As it prepares to disband, Michigan task force on COVID racial disparities leaves a healthy legacy

Reposted from Second Wave Michigan

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Black Michiganders were among the hardest hit in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, representing 29% of COVID-19 cases and 41% of COVID-19 deaths despite being only 15% of the state’s population. In April 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. By the end of September 2020, Michigan’s Black residents made up only 8% of cases and 10% of deaths.

“When that change happened, we were able to flatten the curve,” says task force member Renee Canady, CEO of the Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI). “But more importantly, we were able to build and strengthen community voice and how government responds to the needs of individuals, needs they face all the time.”

This dramatic reduction in disparities involved creating more opportunities for testing within communities, connecting people of color with primary care providers, improving contact tracing and isolation strategies, promoting safe reengagement, and utilizing trusted community leaders in the broadcast of reliable COVID-19 information. Now, as the task force prepares to disband, its members are looking back on the work they’ve accomplished and the groundwork they’ve laid for continued progress toward dismantling health disparities in Michigan.

“Collectively as a task force, I was amazed at the level of commitment and dedication. … We had to problem solve and think deeply,” Canady says. “As a public health professional my entire career, seeing community engage and build partnerships at this deeply authentic level was absolutely inspiring and motivating for me. It really was about execution and action and change.”

Comprised of 23 Michiganders from diverse locations, backgrounds, sectors, and ethnicities, the task force was directed to increase transparency in reporting COVID’s racial and ethnic impacts, remove barriers to accessing health care, reduce medical bias in testing and treatment, mitigate environmental and infrastructure factors that exacerbated mortality, and improve systems for physical and mental health care as well as long-term economic recovery. To accomplish these directives, members of the task force joined other community leaders in workgroups focused on strategic testing infrastructure, primary provider connections, centering equity, telehealth access, and environmental justice. Task force member Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, says the task force’s reports in November 2020 and February 2022 show that the workgroups became “fast-moving entities” that identified goals at the community and statewide levels. 

“We brought together people who don’t necessarily plan together — community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, hospital administrators, academic administrators,” she says.

Overcoming roadblocks to telehealth

Lilly sat on both the Primary Provider Connections and Telehealth Access work groups. While increasing telehealth opportunities enabled people across the state to receive medical and mental health care during COVID shutdowns, the modality also underscored the reality of the digital divide.  

“An accomplishment is the work that’s been done to recognize how the digital divide exacerbated the death and mayhem that we saw, whether that was in health, in education, in all of our social services, in access to food, and in the employment market,” Lilly says. “There was a recognition that the digital divide had to be addressed if we were going to create structural change not only to address COVID but also to move the state of Michigan forward.”

The Telehealth workgroup’s efforts were in part responsible for a subsequent gubernatorial executive order that called for expanded high-speed internet access for all Michiganders, and an ensuing state investment of $3.3 million to realize that goal.

Rooting out implicit bias

Following another recommendation from the task force, a July 2020 gubernatorial executive order directed the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) to require implicit bias training for health care professionals licensed and registered in the state.

“It takes a level of courage and investment to start the journey, to say, ‘This is not acceptable,’” Canady says. “We do have evidence of bias, experiences of community members, partners, and patients. We’re not willing, as Michiganders, to look the other way on this. A one-hour training is not going to disrupt decades of socialization. But our hope, and certainly my hope as a member of the task force, is that it will whet the appetites of clinicians, employers, and civil servants in Michigan to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this. I need to learn more. I need to think about what we should be doing differently.’”

Task force member Denise Brooks-Williams, senior vice president and CEO of market operations at Henry Ford Health (Henry Ford), acknowledges that Henry Ford was invited to the table because of its long history of trying to eliminate health disparities, in part by requiring its staff to complete implicit bias training.

“Amongst the task force’s many accomplishments was putting a culturally diverse lens around marketing and how we try to attract people to health services,” Brooks-Williams says. “As we moved into having vaccines available but seeing a low response among those wanting to have them, [it] really did take time to invest in some multicultural marketing resources. They did a really good job. That will pay dividends for a long time.”

Canady hopes that, in addition to requiring implicit bias training, the state will be able to measure significant changes and greater awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the unresolved consequences of bias and discrimination.

“We need to think differently about systemic inequities and how to maintain relationships across disciplines,” Canady says. “It’s not just the Department of Health and Human Services’ responsibility. It’s not just LARA pushing on people’s licenses to practice. It really is all of us in partnership together.”

Health care in community

The Primary Provider Connections workgroup sought to remove barriers to care by making health care more accessible. Strategies for doing so included creating test and vaccination sites within trusted neighborhood locations like churches and schools, developing mobile clinics, and involving trusted community leaders as ambassadors of reliable pandemic health information. Brooks-Williams reports that Henry Ford’s mobile clinics will continue post-pandemic as a much-needed resource for communities that lack primary care locations. Another plus is that various community stakeholders are now connected in conversation.

“We’ve now got community agencies talking with health systems, talking with the health departments, talking with the state, in a way that we probably didn’t before,” Brooks-Williams says. “If we keep those conversations going in our communities, that will help.”

Lilly says one key area for improvement is in quality care coordination – creating a primary care system where primary care providers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, community health workers, and hospitals are integrated into an accessible continuum of health and well-being for all.

“That’s our nirvana,” she says. “But that’s not the system we have in the United States.”

Funding will be a priority

Much of the task force’s work was funded with COVID relief dollars. Task force members hope that when those funds dry up, those making budgetary decisions at the federal and state levels will continue to fund successful developments like telehealth, mobile clinics, implicit bias training, and culturally competent messaging.

“We are all saying that we need to have a more robust public health system that gets funded adequately, not just because we suddenly find ourselves in a pandemic,” Lilly says. “Now that our public health systems have readiness, I think we are in a much better place. The Federally Qualified Health Centers are in a much better place. There are mobile clinics and electronic health systems that have the capability of talking to each other.”

While the task force will disband in the near future, members hope that their legacy and work will continue to reduce racial disparities in health care and on other fronts such as education, employment, and economic opportunity.

“Relationships don’t end when a committee ends or when a conference is over. They’re fortunately transportable,” Canady says. “I believe that those relationships will continue as we all, in our individual areas of responsibility, continue to try to execute on the things we learned on the task force.”

Lilly adds that now it’s time to assess the lessons learned from the task force’s work.

“What are the gaps? What are we doing about them?” she asks. “What is so encouraging is that [the Whitmer] administration understands that we have to look very closely at what are the policies that either enable or perpetuate [disparities], or can possibly be a vehicle to create the systemic change we need.”

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children’s books. You can contact her at or

Renee Canady photo by Roxanne Frith. Jametta Lilly photo by Nick Hagen. Denise Brooks-Williams photo courtesy of Denise Brooks-Williams.

