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California Reparations Task Force Looks at Long History of Racism in American Agriculture

In March, the U.S. Congress passed a $4 billion debt relief program for farmers of color to address past discrimination in USDA programs. The debt relief program was passed as part of the ARP. It includes funding to pay off USDA loans held by 16,000 Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic and Latino farmers. 

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A Black famer waters their crop. Shutterstock photo.
A Black famer waters their crop. Shutterstock photo.

By Antonio‌ ‌Ray‌ ‌Harvey‌ | California‌ ‌Black‌ ‌Media‌

Last month, Lawrence Lucas, founder of the United States Department of Agriculture Coalition of Minority Employees (USDA-CME), testified before the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.

Lucas said racism is the prime reason there are just a little over 400 Black farmers in California.

“The income of Black Farmers has been drastically reduced and the amount of wealth that has been taken from Black farmers is tremendous,” Lucas said. “What you would call reparations, we call justice. It is why you must do what you have to do in California to right the wrongs suffered by Black people.”

Lucas is not the only one concerned about mounting evidence that documents a long history of race-based discrimination in American agriculture.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently created the Equity Commission (EC) to study racial discrimination and government policies that have disempowered Black farmers, depleted their wealth and nearly wiped out their presence for over 100 years.

EC will advise the Secretary of Agriculture by identifying USDA programs, policies, systems, structures, and practices that created barriers to inclusion or perpetuated racial, economic, health and social disparities.

USDA-CME was founded in 1994 to address discrimination within the USDA, which Lucas referred to as the “Last Plantation” during his testimony. The coalition also focuses its work on the historical loss of Black-owned land and how government policies deprived African Americans of generational wealth.

The EC is expected to issue a preliminary report and provide “actionable recommendations” within the next 12 months, and a final report to be finished within two years.

“The Equity Commission is taking important steps to dismantle barriers historically underserved communities have faced in accessing USDA programs and services,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement issued on September 24.

Lucas said despite the USDA’s efforts to address decades-old discrimination practices, he does not see it “getting any better” for Black farmers. Non-Black farm producers are fighting back in the courts, Lucas said.

“You have white farmers, who own most of the land and get all the benefits from the land; they are the ones now bringing court cases around the country. They are saying that it’s discriminatory to have debt-relief for Black farmers,” Lucas said.

The CME’s biggest accomplishment is its involvement in securing debt relief for Black farmers as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The ARP package included a multi-billion-dollar fund for socially disadvantaged farmers throughout the United States.

The coalition has worked alongside U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) to create the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which will provide even more aid to socially disadvantaged farmers.

Of the approximately 70,000 farms in California, more than 90% are white-owned or white-managed and fewer than 1% are Black-owned or Black-managed, according to the 2017 federal agriculture census.

The 2012 census reported that California had 722 Black farmers. By 2017, that number had decreased to 429. Nationally, there are 45,508 Black farmers or 1.3% of all farmers according to the 2017 agriculture census. Their properties account for 0.5% of the country’s farmlands.

In contrast, about 14% of all U.S. farmers in 1920 were Black, according to that year’s agriculture census. At the time, there were 925,708 Black farmers. Nearly all of them farmed in Deep South states. Lucas blames the USDA for the depletion of Black farmlands over the last century.

However, the USDA says it is in the process of reversing harmful policies and taking restorative action for programs that affected the progress, financial stability, and productive livelihood of Black farmers.

“We are serious about our efforts to end discrimination across all areas of the Department and to improve access to services for key stakeholders,” said USDA Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh in a statement.

In March, the U.S. Congress passed a $4 billion debt relief program for farmers of color to address past discrimination in USDA programs.

The debt relief program was passed as part of the ARP. It includes funding to pay off USDA loans held by 16,000 Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic and Latino farmers.

Claiming discrimination, a group of white farmers have filed a dozen lawsuits against the program including one class action suit. Preliminary injunctions by three courts have momentarily blocked the program from issuing funds from the program.

According to Khubaka Michael Harris of the California Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (CBFAA), “The debt relief was written in a way to help Black folks, but it is not just for Black folks. That’s why it’s in the courts. It was written where anybody who is a farmer can say, ‘Hey, I’ve been affected by COVID, too.’ Then, you are going to say that this money is just earmarked for Black folks? Now, the legislators have to go back to write in a language that targets underserved communities.”

