population in this rural area is majority Black. But there are very few working Black farmers. However many Black families, like the Grants, have held onto at least some of their land. Since they have been cut off from the credit needed to farm, they rent out their land to farmers who can get the production loans, most of whom are white.
Many of the young people from areas like Tillery leave. The difficulty in actually operating a farm, hard work for anyone, is doubly hard for Black farmers facing the ongoing discrimination from banks, businesses, and the government. Not many young people are attracted to this.
"You have to understand, Black families often don't have cash to leave their children," Gary Grant commented. "But many have land. Taking our land is a death knell to our children."
The Grant family's story is similar to many of the Black farmers who are plaintiffs in the suit against the government. What is also typical of the Grants is the failure of the racists, from the local businessmen to the government bureaucrats and politicians, to defeat them or break their spirits. These are strong people, with a sense of humor and a sense of history and a refusal to give up - powerful allies for other workers and farmers around the world.
Stu Singer is a member of the United Transportation Union in Washington, D.C.
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