Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell from 681,790 to just 45,594—a drop of 93 percent. In Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, historian Pete Daniel analyzes this decline and chronicles black farmers’ fierce struggles to remain on the land in the face of discrimination by bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). He exposes the shameful fact that at the very moment civil rights laws promised to end discrimination, hundreds of thousands of black farmers lost their hold on the land as they were denied loans, information, and access to the programs essential to survival in a capital-intensive farm structure.
In the following excerpt from Dispossession (pp. 106-110), Daniel explains the purposeful ineptness and humiliation tactics used by officials during the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) elections of 1965 to undermine the presence and efforts of civil rights workers, particularly those affiliated with Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
As the ASCS elections approached in 1965, civil rights workers pestered USDA officials for information and procedures. Stung by complaints about the 1964 elections and desiring to present a better public stance toward civil rights, ASCS officials from the national to the county level promised cooperation with African American farmers. A new rule instructing county committees to place on the ballot the “names of Negro farmers in relationship to the percentage of Negro farmers in the parish and communities” at first glance seemed advantageous to black farmers, but it led to acrimony as white committees picked a slate of compliant candidates while blacks nominated by petition endured a cumbersome approval process. Voicing what became a common complaint, Joel Horowitz of the West Tennessee Voters’ Project wrote from Fayette County that the all-white ASCS committee selected black nominees who “have reputations in the Negro community for cooperating with the whites to the detriment of Negroes.” Ballots would thus include black farmers handpicked by county ASCS committees plus successful petitioners, which, as intended, would spread votes among numerous candidates.
In practice, the ASCS’s promised reforms did not work smoothly. In Louisiana’s Claiborne and DeSoto Parishes, the ASCS committees placed the names of deceased black farmers on the ballot, forcing new elections. CORE’s Harold Ickes confronted Madison Parish’s ASCS office manager, James B. Stewart, about why black farmers’ wives had to obtain their ballots from the ASCS office instead of receiving them by mail like white women. Stewart’s “courteous manner” soured, Ickes reported, and Stewart told him “to mind my own goddam business and he would run his office.” Ickes complained to William Seabron that Stewart was ignoring ASCS regulations, and he strongly objected to Stewart’s profane language. The complaint caused consternation in Washington, and Seabron dismissed a draft reply as unresponsive on several counts, including not addressing Stewart’s profanity. In the final reply, Seabron assured Ickes that all ballots, for both men and women, should be mailed, and he reported Stewart’s denial of his use of profanity and shamelessly boasted of the high caliber of ASCS employees.
First reports indicated that the Louisiana ASCS election went smoothly and that mail ballots were counted with CORE observers present. Ickes helped tally votes in one parish office, and observers even took photographs in Caldwell Parish. ASCS personnel quickly undermined CORE’s effectiveness. According to Wainwright Blease, “The pre-election activity by CORE brought little if any increased participation by Negro farmers. It did increase participation by white farmers, especially where CORE was most active.” Increased participation of whites, of course, resulted from the CORE challenge. The Louisiana ASCS election yielded fifteen African American alternates and two community committeemen. Blease’s observation illuminated the plan to encourage more white participation while tactically reducing the black vote, always keeping a worried eye on civil rights workers.
Despite civil rights laws, black farmers often endured humiliating treatment. St. Landry Parish’s African American farmers distrusted ASCS acreage allotments and measurements, but they had no recourse since they were forced to avoid the ASCS office run by a Mr. Wyble. Blacks had to take off their hats upon entering the courthouse, and Wyble often threw black farmers out of his office, refusing to inform them of ASCS programs. When they did apply for program benefits, Wyble told them there were no funds. A Mr. Foret replaced Wyble before the 1965 ASCS election and announced that the ASCS committee would place African Americans on the ballot. Many black farmers protested, reasoning that “those candidates who would be handpicked by the present committee could be controlled by those same people if they were elected.” Foret sent ballots only to owners, not to eligible sharecroppers and tenants. When a disgruntled delegation went to his office, he announced that tenants and sharecroppers could come by the office and get ballots. After farmers tied up the office with demands for ballots and complained to the USDA about discriminatory policies, shortly before the election, Foret relented and mailed ballots to sharecroppers and tenants. Some of the black farmers placed on the ballot only learned of their nomination when they received ballots. The election lasted from August 1 through 10, and black farmers distrusted security since the ballots were not guarded after being returned to the office. As the election progressed, CORE workers circulated around the parish and learned that many sharecroppers, women, and tenants had not received ballots. All of the black candidates lost. CORE leaders reasoned that they had not started their campaign in time to deal with the issue of sharecropper, tenant, and wife ballots, nor had they focused efforts on problematic communities. Still, in a fair election, they would have done better.