Michigan Court of Claims Rules Reversal of State’s 2018 Minimum Wage Law Unconstitutional

The State of Michigan Court of Claims issued a ruling that the Michigan legislature’s 2018 decision to reverse state law mandating a $12 minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers earning the subminimum wage, was unconstitutional. 


In reaction to the Court’s announcement, Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage, a national nonprofit advocating on behalf of restaurant workers earning the subminimum wage for tipped workers, issued the following statement:

“The subminimum wage for tipped workers has existed since Emancipation in 1863, when restaurant owners sought to hire newly freed slaves and pay them nothing, making them live on tips alone. Workers have been fighting this subminimum wage, which has been a source of sexual harassment and racial inequity, for decades – including in 2018, when we collected 400,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. 

“Today, the courts in Michigan vindicated the rights of these millions of workers, and millions of voters, to demand that workers in Michigan be paid a full, livable wage with tips on top. So many states are about to follow – given the Great Resignation. And Michigan’s minimum wage will continue to go up, because we at One Fair Wage have collected enough signatures to force the wage up to $15 an hour in 2024. Today we made history!” 

Mark Brewer, election attorney, added: 

“This is a great victory for all Michigan workers and for all Michigan voters whose constitutional right to initiative has been protected by the court.”

In 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature passed as law two ballot measures approved to be on the November 2018 ballot – a minimum wage increase and required paid sick leave – specifically stating that they were doing so in order to take these measures off the ballot and thus prevent low-wage workers and workers of color from going to the polls in large numbers. After the November 2020 election, Republicans then gutted the law with a simple majority vote, returning the proposed $12 per hour minimum wage for tipped workers down to a little over $3 per hour.

The Court’s decision was in response to a lawsuit, filed by One Fair Wage and a coalition of Michigan organizations, which argued that the Republican legislature’s attempt to subvert the will of the people through manipulative legislative practices should be deemed unconstitutional per the state constitution and demands that the law requiring a minimum wage increase and One Fair Wage – a full minimum wage for tipped workers, as originally passed, be enforced. The law would guarantee hundreds of thousands of Michigan workers a raise, including hundreds of thousands of tipped Michigan workers currently earning a subminimum wage, the full minimum wage with tips on top, as well as earned paid sick leave.

“It is a moment of severe restaurant industry crisis, when over half of restaurant workers are saying they’re leaving the restaurant industry due to low wages and tips, and Michigan restaurant owners cannot re-open due to a lack of workers,” added Jayaraman. “Over three quarters of Michigan workers say the number one reason they’d consider coming back to work in the restaurant industry, allowing restaurants to reopen, is a raise.”


Join Vandana Shiva for free Zoom dialogue “Philanthrocapitalism and the Erosion of Democracy”

Who: Vandana Shiva and Healther Day

When: 1 pm Thursday, February 17

Where: Get your FREE ticket here

Global capitalists wield philanthropy to monopolize and privatize land use, food production, and the public health sector. Join a conversation with Vandana Shiva and CAGJ’s Heather Day to learn about this dangerous trend—and how global citizens are fighting back. The conversation will be moderated by Breanna Draxler, senior editor at YES! Media.

Vandana Shiva has edited a new book, “Philanthrocapitalism and the Erosion of Democracy”, to which AGRA Watch contributed our research on how the Cornell Alliance for Science Fellowship program creates propaganda to prop up the Gates Foundation’s misguided agricultural development schemes in Africa.

Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next weeks. Here is the conclusion, part seven. Read the full paper here.

Cooperatives and Community-Based Organizations

Blacks have farmed in America for four centuries, yet for that entire time, they have struggled to own and retain farmland. This is the case because a variety of institutional mechanisms were used to restrict black landownership. Moreover, once blacks gained ownership of farmland, systematic discrimination by government and non-governmental sources precipitated land loss. Discrimination took several forms, namely separate and unequal policies and services, segregation, isolation, inadequate resources, forcing blacks to live in hazardous places. In response, blacks have founded several institutions to help ameliorate their situation.

For more than a century, blacks have used the cooperative model to help them retain farmland. Today, cooperatives still play important roles in farm preservation and vitality in the black community. In this vein, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been working with more than 25,000 low-income families in more than 100 communities throughout the South. In 1993 and 1994 alone, the multi-racial organization helped 200 families retain 17,500 acres of land they would have lost otherwise (Zippert 2002; Merem 2006, pp. 88–92). Another organization, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, is working with families to educate them about heirs’ property and to help them navigate the legal hurdles involved in resolving the issues arising with such property (Southern Coalition for Social Justice, 2009).

Other organizations focused on preventing land loss have emerged. Foremost among them, the Land Loss Prevention Project, founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, provides support to financially distressed farmers in the state and elsewhere. The group provides legal help, as well as help with policy making and promoting sustainable agricultural practices. They have provided technical assistance and legal support to more than 20,000 people (Land Loss Prevention Project 2009).

Another organization, the Black Family Land Trust, was founded in North Carolina in 2004 with the mission of combining traditional land trust tools with community economic development to help preserve black farms. It is a coalition of advocacy groups working on the preservation of black landownership that includes the Land Loss Prevention Project and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (Black Family Land Trust 2002). Other groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus have helped black farmers by sponsoring and supporting legislation in Congress. The Rural Coalition and the National Family Farm Coalition have also been involved in initiatives to prevent the loss of farmland amongst blacks.

The USDA was not alone in its treatment of blacks. Discriminatory actions in the USDA mirror those of other federal and local agencies charged with housing and financing, education, and general welfare. The fear of racial mixing and opposition to racial equality drove agency personnel to segregate farms and deliver inadequate financing and resources to blacks. This was similar to the way housing agencies segregated urban and suburban communities and either denied credit or influenced banks to withhold credit from blacks (Taylor 2014). Education departments denied blacks the right to equal education when they segregated schools also.

Heritage Tourism and Historic Preservation

In response, some black communities and black land owners have been exploring the idea of using heritage tourism and historic preservation as mechanisms for protecting black land ownership. The Penn Center located on St. Helena Island, South Carolina offers an example of a rural site that uses black heritage as the cornerstone of its farm-based preservation efforts. The Penn Center preserves its land, waterfront, trails, the Gullah language spoken by slaves, crops planted by them, the culture of the Gullah people, its historic school house built by freed slaves, museum, art, as well as its famed conference center and dorms that served as the meeting place for civil rights activists (Penn School 2017). The 40-acre Freewoods Farm, located in Burgess (Myrtle Beach), South Carolina replicates life on a nineteenth century animal-powered African American farm. Freewoods has a museum, wetlands preserve, and a main street (Freewoods Farm 2017). The 500-acre Smith Family Farm Park, located in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, relies on visits by black recreationers to supplement their farm income. The farm has been in the family for three generation and the five Smith brothers grow grain, raise cattle, and propagate fish in aquaculture ponds. They have converted 41 acres of the farm into a recreational park that is used primarily by black visitors for family reunions, horseback riding, and motorcycle club gatherings. The 14-acre catfish pond, horse trails, and all-terrain vehicle trails are popular (Freeman and Taylor 2010, pp. 267–268).

