McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

November 23, 2010

$4.6 billion settlement nears for black farmers, American Indians

Questions, doubts remain about how money will be allocated

OKLAHOMA CITY — Thousands of black farmers and American Indians in Oklahoma could share a portion of $4.6 billion in settlements that Congress is close to approving.

The government has admitted to decades of discriminatory practices and a recent Senate vote brought the federal government closer to finding a way to make amends.

The two settlements are related to decades of discriminatory practices and injustices that swindled the two groups out of billions of dollars. But views remain mixed within the two communities of how the money will be divided and if it is enough to make up for the suffering they claim.

The U.S. Senate voted Nov. 19 to fund a $1.2 billion settlement to black farmers who argued the Agriculture Department withheld favorable loans and other services to them because of their race. Senators also approved $3.4 billion to American Indians for the government's mismanagement of trust funds and land royalties.

The money has been tied up for years after stalled negotiations and setbacks in deciding how to appropriate the funds. An upcoming House of Representatives vote and President Obama's signature are needed to bring a long process to an end.

One family’s plight

Wewoka resident Carolyn Edwards said she has been waiting for concessions from the government for more than 20 years.

Edwards, who is now 60, watched as her mother and five sisters were unable to save their small farm where they kept livestock and gardens in the 1980s. Edwards blames the U.S. Department of Agriculture for using discrimination to not grant black families, such as hers, the type of loans white farmers commonly received at the time.

“We applied for a loan (in 1982) and never heard anything back,” she said. “We kept calling and calling but they weren't going to give it to us. … And I felt like a lot of white people would have got that loan.”

Edwards said the inability to secure a suitable loan made it difficult to keep the farm running. Edwards' mother died of cancer in 1984 and the family was forced to stop operating the farm in 1988.

More than two decades later, Edwards hopes her family will be eligible for the standard payment of $50,000 that black farmers are eligible to receive from the settlement.

“It is something a long-time coming, because I feel like my mother suffered a lot as a result of what happened, especially with raising six daughters” she said. “It wouldn't make things even, but it at least shows we are not being overlooked.”

There are 1,245 farms operated by black farmers in Oklahoma, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. Willard Tillman, executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, said discrimination is commonly reported among many of these farmers who operated during the 1981 to 1997 time frame covered by the settlement.

“Over the years we suffered a lot because we were not on the same playing field, since we didn't have access to the USDA,” he said. “This made a lot of people not eligible for benefits, and at a time when there are already social challenges that was the only way to get assistance to carry out all the duties.”

Too late for some

Tillman said this caused scores of farms owned by black Oklahomans to close. Tillman said one of the problems of the settlement is that it is too late for many of those who already lost their business or have since died.

Robert Anderson, a 72-year-old black farmer from Seminole County, counts himself among those victimized by the government's practices. He said black farmers, such as himself, were typically shut out from USDA programs and loan requests to buy tractors, livestock and equipment.

He said if he receives money from the settlement it will not completely make up for what he could have earned. But he said any money would be a blessing given the current economy.

“It absolutely will help, and I know of two or three things I can do on the farm right away with it,” he said. “You won't be seeing me going to the Cadillac dealership or the Chevy dealership for that matter. That is for sure.”

Impact questioned for American Indians

About $1.4 billion of the Cobell Settlement is intended for more than 300,000 American Indians across the country. The funds will pay them for the mismanagement of trust assets, including land and oil royalties. An additional $2 billion would set up a fund for the voluntary buy back of some land interests.

Most American Indians in Oklahoma will see limited benefits from the settlement, Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director Barbara Warner said.

“Some might benefit, but $3.4 billion is not a lot nationwide,” she said adding that some might just get $1,000 to $1,500. “If they were really receiving what they should be getting it would be thousands.”

Warner said people most affected are those who lost money because of poor record keeping by the government. Since the settlement money would go to individual American Indians instead of the tribes, it remains to be seen which groups might benefit the most and how big an impact it will have on the state.

The settlement only covers those with an open Individual Indian Money account from 1994 to 2009. Because of this, the agreement fails to cover those with grievances dating back several decades or generations.

Shawnee resident Ruby Withrow, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, initially thought she would be part of the settlement. Withrow argues the government swindled her late grandfather, Mose Bruno, out of a small fortune for the oil reserves discovered on his 80-acres of land.

Withrow campaigned for the settlement in the late 1990s. But she later found out neither she nor her family would be eligible because of the date restriction. She said she is happy for those that will benefit, but she argues the settlement does little to make up for the decades of injustices done to American Indians.

“Everyday we think about my grandfather and what happened to him,” she said. “And I told (those involved with the settlement) that they let us down.”

What's next

The House of Representatives is expected to consider approving the funding for the two settlements when members return Nov. 29 from the holiday recess. Passage in the House is expected to be less contentious than it was in the Senate, because the House passed a bill previously in the year that included an appropriation of the settlement money.

If approved by the House, a final OK would be needed from Obama. The president has been a vocal supporter of both settlements and has repeatedly called on Congress to pass the funding for it.

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