As Louisiana’s 1965 ASCS elections moved ahead, whites continued to exact a price for black activism. Jack Allums and his wife got on the wrong side of whites in 1957 when he attempted to register to vote and she testified in New Orleans before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Later that year, police stopped their son for speeding and beat him. In the summer of 1965, after a CORE worker was killed on the streets of Minden, Jack Allums transported CORE workers to a sit-in. The industrious Allums farmed, as well as working as a school patrolman, a drayman for the L & A Railroad, and a janitor for Montgomery-Ward. According to NSF field representative Ocie Lee Smith, Allums “was fired from each job, in succession. The intimidation was terrific.” Someone had attempted to force Mrs. Allums’s car off the road. Neither a local bank nor the FHA would lend Jack Allums money. The Allums family had a nice three-bedroom house with indoor plumbing. The couple had nine children, and one daughter was set to attend Southern University in the fall. Allums owed money on his tractor, but he owned a truck, a heifer, a mule, and a horse. “The Allums family,” Smith reported on October 22, “has been existing on donations of all kinds, by community people.” On December 13, William Seabron passed this narrative to the USDA inspector general and asked for an investigation.
Many ASCS offices seemed inefficient by nature, but when faced with civil rights challenges, they became adept at purposeful ineptness. Will McWilliams, the office manager in Holmes County, Mississippi, finally furnished a list of eligible voters the day ballots were mailed, and only then did black farmers discover hundreds of missing names. In addition, black farm owners’ wives did not receive ballots and were compelled to bring proof of their eligibility to the office. Farm owner Ralthus Hayes was chairman of the county MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] at the time and traveled to Washington to complain. The county committee, instructed to send challenge ballots to those left off the list, did not comply with the order, and the MFDP advised farmers to obtain challenge ballots at the ASCS office. “It takes a courageous and protesting man,” Hayes pointed out, “to stand up and demand his ballot when it is obvious that the white man, either the ASCS manager or his ‘owner,’ has kept him from getting his ballot in the normal manner.” The ASCS office grudgingly gave out ballots but required contracts, receipts, and other records that many African American farmers who relied on verbal agreements lacked. ASCS vote counters used petty excuses to toss out black ballots.
From Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights by Pete Daniel. Copyright © 2013 by The University of North Carolina Press.
- F. Wainwright Blease to Victor B. Phillips, July 6, 1965, box 321, Central Files, Records of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Record Group 145 (CFASCS, RG 145), National Archives and Records Administration, Archives II, College Park, Md. (NARA); Joel Horowitz to Orville Freeman, September 9, 1965, box 12, Chronological Files, Office of the Staff Director, Records Relating to Special Projects, 1960-70, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Record Group 453, NARA. See also “Proposal by Rural Advancement Fund of the National Sharecroppers Fund, Inc. for Massive ASCS Election Campaign in Alabama and Other Southern States,” box 32, Rural Advancement Fund, folder 26, National Sharecroppers Fund Papers, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich. (NSF Papers).↩
- Harold Ickes to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), July 15, 1965; William Seabron, memo, August 2, 1965; Seabron to Ickes, August 9, 1965; F. Wainwright Blease to deputy administrator of state and county operations (DASCO), August 10, 1965, box 320, CFASCS, RG 145, NARA.↩
- Acting director, south-central area, to DASCO, August 13, 1965; Ray Fitzgerald to Horace Godfrey, August 17, 1965; F. Wainwright Blease to DASCO, August 18, 1965, ibid. See also Louisiana state executive director to F. Wainwright Blease, October 29, 1965, box 321, ibid.↩
- “Report on ASCS Election in St. Landry Parish, Summer 1965,” box 53, Reports, folder 2, NSF Papers.↩
- Ocie Lee Smith to Jac Wasserman, October 22, 1965, box 60, Ocie Smith, folder 10, ibid.; William Seabron to J. William Howell, December 13, 1965, box 4254, Civil Rights, General Correspondence, 1906-76, Records of the Secretary of Agriculture, Record Group 16, NARA.↩
- Ralthus Hayes, Susan Lorenzi, and Henry Lorenzi, “Report on the 1965 ASCS Community Committee Election in Holmes County, Mississippi,” n.d., box 28, ASCS, folder 42, NSF Papers; Dittmer, Local People, 191.↩