Race, Land and Justice: ‘This War Isn’t Over’

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Michael Stovall

Alabama farmer Michael Stovall inside a chicken house that was supposed to be part of a USDA-financed farm expansion that never happened. Photo by Katti Gray

More than two decades ago, a group including the white sheriff of Limestone County, Ala., rustled and slaughtered more than 60 head of cattle owned by a black farmer, then dumped the carcasses into graves they’d dug on that fourth-generation farmer’s land.

That was the finding of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) special investigator.

But it was the farmer who went to jail.

“They said I’d starved the animals to death, and that was a straight-out lie,” said Michael Stovall, 56, reflecting on what transpired during that freak Alabama snowstorm in 1996.

Next week, on Oct. 29, Stovall is scheduled to participate in a telephone hearing with a USDA administrative law judge in the next step of his more than 20-year-old quest to revive his farm and clear his name of a wrongful conviction.

But while removing the conviction is a serious concern, Stovall also is determined to take the USDA to task for its refusal to grant him loans and other aid that the agency has given white farmers with similar income, earning potential and credit-worthiness.

That’s cost him, according to his calculations, tens of millions of dollars in lost farm revenue.

Stovall’s travails persist as a federal judge in Georgia, in August 2019, squashed a USDA request for that court to dismiss a newly filed lawsuit alleging ongoing discrimination against black farmers—despite a 1999 landmark class-action settlement aimed at ending the USDA’s race-based practices.

The Pigford v. Glickman case, together with Pigford II, a 2008 addendum, were supposed to have granted retroactive financial and other assistance to black farmers who could prove they’d been unfairly denied USDA aid because of their race.

Farmers like Stovall, however, say they are still waiting for justice.

Stovall’s struggle is cast against a backdrop of this year’s Congressional hearings on reparations for descendants of U.S. slaves, a discussion that is as much about coming to grips with lingering systemic racism in rural America as about seeking damages for past brutality.

“The real emergency here is the way the USDA has been obliterating black farmers,”  said third-generation farmer Angela Dawson of Rutledge, Minn., a former University of Minnesota health-policy researcher who founded the 40-Acre Co-op Trust, a nationwide advocacy and technical assistance project for black farmers.

Since 1935, she argues, regional USDA offices have pursued polices that have “slowly eroded black land ownership.”

USDA ‘Fiefdoms’

Many of those regional offices operated like “fiefdoms” in the service of powerful local interests, she said.

Stovall’s story is an illustration. He argues that his wrongful conviction for animal cruelty in 1997 was a result of the legal pressure placed on him and other black farmers who were seeking their fair share of USDA farm dollars and technical assistance, granted them under the 1999 court settlement.

Stovall believes he was framed by the persons who slaughtered his cattle because he’d refused an offer by one member of the group to buy his farm. (The Limestone County sheriff  involved in the cattle rustling—he’d been in office 36 years—was indicted in August 2019 on 13 charges of felony theft and ethics violation, none of them related to Stovall’s case.)

Even though he knew, as he put it, that he had been “set up,” he checked into the county jail, paid bond, and went to trial months later expecting to be vindicated.

“I heard the district attorney tell the judge —he was showing pictures of my cattle—‘Ain’t no way these cows died from neglect. Look how pretty they were,’” Stovall recalled.

“But the judge told him to hush up. And guess who they had to testify against me? A veterinarian who, three weeks after my trial, was found making counterfeit money.”

The link between his subsequent conviction, which  carried  a $500 fine and two years’ probation for the misdemeanor offense of animal cruelty, and his claims against the USDA was underlined, he claims, when county officials gave him a stark choice: Stop pushing back against the conviction or forego a $140,000 USDA loan and five years’ worth of USDA technical assistance aimed at keeping the Stovall farm afloat.

Financially desperate, he chose the loan.

His nearly 200-acre farm floundered anyhow, partly because the USDA never gave the contracted technical assistance, Stovall said.

The Next Generation

He’s no longer physically able to farm. But his 24-year-old grandson wants to pick up farming where his grandfather left off, on land that’s part of what were 1,000 acres that Stovall’s great-grandfather amassed, divided and bequeathed to his offspring.

“I still have a finding of discrimination against me by the USDA. They promised but never got me up and into full operation. They still violated the settlement agreement,” Stovall said.

“The USDA division of civil rights was supposed to clear my name of that animal cruelty conviction … I have been fighting these battles since I was 29 years old.

“I haven’t given up, but I am very, very tired.”

Johnnie Henderson

Farmer Johnnie Henderson in Tallulah, La. Photo by Katti Gray

Stories that parallel Stovall’s, while not precisely tallied, are more numerous than they should be, black farmer advocates argue.

“All sorts of bizarre things have happened with black farmers during this fight against the USDA,” said Corey Lea, a Tennessee cowboy who filed the new lawsuit against the USDA in federal courts in Georgia and Washington, D.C. this year.

Lea’s 2019 lawsuit argues that the USDA failed to grant thousands of black farmers in-person hearings required by the Pigford consent decree.  If it succeeds, he said, it should result in compensation for a class of black farmers that includes Stovall.

A Driver’s License Suspension

It also would include people like Johnnie Henderson, 72, a retired police detective from Tallulah, La.

After Henderson became involved in the original lawsuit, his own legal troubles increased.

The Louisiana Department of Revenue ordered Henderson’s driver’s license suspended in 2010, based on what he says is an erroneous allegation that he owed federal income taxes on a $65,000 payment he received from the USDA in 2009 through the Pigford fund. (Henderson gave The Crime Report copies of Internal Revenue Service documents showing the $12,500 tax bill was paid.)

Then, in 2015, after he got involved in a car mishap, he got ticketed for driving with a suspended license, and ended up paying a $180 fine.

“This just don’t feel good—not at all,” said Henderson, who ran unsuccessfully this year for sheriff of his parish, Louisiana’s name for what other states call counties.

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I wish I’d never filed [to get money from] that lawsuit. It has caused me a whole bunch of problems.”

Lea, founder of the Cowtown Foundation, has been organizing black farmers—mainly in the South and Midwest—since the USDA foreclosed on, then auctioned off, his 72-acre North Carolina farm in 2014.

He said the injustices suffered by Stovall, Henderson and many other rural black landowners reflects how entrenched racism remains, including among the powers-that-be in America’s heartland.

Katti Gray

“Any America that is truly America would not subject its people to the kind of institutional racism that … gets Michael Stovall hauled off to jail for something he did not do—just to keep him from farming,” Lea said.

“This war,” he added, “is a long way from being over.”

Katti Gray, a contributing editor at The Crime Report, is reporting on black farmers as a Fund for Investigative Journalism Fellow. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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