The whole country was ravaged by a broken economy in the 1930s. President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, designed to bring relief to the poor, provided only measured assistance to black farmers. Beginning in 1933, Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) made subsidy payments available to large Southern farms. However these subsidies were siphoned off by white landowners who never got around to distributing disbursements among their sharecroppers and tenants.
Also in 1933, Roosevelt created the $500 million Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to help poor, rural Americans. Black farmers applied for relief but did not receive it as often as whites. In June 1934, for example, there were 84 applications from blacks and 49 from whites. The FERA accepted 24, all from white farmers. The average total relief for whites was $19.51 and for blacks, $15.17. Preferential treatment of white farmers was endemic throughout the South; the rationale was that blacks could survive on less.
In 1935, in response to the unfair practices of the AAA and FERA, black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers joined forces to form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which, at its height, numbered could tolerate neither unions nor cooperation between poor whites and blacks, targeted the group with violence and divisive tactics that stirred up old racial prejudices among members.
Finally, in a small window of opportunity from 1937-1942, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created with one-fifth of AAA’s holdings, to make loans to tenant farmers . This was the first widespread government assistance to black farmers since the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction. It allowed thousands of blacks , like Charlene Gilbert’s grandfather Fred Mathis, to purchase small farms . GrpwLegal Loopholes For
widespread widespread every acre gained by black farmers under FSA, thousands more were lost to a new threat – heir and property laws – as blacks continued to vacate the South in the 1940s and 50s. Many black landowners chose not to leave wills , so ownership of hard-earned property was often distributed among generations of family members no longer living on the land . Lawyers, large landowners and developers used tax and property laws as their new weapon to return black land to white control. If one portion, then the sale of entire property could be forced , since it had not been legally apportioned to the other heirs.
This practice has continued to the present.
Khadijah Queen is the author of Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic Books 2008), Black Peculiar (Noemi Press 2011), and Fearful Beloved, due out from Argos Books in fall 2015. Her chapbooks include I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (Sibling Rivalry 2013) and Exercises in Painting (Bloof Books 2016). Individual poems and prose appear or are forthcoming in Fence, jubilat, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Memoir, Tupelo Quarterly and widely elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2014 Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Performance Writers for her verse play Non-Sequitur, with full production to be staged by NYC theater company The Relationship in late 2015. Visit her website: khadijahqueen.com.