The house that Jamie built

The FSC and similar groups won critical victories, but they still worked in the shadow cast by the USDA. Even as the civil rights movement made progress in the 1960s, Jamie Whitten ensured that the department’s powerful white supremacist bureaucracy remained untouched.

As head of a key House committee, Whitten used his influence over the budget to control USDA offices and staffing. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, he killed a research agency because of its studies on economic and racial disparities in rural areas. When John Kennedy’s administration sought to replace it with a new agency, the Economic Research Service, Whitten secured a promise that the new division would not publish studies on Black farmers, farmworkers, and other marginalized groups—a promise that successive administrations also kept. Under President Lyndon Johnson, Whitten unilaterally killed the Great Society’s rural poverty office by defunding and absorbing it into a more conservative part of the department.

The “Permanent Secretary” cut staff from projects he disliked, while he secured political appointments for friends and cronies. Orville Freeman, Johnson’s secretary of agriculture, told reporters that he had “two bosses. One is President Johnson. The other is Jamie Whitten.”

Whitten successfully institutionalized his vision of aristocratic racial hierarchy at the USDA. He was famous for attacking “hound dog projects”—that is, any program he thought might help Black Southerners. He killed food programs, studies of Black sharecroppers, and even a small program to help Black workers learn how to drive tractors.

Home of an African American farmer in Erin, New York


Meanwhile, with his blessing, the department not only sent almost all its loans to wealthy, white farmers, it even guaranteed millions in loans to suburban swimming pools and segregated country clubs—including Whitten’s own. Since his influence over the department’s offices, staff, and work was so sweeping, it is no surprise that Black farmers still know the USDA as “the Last Plantation.”

The Commission on Civil Rights confirmed pervasive discrimination at the department in two major reports, one in 1965 and another in 1982. White outlets gave these reports little coverage at the time, as they continued to claim “land consolidation” and technology were to blame for the decline of Black farmers.

A 1990 congressional study concluded that “little [had] changed” at the department since the 1982 report and that the USDA continued to “implement policies … directly responsible for the loss of land and resources” of Black farmers. The USDA’s response was to adopt the rhetoric of equal rights, writes the historian Pete Daniel, while systematically denying rights to Black families in practice.

In 1997, Black farmers sued for widespread discrimination at the department between 1981 and 1996. (The USDA had no civil rights office from 1983, when President Ronald Reagan effectively closed it, to 1996, when President Bill Clinton restored it.) Although the farmers won a settlement in the case—called Pigford v. Glickman—the payments did little to relieve the enormous debts many Black farmers held or to help them get their land back. After a bipartisan but erroneous narrative took hold—repeated everywhere from Breitbart to The New York Times—that the settlement was rife with fraud, many Black farmers were left off worse than they were before, their white neighbors resentful against them and legislators in Congress unwilling to offer help. And most Black farmers had already lost their land by the 1980s, making them ineligible for relief under Pigford.

Although Obama-era officials claimed Pigford helped bring a “new era for civil rights,” business proceeded as usual at the USDA. The Government Accountability Office released six reports documenting patterns of discrimination at the USDA between 1999 and 2009. One independently commissioned study found ongoing discrimination against minorities within the department in 2011. A wide-ranging investigation by two of us found rampant deception and discrimination throughout the Obama years. Reports from current employees and Black farmers indicate that little changed under President Donald Trump.

The cost

When the federal government undertook to assist white Southerners in the dispossession of Black-owned farmland, it succeeded in destroying a significant share of Black wealth. Black families lost at least 14 million acres after 1910. We estimate that the portion lost between 1920 and 1997, along with the lost income from that land, would be worth around $326 billion today. If this amount were distributed across all Black families, their median household wealth would nearly double, from $21,000 to $37,000.

A group of men straining sorghum syrup into a barrel on the farm of an African American owner, Wes Chris, in a prosperous Black settlement near Orange County, North Carolina.


We developed this estimate based on records from the Census of Agriculture. We looked at acreage owned over time, applying adjustments for undercounts of Black farmers. We used land values in the census to assess the value of lost land, then applied an interest rate based on historical returns to farmland to get our final estimates.

These estimates are conservative in some important ways. Many Black farmers once owned land in what are now some of the most fertile areas of the country, where farm returns have long been much higher than what we used in our estimates. Developers have turned some of this land, like in Hilton Head, South Carolina, into incredibly expensive residential and commercial properties. We also did not account for land lost before 1920. As the historian John C. Willis documented in Forgotten Time, two-thirds of farm owners in the Mississippi Delta were Black in 1900, but that share had fallen to less than one-fifth by 1910.

Neither does our estimate account for Black families’ lost investments in their children’s education, their diminished political rights, their lost self-determination and autonomy, their lost dreams, hopes, aspirations, and way of life. No calculation could ever account for these things.

But our estimate sets a starting point for reckoning with the way that federal policy undercut what was once the single largest source of Black wealth. This land loss explains a significant role in the enormous Black-white wealth gap. That gap is more than 10 times larger than the income gap between Black and white families; even white high school dropouts have twice as much average wealth as Black college graduates.

This racial chasm has its origins in numerous government policies—the general exclusion of Black veterans from the G.I. bill, political disenfranchisement, widespread denial of home loans, failure to enforce equal hiring, mass incarceration—and in merciless white violence against Black people, including reprisals against organizing agricultural workers and farmers in the Leflore Massacre of 1889 and the Elaine Massacre of 1919. One pattern we see throughout history is that when Black Americans make relative progress the white establishment comes in and takes it away.

Last year, Congress passed debt relief for anyone from a “socially disadvantaged group” who had certain types of loans with or guaranteed by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Before the Agriculture Department disbursed any of the money, a Florida judge froze the program in response to a lawsuit brought by a white farmer backed by a powerful conservative legal fund.

Black farmers and their advocates criticized the USDA for not getting the money out faster. “We’re probably not even going to get it,” Lloyd Wright, a Black farmer and former director of civil rights at the Agriculture Department, told The Guardian last year. “They could have done it within weeks. They were aware some angry people were trying to stop it. I think we’ll get the debt relief around the same time we get the 40 acres and a mule.”

The year Jamie Whitten retired, Congress named the USDA’s headquarters after him. When he died the next year, in 1995, Bill Clinton said he had “worked tirelessly on behalf of America’s farmers” and “never gave up working to build more opportunity for all Americans willing to make the most of their lives.”

Whitten’s work lives on. In 2018, just 2,900 farms in Mississippi received over $170 million in soybean subsidies while Mississippi farmers, as a whole, received $363 million in subsidies and payments. The average commercial farmer in Mississippi has a net income of $396,000, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the 20 percent of Mississippians living below the poverty line, 587,000 people in total, received only $7 million in payments from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or what remains of welfare. Mississippi’s farmers are 86 percent white, and its TANF recipients are 84 percent Black. The “Permanent Secretary” is dead. Why do we still have his policies?