BELLE PLAINE, Kan. – After Gil Alexander's death left no active Black farmers in a historic Kansas community once home to hundreds, Alexander's nephew and his wife gave up their jobs in Arizona to try and save the family farm.
But Lateef and Carrie Dowdell encountered steep hurdles after arriving in northwestern Kansas in 2017. The bank swiftly foreclosed on the land, and the U.S. Agriculture Department told them their lack of farming experience meant the agency couldn't provide any help.
“I definitely feel it was discrimination,” Lateef Dowdell said. “All they really wanted to do really is focus on the farmers that were assisting Gil as far as sharecropping. But as far as helping me, no.”
Agricultural communities across the country have seen a steep decline in Black farmers for generations, and nowhere is more illustrative of that than Nicodemus, where Alexander grew wheat and other crops. Nicodemus was the most famous of the Midwestern settlements where former slaves known as “exodusters” migrated more than a century ago, hopeful that farming their own land would help them escape racism and poverty.
Black farmers made up 14% of the U.S. farming population in 1910 but today account for just 1.4%.
Dowdell was only able to keep Alexander's house and the original 120-acre homestead that was not part of the bank loan. He now runs a restaurant in nearby Hill City, and the acreage he was able to keep sits idle as grassland.
“Once Gil passed, it just didn’t seem like they cared anymore,” Lateef Dowdell said. “They just wanted to get the land and move on.”
It was not that long ago that Black farmers in Nicodemus owned farms of 1,000-plus acres, dwarfing the average 50-acre farms operated by their peers in the South.
Most family farms across the country have been hit in recent years by such things as market volatility, poor weather and consolidations spurred by technological advances. On top of that, many Black farmers say racial bias at all levels of government has effectively pushed them off their land.
They say they have less access to credit and technical support than their white counterparts, keeping them from obtaining funds to operate their farms, modernize equipment or buy more land. Even some minority farmers who received USDA loans say the money arrived too late or came with unusual conditions about how they could spend it.
For decades, the department's Farm Service Agency had relied on local loan authorities in its oftentimes all-white county committees to make loan decisions. Those local county committees now have more of an advisory role but remain influential.
“They do not want Black farmers to have any farm ground whatsoever. Farm ground gives you power, not a lot, but it gives you some power,” said Rod Bradshaw, a 67-year-old Black farmer who raises wheat, cattle and milo on 2,000 acres near Jetmore, Kansas.
The descendants of Nicodemus settlers who still own farmland have mostly leased their land out to white farmers, unable or unwilling to obtain farm operating loans or purchase farm equipment. Many other farmers who passed away could not leave their land to their families because of the debt.
“There has been a lot of Black land lost in Kansas in these last 21 years — and it is devastating,” JohnElla Holmes, a Nicodemus resident and executive director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association.
The class-action Pigford lawsuit that the government settled in 1999 for $1.25 billion was supposed to help farmers who claimed they were unfairly denied loans and other government assistance. But few Black farmers in Kansas got any relief under the settlement, Holmes said.
When the state's Black Farmers Association was formed 21 years ago in the wake the Pigford settlement, the group had 53 members, she said. Today, only about 13 remain scattered across Kansas.
In the late 1800s nearly 100 Black farming families settled around Morton City, one of a half-dozen Black settlements spread across Kansas that have been obliterated over time. Bradshaw said he is the only descendant of those Morton City settlers still farming his own ground.
Bradshaw, who has been farming since buying his first ground in 1976, has made several discrimination complaints with Agriculture Department over the years, and his claim seeking relief under the Pigford lawsuit was denied.
The Agriculture Department during the Trump administration defended its handling of discrimination complaints, saying in an email to The Associated Press that its Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights oversees efforts to ensure programs are free of unlawful discrimination.
During the Trump administration, the Agriculture Department never filled the position of assistant secretary for civil rights. However, the agency said that the vacancy didn't hamper its ability to ensure farm programs are free of unlawful discrimination. It received more than 3,700 such complaints since 2017 and processed about 1,300 during that time, the department said.
USDA also noted in the email that last year it awarded more than $19 million in grants for training, outreach and technical assistance to socially disadvantaged ranchers.
Many Black farmers say it's still not enough. They're hoping that now that Democrats control both houses of Congress, they'll revive legislation aimed at remedying historical inequities in farming. The Justice for Black Farmers Act, which was introduced in November, seeks to protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants and reform USDA's civil rights process.
“Nicodemus is a clear picture that we are facing extinction as active farmers in this country,” said John Boyd Jr., a Virginia farmer who is president of the National Black Farmers Association. “So here today in 2021 that there is not one Black farmer that is tilling his own soil and pulling his plow and disc harrowing the ground is disheartening.”