Responses in Michigan

There are efforts underway in Michigan to preserve black farming traditions. The Michigan Food and Farming SystemsFootnote16 Women in Agriculture program in Genesee County runs a 3-acre farm that trains blacks and women of many racial and ethnic backgrounds to become farmers. Earthworks Urban Farm collaborates with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen to train aspiring black agriculturalists on their 2.5-acre farm in Detroit (Boehm 2017).

Black-operated farms such as D-Town Farm also train black youths and community members to farm. D-Town is a combination farm and food-buying cooperative operated by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (White 20102011a; Yakini 20102013; Taylor 20002014; Taylor and Ard 2015).

The Southeast Michigan Producers Association (SEMPA) is a cooperative located in Sumpter Township that serves small- to medium-sized farms. Most of the members are black and they live in the Detroit to Ann Arbor corridor of the state. They aggregate their produce, certify, and market black farmers to help them gain access to urban markets, and schools in the area. The cooperative also seeks to reduce land loss among black farmers. There are about 50 black farmers in the region covered by SEMPA (Boehm 2017; Michigan Public Radio 2012; Barry 2013). SEMPA collaborates with black farms, CanStrong Food Service Management, and the state’s Farm-to-School Program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to local schools (Tell Us USA News Network 2015).

The relationships forged between southern black cooperatives, Michigan’s black farmers, and Detroit’s consumers still endure. However, these relationships require further study to assess their future viability. This is particularly true since the city now has a robust urban agriculture sector. To strengthen their economic position, Michigan’s black farmers need to continue seeking new outlets for their produce.

They could look beyond Detroit to other cities within Michigan or to neighboring states. Black farmers can also expand their Farm-to-School operations and develop partnerships with restaurants, hospitals, and colleges and universities, etc. Black farmers in Michigan and around the country have adapted to changing social, political, and economic conditions in the past. They are taking steps to help them survive in the current agricultural climate.

Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next weeks. Here is part six.

Black Farmers in Michigan

Black farmers in northern states like Michigan are often overlooked because they comprise a small portion of the nation’s black farmers,Footnote11 and they make up a modest share of the farmers in their state. Nonetheless, Michigan is important and interesting state to examine black farmers’ experiences because of the complex relationships that has evolved over time between southern black farmers, black rural Michigan farmers, and black urban farmers in the state. The relationships are both competitive and collaborative and are rooted in kinship ties and culture, as well as the rhetoric of black empowerment, food sovereignty, and environmental justice.

Historical Context

Blacks have been farming in Michigan since the antebellum period. The earliest black farmers were either recruited to Michigan or followed the Underground Railroad to the state. A steady stream of blacks settled in the southeastern and southwestern portions of the state. Records from Pittsfield Township (near Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti) indicate that abolitionists collaborating with the Underground Railroad settled in the township in the 1820s. Blacks seeking their freedom settled in the area on the Old Sweet Briar Farm located on or nearby Jacob Aray’s property (Richards n.d.).

Some of Southwest Michigan’s early black residents worked for their Quaker benefactors as share croppers and in other capacities till they amassed enough money to purchase their own land. Quakers, some of whom were farmers in places like North Carolina, moved to Michigan to establish farms in the early nineteenth century. The Quakers were ardent abolitionists, hence Cass County—especially Calvin Township, Vandalia, and Ramptown—became strongholds of Underground Railroad activities (Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 22; Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History n.d.).

Enoch Harris and his wife, Deborah, were the first black farmers to settle in Kalamazoo County; they did so around 1830. The Harrises, who were originally from Virginia, settled in Knox County, Ohio in 1813 then moved to Michigan to live on an 80-acre farm. The Harrises, who brought apple seeds with them, is said to have established the first apple orchard in Oshtemo Township and Kalamazoo County. By 1860, the Harrises raised horses, cows, sheep, and pigs. They also grew wheat, Indian corn, oats, peas and beans, potatoes, barley, hay, and orchard crops. The family owned about 2000 acres of land by the 1880s (Kalamazoo Morning Gazette 1902; Santamaria 2002; Praus 1960, pp. 61–66; Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 23).

Black farmers in Calvin Township in the southwestern tip of Michigan trace their lineage in the area to 1839 and the free blacks who traveled from North Carolina to settle in the area. Some blacks moved with Quakers and settled in Southwest Michigan. A former slave, Lawson, arrived in Calvin Township in 1836; he took up farming. Another runaway slave, Jesse Scott, who arrived 2 years later, raised tobacco once he settled in the township. Bill Lawson’s great-great-great-grandfather, Gault, arrived in Southwest Michigan from North Carolina in 1838 or 1839. Another 43 free blacks who settled in Cass County between 1845 and 1846 purchased farmland. At one point, blacks farmed as much as 38% of Calvin Township; some of their farms were more than 200 acres in size. For instance, Littleberry Stewart owned 240 acres of land in the township during the 1860s (Worthington 1987, p. 3; Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 24; Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, n.d.; Thierry 1997, pp. A1, 10).

Black Michiganders embraced the opportunity to own land and operate their own farms. As one black farmer put it, “…it was easier to get along by farming one’s own land than it was to manage by working for meager wages in the white man’s field…but just as importantly, land was a symbolic goal of freedom…a necessary and complimentary part of becoming equal in society.” Despite being recruited to settle and farm in Michigan, once blacks arrived in the state, they faced similar forms of discrimination meted out to blacks elsewhere. There were relegated to marginal lands and had difficulty receiving financing. Consequently, blacks did not have an opportunity to farm the best lands in Michigan (Quote copied from Ben and Wilson 1986, pp. 23–24). Notwithstanding, black farmers settled in throughout the southern part of the state. They could be found in small communities in Covert, Idlewild, Benton Harbor, as well as in Mecosta, Isabella, and Montcalm counties (Old Settlers Reunion 2017).

By 1900, there were 626 black-operated farms in Michigan; 75.4% of these were owner operated. That year, blacks farmed a total of 38,259 acres in Michigan. The average black-operated farm was 61.1 acres (DuBois 1904, pp. 69–98, 296–302, 332). Blacks continued to move to Michigan during the Great Migration as cities like Detroit—with its booming auto plants—were attractive destinations. The black migrants brought to Michigan agricultural skills they had honed on southern farms.

Blacks from Baltimore and New York were recruited to purchase large tracts of abandoned farmland “of good quality” in Michigan in the 1920s. One article noted that blacks were being tricked into purchasing land unfit for agriculture. To prevent swindling, the state of Michigan created a Division of Negro Welfare and Statistics in the Department of Labor and Industry to investigate complaints (The Baltimore Afro-American 1925: A8; The New York Amsterdam News 1926, p. 15).

Blacks found it challenging to obtain credit to purchase land and develop farms in Michigan.