Based in Sacramento, CBFAA advocates for socially disadvantaged California Black farmers, and agriculturalists of color nationwide.

Lucas said it is actions such as the lawsuits that “deny Black farmers their dignity,” “a right to farm,” and deny Black farmers the “right to the same programs and services that white farmers get in this country.”

In California, farming is classified under the term “agricultural activity.”

The state defines it as “the harvesting of any agricultural commodity, including timber, viticulture, apiculture, or horticulture, the raising of livestock, fur-bearing animals, fish, or poultry, and any practices performed by a farmer or on a farm are also agricultural activities.”

“That goes for licensed cannabis farmers, too,” Harris said. “If you cultivate cannabis you are a farmer in this state.”

Assembly Bill (AB) 3121, titled “The Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” was a law created to investigate the history of slavery in the United States, the extent of California’s involvement in slavery, segregation, and the denial of Black citizens their constitutional rights.

The nine-member task force is expected to hear more testimonies from Black farmers in California, including producers from the Central Valley.

“I see what all of you in California are doing is what needs to be done across this country,” Lucas said during his testimony. “It is the courage of your governor and the courage of the people on this Reparation Committee to take on this daunting task of talking to other people about their pain and suffering. Black farmers are suffering.”

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Activism

16th Annual MLK Day of Service on the Richmond Greenway

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

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“…Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

The event was hosted by Urban Tilth and the City of Richmond. Event partners were Groundwork Richmond, Rich City Rides, Moving Forward, Hope Worldwide, The Watershed Project, Contra Costa Resource Conservation District, Building Blocks for Kids, City of Richmond, Cal Cameron Institute, Friends of the Richmond Greenway; and Pogo Park.

The celebration made possible with the support of the Hellman Family Foundation, City of Richmond, and hundreds of individual donors.

The day’s schedule included volunteer projects along the Richmond Greenway and a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and community celebration at Unity Park.

Among the community service projects were opportunities to take part in projects to transform and beautify the Richmond Greenway Trail, like tending to the Greenway Gardens, trash pickup, and planting native plant and trees.

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Activism

Sheng Thao Sworn in as New Mayor of Oakland, Pledges New Direction for the City

Mayor Thao provided a few minutes on the program to introduce to the community Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, the newly appointed deputy mayor, who has served as vice president of external affairs and dean of the school of education at Holy Names University, a leader of the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and a member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.

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Mayor Sheng Thao, sworn in as the 51st Mayor of Oakland, is flanked by her son Ben Ventura and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.
Mayor Sheng Thao, sworn in as the 51st Mayor of Oakland, is flanked by her son Ben Ventura and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Mayor Thao appoints HNU’s Dr. Kimberly Mayfield as deputy mayor

By Ken Epstein

Sheng Thao, a daughter of Hmong refugees who overcame homelessness and domestic abuse to attend university and build a life for herself and her family in Oakland, received the official oath of office Monday afternoon as the new mayor of the City of Oakland.

Sworn in at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, she stood on stage surrounded by friends, family, and staff members. She was flanked by her son Ben Ventura, who performed a musical piece on the cello, and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao.

The mayor called on Oaklanders to join with her to create a more humane, inclusive, and just city. She spoke about her commitment as a progressive to significantly improve the quality of life for residents, making the city safer and cleaner, building 30,000 units of truly affordable housing, fostering jobs, promoting economic development, supporting small businesses and providing solutions to homelessness that recognize the dignity of the unsheltered.

“I know what we can do together, Oakland,” she said. “Our city’s’ best days are still to come. The Oakland that we all know is possible and within our reach.”

Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield (left) with Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield (left) with Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Mayor Thao provided a few minutes on the program to introduce to the community Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, the newly appointed deputy mayor, who has served as vice president of external affairs and dean of the school of education at Holy Names University, a leader of the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and a member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.

In her remarks, the mayor focused on the city’s long fight to become more inclusive and equitable.

“We believe everyone deserves a seat at the table, not just a few, not just the wealthy, not just the well-connected,” she said.

“Sometimes, we take our shared progressive values for granted, our advances toward justice and equality,” said Mayor Thao.