This was so ubiquitous that it made national headlines when Clarence Haines of Calvin Township in Southwest Michigan obtained a loan from a black-owned lending agency that was insured by the Farmers Home Administration of the USDA in 1949. This might have been the first government-insured loan made to a black farmer in Michigan. Upon receiving the check of $5500 from the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company of Chicago, Mr. Haines commented, “…My only hope is that this kind of help can reach a lot of other folks like me” (Quote copied from The Chicago Defender 1949, p. 4; New York Times 1949, p. 63).

However, the number of farms operated by blacks in Michigan and the number of acres they farm declined precipitously during the twentieth century. The loss of black-owned farmland accelerated between 1920 and 1970. The disposal of heirs’ property played a role in the decline as the children of black pioneers sold off farmland. Roughly 12,545 acres were lost this way. Heirs sold the property because of high taxes, limited profits, and legal malfeasance (Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 25).

As the loss of farmland became more noticeable, civil rights and black power activists sought to stem the tide by acquiring land to farm collectively. Land acquisition was also seen as a mechanism for reducing food insecurity in black communities, striving toward food sovereignty, controlling the means of production and distribution of food, and furthering the economic development of blacks. Black nationalists in the Nation of Islam and other groups also saw land ownership as a means of furthering black empowerment. Consequently, the Nation of Islam tried to purchase 3600 acres of land in rural Alabama. This infuriated the Klu Klux Klan and other whites opposed to black land ownership.Footnote12 Despite the opposition in Alabama, the Nation of Islam acquired large tracts of land not only in Alabama, but in Georgia, Illinois, and Michigan (Reid and Bennett 2012, pp. 248–249; Waldron 1969; Associated Press/New York Times 1970; United Press International 1969).

It was during this era that young Wilbur Minisee of Niles, Michigan decided he wanted to farm. In 1968, Minisee, then 15 years old, secured a $300 loan with the aid of his father, and started farming on 10 acres. A decade later, he operated 600 acres of farmland. Minisee’s ancestors were free blacks who moved from Upstate New York to Southwest Michigan in the 1850s (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1980; Thierry 1997, pp. A1, 10).

The twin practices of segregating black farmers in particular locales and forcing them to farm on undesirable, hazard-prone land occurred in Michigan too. The practice of redlining minority urban neighborhoods, refusing to grant home loans to residents living in such areas, and the refusal to sell such residents property in desirable white neighborhoods was mimicked in the agricultural sector (Taylor 2014). As a result, black farmers had difficulty purchasing land in desirable areas and could not get funding to develop their existing acreage (Townsend 2016). The Mitchells are a case in point. Four generations of them operate an organic blueberry farm in Grand Junction (Van Buren County) that produced more than 10,000 of blueberries in 2015. But when they tried to purchase land in the late 1960s, they were forced to buy a swampy area. They had to truck in a lot of dirt to fill in the area before they could plant on it. Black farmers in Michigan report that they find it virtually impossible to purchase land with highly rated soil and they were forced to purchase farms beside one another (Townsend 2016).

The Contemporary Context

As Table 3 shows, there were only 110 black farm operators in Michigan in 1997 and they accounted for 0.2% of the farm operators in the state (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1999). This marked the nadir of black farming population in Michigan as well as the nation. But the following year would be pivotal. In 1998, the National Black Farmers Association organized a National Black Farmers’ Conference.Footnote13 The Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers, the state chapter of the National Black Farmers Association, hosted the conference. Hence in May of 1998, more than 1000 black farmers from 29 states descended on Detroit for the conference that was organized around the theme of “Saving the Black Farmer.” At the time, black farmers were losing an estimated 9000 acres of farmland per week because of foreclosures. The conference focused on strategies for influencing federal policies, halting the land loss plaguing black farmers, promote urban agriculture amongst blacks, and strengthen institutional infrastructures to help black farmers work collectively to maximize their impact (New York Beacon 1998, p. 10; Stone 1998: A1). A month later, the Michigan House and Senate passed a resolution to end years of discrimination in the state against black farmers (Amick 1998: A4).Table 3 Number and race of farm operators in Michigan; 1982–2012Full size table

The Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers helps black farmers to collaborate with each other, promote the sale of their produce to retailers, and market the farmers. In August 1998, the Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers joined forces with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Nation of Islam (founded in 1930 in Detroit) to work out an agreement with Eastern MarketFootnote14 in Detroit to sell food grown and distributed by blacks. This allowed black Detroiters to support black farmers in the South since the Nation of Islam planned to sell food grown on its Albany, Georgia farm and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives purvey food grown by black farmers all over the South to consumers in Detroit (Long-Bey 1998: A1; 1999: A1; Stone 1998: A1). Blacks viewed the agreement among themselves as mutually beneficial because from it southern farmers got access to a northern market while northern farmers got the branding, support, and resources of nationally recognized groups and important actors in farming and political issues.

The following year, Hank Reed, president of the Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers and owner of Metro Foodland Supermarket,Footnote15 reported that produce grown by southern black farmers was being sold in his and the other black-owned Foodland Supermarket in Detroit. Reed and his collaborators were being intentional about building a supply chain in which produce from southern black-owned farms was being trucked to and sold in black-owned supermarkets to black customers. Reed assessed the initiative this way, “We are setting up an opportunity for black folk to help themselves.” He continued, “The farmers are black, and the transportation system and supermarket[s] are black.” James Hooks, owner of the second participating Foodland Supermarket explained further. He said, “…black people have to build vertical enterprises controlled by blacks from bottom to top” (Long-Bey 1999: A1).

A similar partnership focused on black economic empowerment, food sovereignty, and increased consumption of healthy foods was attempted with the launch of Freedom Foods in Detroit in 2002.

Freedom Foods sought to facilitate the sale of produce from black farmers in Michigan and the South.

The organizers took this approach because they argue that grocery store owners rarely purchase products from black farmers. The partnership also materialized because a Detroiter with farms in Georgia wanted to sell the produce grown in Georgia in Detroit (Akwamu 2002: B1).

There has been a resurgence of black farmers in Michigan. Since 2002, the number of black farm operators has increased from 243 to 356. In 2012, black farm operators account for 0.5% of the farm operators in Michigan (USDA 2014). Despite this milestone, Michigan’s black farmers continued to seek compensation for discrimination suffered at the hands of the USDA between 1981 and 1996. As a result, black farmers collaborated with the Land Loss Prevention Project, a North Carolina-based nonprofit, to file claims by the 2012 deadline. Of the roughly 89,000 claims filed, 1456 were from black farmers in Michigan (Lersten 2012). Michigan’s black farmers were not a part of the original law suit.

Of the 52,194 farms in the state in 2012, 271 were operated by blacks (see Table 4). That year, there were a total of 356 black farm operators in the state and together they farmed a total of 19,369 acres. All told 9,948,564 acres are farmed in Michigan in 2012. Black-operated farms tended to be smaller than others in the state. While the average size of black-operated farms is 71 acres, the state-wide average for farms is 191 acres (USDA 2014). Despite the resurgence of farming by blacks, in 2012 Michigan’s black farmers were farming just over half the acreage they did in 1900. So, what is most commonly found on Michigan’s black-operated farms? Most often, these farms are used to grow forage, oilseed and grain, berries, soybeans, corn, fruits, and vegetables. Their top livestock inventory items are horses and ponies, laying hens, cattle and calves, and bees (USDA 20092014).Table 4 Characteristics of Michigan farms and farm operators as well as black farms and farm operatorsFull size table

Michigan’s rural black farmers have worked closely with black urban growers to establish farms in cities like Detroit and Flint. Food sovereignty and self-empowerment through food production are themes that unite them. As Barbara Norman, whose family has been farming since the 1930s, said before delivering the 2014 keynote address to the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference in Detroit, “He who owns the land makes the rules.” Norman operates a 53-acre blueberry farm in Covert, located in Southwest Michigan (Blount-Dorn 2014: A8). Kadiri Sennefer agrees. She says of D-Town Farm, “It’s a self-determination project. We’re not looking for anyone to do it for us. We come out here and do the work ourselves. We dig for ourselves and we do for ourselves” (Michigan Public Radio 2012).

Researchers have documented the extent to which food sovereignty, food security, and empowerment have infused the discourses of Michigan’s black urban growers (Taylor and Ard 2015, pp. 102–133; White 2010, pp. 189–211; White 2011a, pp. 406–417; White 2011b, pp. 13–28). For instance, Bianca Danzy, a student farming at Earthworks in Detroit says, “Growing your own food is self-determination, food that you put in the ground, you grew and then prepared…[it] nourishes you and detaches you from the need to go and pay a food bill” (Public Radio International 2016). Michigan’s black urban growers have also articulated these themes as well as the challenges they face acquiring land on which to grow (Yakini 20102013: A10).

Despite the publicity surrounding discriminatory lending practices, access to reliable and adequate financing for farming activities continue to bedevil Michigan’s black farmers. A recent study the farmers’ perceptions of credit availability found that black farmers were reluctant to use government loans to finance their operations and only turn to this source as a matter of last resort. This is by design; the Farm Service Agency provides financial assistance to farmers only after they have exhausted other credit options. Michigan’s black farmers are cautious about using Farm Service Agency loans because of a history of discrimination against black borrowers and lack of outreach to them. A farmer in the study explains why his experiences lead him to bypass the Farm Service Agency. He told the researchers, “I went to production credit…he’s never loaned money to a Black man so it ended up that I didn’t get the money…now I just don’t bother with it.” Another farmer expressed frustration with the limited information that black farmers receive. He said of the agency, “…they’re not forthwith with information when you go in there…the information is not really made available to us [African-American farmers] (Quote copied from Tyler et al. 2014, pp. 232–251; Escalante et al. 2006, p. 62). In spite of these challenges, Michigan’s black farmers exhibit great fortitude. In 2012, 59.1% of them had operated their farms for 10 years or more (USDA 2014).

Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next weeks. Here is part five.

The Lawsuit Against the United States Department of Agriculture

Allegations of Discrimination Against Black Farmers

Black farmers have difficulty obtaining credit and this is at the crux of their grievances against the USDA. Between 1984 and 1985, for instance, the USDA lent about $1.3 billion to 16,000 farmers but only 209 of them were black. Black farmers were also affected by falling crop prices and high interest rates charged on loans. When farmers were unable to repay their loans, banks foreclose on their property. Not only were black farmers systematically denied disaster relief aid and loans offered to white farmers, it took an average of 60 days to process loan applications for white farmers while it took about 220 days to process loan applications for black farmers. Moreover, some of the loans made to black farmers were not approved till late in the growing season. Blacks also received about $21,000 less than white farmers in loans even though they managed similarly sized farms (Merem 2006, pp. 88–92; Rural Coalition 2001; Goffe 2002, p. 43; Daniel 2013; Pigford et al. v. Glickman 1998; Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman 1999; Congressional Record 2010: S6836-S6837). A study of 348 Farm Service Agency loan applications in Georgia between 1999 and 2002 found that 57.6% of loan applications were approved compared to 39.2% of the loans of nonwhite borrowers. However, the study found that race was not a significant predictor of loan approval in multivariate models (Escalante et al. 2006, pp. 61–75). The decline in the number of black farmers caught the attention of congress and led to an investigation into the cause of the decline. Black farmers identified the USDA as an agency that discriminated against them through the programs it ran and the way the agency responded to complaints. Blacks filed suit against the agency in 1997; the case, Pigford v. Glickman, was brought by 401 black farmers alleging that the USDA discriminated against them in the way they administered farm programs. The farmers also alleged that the agency failed to investigate complaints properly.Footnote7

The programs in question were those administered by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Farmers Home Administration. Together, the two programs administered loans and subsidies such as price support loans, disaster relief payments, and farm ownership and operating loans. The two programs ran until 1994 when they were folded into the Farm Service Agency. Though the programs operated with federal funds, the funds were controlled and disbursed by county committees. The county committees made decisions on who should get funding, how much they should get, and how expeditiously requests were processed. If farmers’ requests were denied, they can appeal to a state committee and after that to a federal review board. Farmers who felt the denial of their application was racially motivated could file a complaint with the Secretary of the USDA or with the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement and Adjudication (Pigford v. Glickman 19981999). Despite the fact that the USDA vested so much power in the hands of the county committees, these entities did not reflect the racial make-up of the communities they served. Though the Southeast region has the largest concentration of black farmers, in 1996 only 28 or 1.1% of the 2469 county commissioners in the region were black. In the Southwest region, 0.3% of the county commissioners were black. In fact, there were a total of 37 black county commissioners out of a total of 8147 nationwide.Footnote8

The black farmers’ law suit alleged that the county committees denied loans and disaster relief to blacks while those for similarly situated whites were approved. It was also alleged that the county committees took longer to process loans for blacks than for whites. Though farmers could send a complaint to the USDA, the agency dismantled its Office of Civil Rights in 1983 and from that time onwards complaints were not processed, investigated, or forwarded to the appropriate agency. As a result, farmers who filed complaints either got no response or a cursory notification that their request was denied. At the same time, farms were being foreclosed on despite the fact that complaints were filed and not processed. In 1997, the Office of Inspector General of the USDA acknowledged that the agency had a large backlog of complaints of discrimination that had not been processed, investigated, or resolved (Pigford v. Glickman 19981999).

The Consent Decree

A Consent Decree between the USDA and plaintiffs was reached on January 5, 1999. The litigants in two law suits—Pigford v. Glickman and Brewington v. Glickman—were consolidated into one group of class action plaintiffs. The time of the alleged discrimination was limited to those occurring between January 1, 1981 and December 31, 1996 and farmers who were not a part of the original law suit but who met the criteria outlined above were allowed to join the class (Pigford v. Glickman 1998; Pigford v. Glickman 1999). If they chose the path that required the lowest burden of proof (Track AFootnote9), farmers filing successful claims were awarded $50,000, plus an additional $12,500 to pay the taxes owed on the settlement (Roth 2004).