She reminded people that “a…century ago, our city was dominated by members of the Ku Klux Klan (where) Klan members burned crosses in our hills and marched through our streets. As recently as the1970s, freeways were made possible by tearing down thriving Black, Latino, and Asian communities,” she continued.

“We recognize what we have overcome together to remember what is worth fighting for every day…(and) to take stock of how far we still have to go.”

Promising a “comprehensive” approach to public safety to make all neighborhoods in the city safer, she said she would bolster anti-crime programs like Ceasefire and “we will fill (police) vacancies with home-grown police officers who know our community, who look like us.”

At the same time, she said, the city must increase opportunities for young people, reinvigorating the summer jobs program (for youth) and enhance the school-to-work pipeline so young people can gain experience and job skills.

She said she would beef up the many city departments that are currently operating on skeleton staffing, promising to fill the staffing vacancies that “plague our city.”

Mayor Thao said she herself is a renter, and that she “will fiercely protect Oakland renters. If you are a renter in Oakland, you’ve got a mayor who’s got your back.”

Speaking about the Oakland A’s proposed waterfront real estate development promoted by former Mayor Libby Schaaf, Mayor Thao said the city will continue negotiations to keep the team “rooted in Oakland.”

“Working closely with the A’s, I’m hopeful we can reach a good deal, (based) on our Oakland values,” she said.

The former mayor’s plan for building the proposed waterfront real estate development at the Port of Oakland was dealt a major setback this week when Oakland failed to secure more than $180 million in federal funds to help pay for infrastructure development for the project.

Speaking of the importance of the appointment of Mayfield as deputy mayor, the Mayor’s Office explained her role in the new administration:

“Mayor Thao was thrilled Kimberly Mayfield agreed to join her team because of her tremendous and longstanding leadership in Oakland. In recognition of her vast experience, it was decided that the best role for her would be as deputy mayor where she will be an instrumental part of the leadership of both the Office and Oakland.”

In her introduction at the Paramount Theatre, Mayfield said, “Today is not about political agendas…It’s about the power of the people…it’s a recognition of the rejection of the status quo. This new chapter begins with a mayor that understands how to build a culture that works for everyone. Thank you, Mayor Thao for the opportunity to serve.”

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Activism

California Family Whose Beachfront Properties were Seized 100 years ago, Sells Land Back to County for $20 Million

In the 1920s, the beach resort was extremely popular with African American tourists. At that time, Black people were not permitted on white beaches. The site became famously known as “Bruce’s Beach.” The children and grandchildren of Charles and Willa Bruce fought for decades to get back the land.

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Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell commemorate the signing of State legislation to return the land to the closest living heirs of the Charles and Willa Bruce. Credit / County of Los Angeles.
Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell commemorate the signing of State legislation to return the land to the closest living heirs of the Charles and Willa Bruce. Credit / County of Los Angeles.

By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire

The great-grandchildren of the African American couple Willa and Charles Bruce, whose land in Southern California was taken in 1924 and returned to the family last year, have opted to sell it back to the local government for $20 million.

In the 1920s, the beach resort was extremely popular with African American tourists. At that time, Black people were not permitted on white beaches.

The site became famously known as “Bruce’s Beach.”

The children and grandchildren of Charles and Willa Bruce fought for decades to get back the land.

Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a family historian and spokesman for the Bruce family, stated in a 2021 interview, “It was a very significant location because there was nowhere else along the California coast where African Americans could go to enjoy the water.”

The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists often threatened the Bruce family, but they kept the resort open and took care of the land.

In 1924, the municipal council used eminent domain to take the land to build a park.

But, according to a TV show called “The Insider,” the area wasn’t used for many years.

Willa and Charles Bruce fought back in court, but their compensation was only $14,000. In recent years, local officials have estimated the property’s value to be as high as $75 million.

The area contains two coastal properties and is currently used for lifeguard training.

Janice Hahn, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, revealed that the family would sell the property back to the local government.

Hahn stated that the price was set through an appraisal.

Hahn stated, “This is what reparations look like, and it is a model I hope governments around the country would adopt.”

The statement made by Hahn may or may not be exactly what the Bruce family desired in addition to the restitution of their land.

In 2021, Anthony Bruce, the great-great-grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce, told The New York Times, “An apology would be the least they could do.”

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