The number of black farmers making claims ballooned quickly. In 2004, the court-appointed monitor Randi Roth, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that there were 22,369 eligible claimants in the case. However, thousands more—claiming that extraordinary circumstances prevented them from filing on time—filed claims through the late claims process. In all, 96,189 claims were filed. As of 2009, there were 22,721 eligible claimants; 99% of these were track A claims. In all, 69% of the claims were approved. A total of $1,002,471,686 was paid out under track A by 2009 (Roth 2004; Office of the Monitor 2009).

Continued Legal Battles Between the USDA and Black Farmers

Despite the settlement, the relationship between the USDA and black farmers is characterized by acrimony and distrust. Since 2000, more than 14,000 complaints have been filed with the agency (Vilsack 2009). There was also an ongoing controversy over what to do about the thousands of late claimants in the Pigford case that are considered ineligible. This was addressed somewhat in the 2008 Farm Bill that allowed for the late claims to be reviewed to ascertain if any qualified to be included in class action group. The bill also included a $100 million appropriation to settle the cases in addition to a provision to allow for more funds to settle cases if needed. In 2008, the National Black Farmers Association filed a lawsuit against the USDA on behalf of 823 black farmers (USA Today 2008; Hagstrom 2009). In 2010, the congress approved an additional $1.25 billion to settle approximately 61,000 additional discrimination claimsFootnote10 that had been filed by black farmers not covered by the Pigford v. Glickman settlement (Department of Justice 2010; Congressional Record 2010: S6836-S6837).

Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next weeks. Here is part four.

Farmers’ Cooperatives as a Survival Strategy

Early Efforts to Establish Black-White Alliances

Blacks developed cooperatives and used this collective action strategy to help them survive in the agricultural sector. Unjust work conditions on the plantations led to increasing militancy among blacks and attempts to forge alliances with white workers. At the end of the 1880s, a populist rural movement of agrarian radicalism, the Farmers’ Alliance, swept across the South. However, members of the Alliance were hesitant to incorporate blacks into the movement. A black minister and farmer, J. W. Carter, resolved the stalemate when he organized the Colored Farmers’ Alliance in 1889. By 1890, more than a million black farmers were members of the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union.Footnote5 The organization helped members secure loans to purchase farms (Bennett 1993, pp. 256–257; Tolnay and Beck 1991, p. 24; Reynolds 2002, p. 5; Knapp 1969, pp. 57–67; Goodwyn 1976, pp. 278–285; Hinson and Robinson 2008, p. 288).

A separate form of collective action got underway in 1890. This initiative was modeled after the village improvement associations that started in New England and spread to the rest of the country.Footnote6 In his desire to help black farmers break the cycle of debt and crop liens, Robert Smith, a principal from East Texas, formed the Farmers’ Improvement Society. The Society established a buying cooperative and focused on helping families operate on a cash basis. The organization had 2340 members by 1900 in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas and coop members owned 46,000 acres of farmland. They also organized the Farmers’ Improvement Bank to help farmers obtain financing for their operations (Reynolds 2002, pp. 6–7). Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute also helped blacks establish farms in the 1890s. Under Washington’s guidance, the Southern Improvement Company was formed in 1901. The Company purchased a 4000-acre tract of land with funding obtained from a group of northern philanthropists; subdivided it and sold parcels to black farmers. Washington and Tuskegee also created the Tuskegee Farm and Improvement Company (also known as Baldwin Farms) in 1914. The Company, which remained operational till 1949, also purchased and operated an 18,400-acre tract of land in Alabama (Reynolds 2002, pp. 7–8; Zabawa and Warren 1998, pp. 467–469; Anderson 1978, p. 114).

The USDA created the Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service in 1903 to limit the impact of the boll weevil on the lands of white farmers. When the outbreak spread and ravaged black farms, the USDA created a Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service at Tuskegee Institute and hired black agents to serve black farmers. Even with the deployment of black agents to help black farmers learn about crops, some argue that the controversial Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service was of limited success (Ferguson 1998, pp. 35–36; Hersey 2006, pp. 258–259).

The Southern Tenants Farmers Union

Despite limited success in building cross-racial farmer’s alliances, blacks and whites joined forces in 1934 in Arkansas to form the Southern Tenants Farmers Union (STFU). The STFU tried to reform the sharecropping and tenancy system as the boll weevil, floods, and drought made it difficult for sharecroppers and tenant farmers to survive. The STFU helped to form the Unemployment League to put pressure on the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to create jobs for croppers and tenant farmers (Cobb 2008; Griffin 1982; Auerbach 1966, pp. 3–74; Grubbs 1971).

The STFU had more than 35,000 members by 1938. Though the organization lasted till about 1989, it was ineffective from the early 1940s onwards. Ideological differences over whether to join the Congress of Industrial Organizations or the Communist Party, debates over whether blacks should leave the organization, anti-communist infiltration, infighting, the emergence of the mechanical cotton pickers and tractors, and the Great Migration made the organization lose focus and influence (Cobb 2008; Griffin 1982; Auerbach 1966, pp. 3–74; Grubbs 1971).

Cooperatives in the Civil Rights Era and Beyond

The civil rights era ushered in a period of renewed emphasis on black farmer’s cooperatives. Through the cooperatives, blacks pooled their resources to purchase farm supplies in bulk, share equipment, identify supply chains, expand their value-added operations, and consolidate their transactions to limit exposure to hostile merchants. Some merchants denied blacks known to be members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) access to supplies, credit, and markets. As a result, black farmers collaborated with each other to establish alternative supply chains for their produce. For example, in 1956, black farmers in Clarendon County, North Carolina formed the Clarendon County Improvement Association to counter the discrimination they faced because of their membership in the NAACP. When local bankers stopped issuing credit to members of the Association, the NAACP and the United Automobile Workers helped members secure other funding. Black farmers also formed the Grand Marie Vegetable Producers Cooperative, Inc., in Louisiana in 1965 to counteract racism and get their produce to market (Reynolds 2002, pp. 2, 10–11; Daniel 2000, p. 247; Marshall and Godwin 1971, p. 51).

The National Black Farmers Association has argued that the lack of access to a broad variety of seeds puts them at a disadvantage. The group has spoken out against what it sees as the monopoly that Monsanto has on seeds. The National Black Farmers Association—that has about 80,000 members—also publicly opposed Monsanto’s acquisition of Delta and Pine Land, one of the nation’s largest cotton seed companies. Members of the National Black Farmers Association allege that they are unable to purchase seeds locally because of their stand against Monsanto hence they have to drive to different states to purchase the seeds needed for their farms (Boyd 2009; National Black Farmers Association 2007).

Similarly, one of the largest black cooperatives, the South West Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association, was boycotted by white merchants and harassed by politicians. This cooperative was formed in 1967. As black cooperatives proliferated, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, also founded in 1967, was formed to serve as an umbrella group to organize the myriad of farmers’ cooperatives, credit unions, and related community-based organizations. Within 2 years of its founding, the Federation had 24 agricultural cooperatives with 5982 members in its fold. By the 1970s, 50 agricultural cooperatives operated under the aegis of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. The Federation merged with a sister organization, the Emergency Land Fund, to better position itself to deal with the crisis of diminishing land ownership among blacks. Today, the Federation has more than 70 cooperative groups and a membership of over 20,000 families (Voorhis 1975, p. 212; Marshall and Godwin 1971; Reynolds 2002, p. 11; The Federation of Southern Cooperatives 20072017).

Black Farmers Today

In 2012, the agriculture census reported that the country’s 46,582 black farm operators accounted for 1.5% of the total farm operators. This number should be interpreted with caution because prior to 2002, the agriculture census collected information on only one farm operator (the principal operator) per farm. Since 2002, the census collects information on multiple farm operators when more than one person operates a farm. However, during the period (2002–2012), the new data collection method has been in place, the total number of black farm operators has increased by 10,212; this represents a 28% increase over this period (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2004, pp. 54–55, 2009, pp. 58–64, 2014, pp. 58–65).

Nationwide, black farmers are older than others and still operate small farms. While the average American farm is 434 acres in 2012, the average size of black-operated farms is 125 acres. The average value of sales on black-operated farms is $36,052 while the nationwide average is $187,097. Table 2 shows that unlike their predecessors, most contemporary black farm operators own the land they farm. That is, 67.8% of the black operators are full owners of the land they farm and this accounts for 45.7% of the acreage farmed by blacks in 2012. Moreover, black tenant farmers are now playing only a minor role in farming (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2014, pp. 58–65). Overwhelmingly, black farms are owned by an individual or family; 89.6% of black-operated farms fit this description in 2012. While the percentage of black farms operated by corporations has fluctuated since 1997, the percentage operating as cooperatives/estates/trusts have increased from 0.9% in 1997 to 1.4% in 2012 (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2014, p. 63, 2009, pp. 58–64, 1999, pp. 25–26).Table 2 Characteristics of black farm operators and the farms they operate, 1997–2012Full size table

Contemporary black farmers have moved away from cotton and tobacco production and have diversified what they produce. Hence in 2012, 17,037 black farms were cattle ranches, 7324 grew sugarcane, 2839 farmed oilseed and grain, almost 2000 grew vegetables and melon, and more than a thousand reared goats and sheep, or operated greenhouses and nurseries. In contrast, that year there were only 201 black-operated cotton farms and 138 black-operated tobacco farms (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2014, p. 62).

This entry was posted on September 14, 2021, in Policy.

Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next few weeks. Here is part three.

At the turn of the twentieth century, most of the black farmers did not own the land on which they farmed. Hence in 1900, around 75% of the black farm operators were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. In comparison, about 30% of white farm operators were tenant farmers and share croppers. Most of the black farmers also lived in the South. Blacks farmed about 38.2 million acres and the total value of their farm property was roughly $450 million. The farms blacks operated tended to be small—87.3% of the farms were less than 100 acres in size. At the time, 58% of white-operated farms were less than a hundred acres (U.S. Census Bureau 1902, pp. 48–112).

The number of black farmers in the USA had declined dramatically since peaking in 1920. At their peak, black farm operators comprised 14.3% of the total farmers in the USA. They farmed approximately 41.4 million acres and their operations were worth an estimated $2.3 billion (U.S. Census Bureau 1922, pp. 293–313).

The USDA’s Farm Service AgencyFootnote2 responded to the nationwide loss of farmland by helping to create farming settlements during the 1930s. Roughly 13 of the more than 100 farming settlements that the agency created were all-black. This was a short-lived project as the Farm Service Agency phased out its resettlement and coop-building programs after 1941 (Zabawa and Warren 1998, pp. 480–483; Wood and Ragar 2012, p. 18; Reynolds 2002, p. 10). Early on, environmental inequalities were evident in the spatial configuration of the resettlement projects. Though some of the resettlement communities had white and black farmers, the two groups were segregated such that one section of the community had only white farmers and the other only black farmers. This was the case with Tillery/Roanoke Farms. The all-white portion of the settlement was called Roanoke Farms, while blacks occupied the Tillery Farms portion. When the settlement was being constructed, the section that became Tillery was originally intended for white homesteaders. The farms were partitioned and construction began on two-story homes. However, whites complained that the Roanoke River tended to flood and they did not want to live in the flood zone. White farmers suggested that blacks be settled in the floodplain instead. They requested that the higher grounds be allocated to whites. Once it was decided that whites would be settled away from the river, no more two-story homes were constructed in the area designated for black occupancy. The Roanoake River flooded in 1940, destroying about half of the Tillery project (Wood and Ragar 2012, pp. 18–20). Hence in the case of Roanoke and Tillery, residential space, location of farms, exposure to hazards, risk, and size and quality of housing were racialized in a way that placed blacks at a disadvantage. That is, the different levels of risk that blacks and whites in the settlement faced impacted the profitability of their farms and their ability to keep the farms solvent.

Other actions of the Farm Service Agency were also detrimental to blacks. For example, decisions related the agency’s operations—such as the granting of loans—are vested in a local committee structure and blacks have had little say in Farm Service Agency’s committees. For instance, there are nearly 3000 county agricultural offices nationwide and less than 2% of county committee members are black. As a result, separate procedures, loan packages, and levels of oversight are applied to black and white farmers routinely (Wood and Ragar 2012, p. 24). In 2015, only 10.5% of the employees of the Farm Service Agency were African Americans (Partnership for Public Service 2016).

Nearly 1 million Michiganders lost power from August storms as DTE, Consumers Energy were unprepared

Detroit News exposes DTE, Consumers for propping up status quo, funding 96% of Michigan Legislature

Nearly 1 million Michiganders lost power from August storms as DTE, Consumers Energy were unprepared and ill-equipped

A news release from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters reports that the cozy relationship Michigan’s utilities enjoy with lawmakers enshrining their monopolies – resulting in the highest electricity rates and lowest reliability in the Midwest – is fueled by millions in political and civic donations, as exposed by the Detroit News in an article today.

The article found 140 out of 146 Michigan lawmakers received some kind of campaign donation from DTE or Consumers Energy, while the monopoly utilities funneled $55 million to political and civic spending.

“When storms hit and Michigan utilities leave nearly 1 million people in the dark, it’s clear the status quo is unacceptable,” said Bob Allison, deputy director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “Behind closed doors, the utilities continue to lobby against common-sense clean energy policies that would help lower the cost of electricity and improve reliability for customers. Michiganders deserve better, which is why DTE and Consumers Energy must be held fully accountable for their failures over the summer.”

Michigan LCV has called for a moratorium on residential electric rate hikes until independent investigations can look into why Michiganders suffer through more and longer outages than any other state in the Great Lakes region. The Michigan Public Service Commission has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 22, while a legislative hearing has been proposed but not scheduled, according to media reports.

According to the independent Citizens Utility Board of Michigan (CUB), an independent organization representing the interests of Michigan’s residential energy customers, Michigan utilities lag far behind other states in terms of reliability: 

  • Michigan utilities had the second-worst restoration time per outage in the nation – even on days without major storm events. 
  • In the Great Lakes region, Michiganders experienced the most amount of minutes out-of-power on average annually. 

In the last five years, DTE Energy has increased rates to the tune of $775 million with little improvements to service, while Consumers Energy is currently proposing a $225 million rate increase – just months after they hiked our rates this past January. 

While DTE had profits of $1.4 billion and Consumers Energy’s parent company, CMS, raking in $680 million, Michigan ratepayers are experiencing unreliable service. More than 800,000 Michiganders lost power during recent storms and the utilities are now saying customers will have to file paperwork to receive a small credit for their troubles. 

Media reports show that DTE and Consumers Energy paid no federal taxes in 2020, with utility spokespersons saying it would ultimately trickle down into savings to customers.  Last year, both Consumers Energy and DTE spent more than $10 million paying their CEOs. 

Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next few weeks. Here is part two.

A National Overview

Historical Context

Free and enslaved blacks have farmed the American soil for almost four centuries. One of the earliest black farm owners in the USA is believed to be Anthony (Antonio) Johnson, an Angolan, who was brought to Jamestown in colonial Virginia in 1619 as an indentured servant. After gaining his freedom around 1835, Johnson and his wife, Mary, grew corn and tobacco on their 250-acre farm. The wealthy couple later moved to Somerset County, Maryland, where they cultivated 300 acres of land (Berlin 1998; Hinson and Robinson 2008, p. 284; Foner 1980; Breen and Innis 1980, pp. 10–17).

The Johnson’s success is unusual because it was difficult for blacks to own land and operate farms of their own. There were legislative attempts to prohibit black landownership as early as 1818, and the barriers erected to prevent blacks from acquiring land in the South were very effective. In only one state, Virginia, was there substantial black landowners. In 1860, blacks owned 13,000 tracts of land in the state’s Tidewater counties (Gray 1949, p. 528; Fisher 1973, p. 481). Up until the early 1860s, black landownership was realized in a haphazard fashion. As the Civil War waned, attempts to sell land to blacks became more structured. The first attempt at organized land distribution involving blacks occurred in 1862 when William Tecumseh Sherman ordered confiscated Confederate plantations to be sold (Reynolds 2002, p. 20; Pease and Pease 1963, pp. 139–141; Hinson and Robison 2008, p. 286).

Farming by free blacks accelerated during reconstruction as increased numbers of blacks acquired their own land. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1865 called for 40-acre parcels to be carved out of abandoned plantations and unsettled lands and sold to former slaves. That year, about 40,000 blacks were settled on tracts on the Carolina Sea Islands and cultivated thousands of acres of environmentally vulnerable lands in swamps, tidal flats, river bottomlands, and flood zones. The opposition to black landownership was strong and some blacks were forced off the land they had acquired. Consequently, by late 1865, Andrew Johnson’s administration halted the Union Army’s efforts to distribute land to blacks. A second Freedmen’s Bureau Act was passed in 1866 but it had no specifications for distributing tracts of land to blacksFootnote1(Bennett 1993, pp. 186–191; Reynolds 2002, p. 2–3; Shannon 1968, p. 84). Eventually, most of the land confiscated from former plantation owners were restored to the former owners and the impact of the Freedmen’s Bureau was quite limited (Fisher 1973, p. 482). The government’s reluctance to subdivide plantations hindered widespread distribution of land to blacks (Reynolds 2002, p. 3).

Some blacks did manage to obtain land through the Southern Homestead Act of 1866. Patterned after the 1862 Homestead Act, the Southern Homestead Act was in effect from 1866 to 1876 and was intended to help freed slaves and whites who took an oath of loyalty to gain access to 80-acre parcels of farmland. The Act opened up and sold off about 46.4 million acres of land in the public domain in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi; however, much of this land was pine woods and swamplands that were unfit for cultivation. Blacks seeking homesteads were threatened, intimidated, or barriers erected to make it difficult for them to participate in the program. This was the case because white plantation owners saw independent black land owners and farmers as a threat to the plantation system that was heavily dependent on cheap and servile labor. Consequently, only 4000 of the 67,600 applicants to the program were black. Notwithstanding, blacks secured homesteads in Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia (Franklin and Moss Jr. 1994, p. 234; Meinig 2000, pp. 195–198; Oliver and Shapiro 1996, pp. 14–15; Oubre 1978; Ferguson 1998, pp. 37–38).

A system of forced labor based on tenancy and peonage laws bound most blacks to the plantations as effectively as slavery. Thus, in 1890, seven out of every eight blacks worked on a plantation or as a domestic servant. However, the Second Morrill Act which enabled the establishment of state agricultural colleges for black students was passed in 1890. The agricultural program at Tuskegee Institute was one of these programs (Reynolds 2002, p. 5). Despite this development, peonage in the form of share cropping and tenant farming remained common. Though peonage laws were found unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1911, a year later roughly 250,000 blacks were still being held to service on southern plantations against their will (Bennett 1993, pp. 218, 245–249; 252–255; Drake and Cayton 1993, p. 53; Tolnay and Beck 1991, p. 25).

Notwithstanding, black landownership grew during the second half of the nineteenth century. W. E. B. Du Bois estimates that collectively blacks owned 3 million acres of land in 1875, 8 million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900 (Du Bois 1935, p. 4). By 1910, blacks owned roughly 16 million acres of farmland (Schweninger 1989, pp. 41–69; Daniel 2007, p. 3). However, the practice of selling or placing blacks on marginal, degraded, hazard prone, or agriculturally unproductive lands was so commonplace that Du Bois referred to these as waste lands (Du Bois 1901, p. 665; Fisher 1973, p. 483).

Blacks farmed significant acreage, but by the early part of the twentieth century, black landownership and farming began to plummet. Nationwide, blacks constituted 13% of the farmers in 1900 (see Table 1); however, they operated 29.4% of the least valuable farms and only 1% of the most valuable ones. The most common crops grown by black farmers were cotton and rice. That is, 49.1% of the farmers growing cotton were black, so were 37.3% of those growing rice, 18.3% of those growing tobacco, 14.8% of those growing sugar, and 10% of those growing vegetables. Black farm operators were so dependent on cotton that 70.5% derived their primary income from cotton. Another 6.9% obtained their primary income from hay and grain, 4.1% from livestock, and 2.6% from tobacco (U.S. Census Bureau 1902, pp. 48–112).