Excerpted From: Alyssa Sloan, Pigford v. Glickman and The Remnants of Racism, 8 One J: Oil and Gas, Natural Resources, and Energy Journal 19 (September, 2022) (248 Footnotes) (Full Document)


alyssasloanAt the tender age of nine, John Henry Blanton started working as a sharecropper to help his family survive in Henderson, Texas. The oldest of three children, John took the responsibility to help his parents work the fields for food security and a home on the lands of the former plantation. In 1931, he married Fannie Mae Blanton and continued sharecropping for her former slaveowners on the outskirts of Longview, Texas. John worked the field every day--planting, harvesting, and keeping a small fraction of the income he earned after paying the landowner for food on the table and rent in a shotgun house. Fannie Mae worked in the landowner's home-- cooking, cleaning, and washing laundry in servitude to his white family.

The Blanton family had no sense of independence or agency during this period in their lives. They not only lived on a plantation owned by their employer, but also endured unwelcome intrusions in their personal lives. The landowner eagerly awaited the birth of their first daughter, and when she was born, the landowner informed the new parents she would be named Lucy Ann after his daughter Annie Lucy. John and Fannie kept their next pregnancy a secret, and quickly named their second daughter Johnnie Mae to honor their respective family names.

The landowner kept a tight grip not only over the Blantons' family life, but also over John's survival. John frequently drove the landowner to late night meetings in the woods, and received stern instructions to remain in the car. One evening, John followed his employer to a clearing in the forest and confirmed his suspicion: a group of men cloaked in white were lynching a Black man. John confronted the landowner upon his return to the car and warned him John would never drive him to the woods again.

Sharecropping, slavery by another name, trapped many Black Americans in racialized poverty after emancipation, at times enforced through violence. Recently “freed” slaves were often paid unlivable wages to work on plantations in the same servitude forced upon their ancestors. Despite these indignities, John and Fannie never complained. John worked the fields, and quietly saved extra money from cutting wood and building homes. Like most Black Americans, John was determined to take the first step towards financial stability: land.

As de Tocqueville opined, the path to economic equality required inheritable property, which was kept by those in power at all costs. John told his employer he intended to purchase land and begin an independent life with his family, but the landowner had other plans in store. He was powerful in the community-- justice of the peace--and he kept John as a sharecropper for another year by telling every white landowner in town not to sell an acre of land to the Blantons.

Since land was like gold for newly freed Black Americans, no Black landowners could be persuaded to sell a single acre. After months of fruitless searching, John convinced Irene Blackburn to sell twenty-five acres of land at a reasonable price. As fate would have it, Irene, a white widow, was none other than the landowner's sister. The wealthy woman ignored her brother's demands. The landlord resisted losing the Blantons as tenants; he sought to have Irene committed to a mental institution in a desperate attempt to nullify the land sale. His efforts failed, and the Blanton family entered a new era of economic freedom that changed the course of their lives.

John built a home from the ground up and started anew with his young family. No longer were his daughters forced to ride hours on a segregated bus to attend the school for Black children on the other side of town. No longer was Fannie forced to answer every beck and call of her ancestors' oppressors. No longer was John commanded to accept another man's heedless decisions that weighed heavily upon his family.

The Blantons cultivated a rich farm on their own land, which vastly improved their quality of life. Lucy graduated valedictorian of her class with a full scholarship and obtained a master's degree. Johnnie also graduated with a Master's degree in Education and desegregated schools after Brown v. Board of Education. No longer trapped in a cycle of food insecurity, Fannie 'Scraps' Blanton flourished--becoming the best cook in town and the hostess of all family gatherings. John plowed the fields with horses from dawn until dusk and continued to work as a carpenter. John led his life with pride, knowing he achieved the unthinkable--providing unforeseen opportunities to his family and creating a legacy for his descendants.

Despite the extreme adversity the Blantons overcame to achieve land ownership and independent farming, racial discrimination permeated every facet of their social lives. After riding in the back of a bus into town, the family could only use the restroom or quench their thirst at the county courthouse. Black townspeople had one option for a hot meal: hotdogs or hamburgers from the back entrance of White's Kitchen. If they sought entertainment, they had to take the outdoor entrance to the upstairs balcony of the town theater. Any businesses available to the Blantons required them to use a separate entrance from white patrons, who refused any contact with Black townspeople. Black children received out of date textbooks and relied heavily upon the creative tenacity of their schoolteachers.

Nevertheless, John, Fannie, Lucy, and Johnnie flourished at their new home. John grew cotton on the land and paid his daughters to help pick cotton every summer. He gathered the cotton in the family wagon, and Lucy and Johnnie enjoyed laying in the bed of plush cotton as their father drove the wagon to the cotton gin. The Blanton girls rode horses, played games, and ran through the fields to make it home before sundown. The family ate wild plums, persimmons, and hickory nuts from the land, and raised livestock to supply meat for their smokehouse. Every morning, Johnnie would sneak out the backdoor only to be chased to school by the family's flock of turkeys. A country girl, Johnnie teased her archnemeses fowl with sweetgum tree branches until one would meet its timely demise at Thanksgiving.

Even after the girls grew up, graduated from college, and started their own families, they faithfully returned to Longview for every family tradition and celebration. Lucy married Adelle Dixon and had a family of two children. Johnnie fell in love and married Berlaind 'Leon’ Brashear, a law student, and had a family of three children. Every summer, Johnnie's children would stay with their grandparents in Longview chasing chickens and eating wild blackberries. Even after John and Fannie's passing, Lucy and Johnnie's families would reunite and celebrate holidays in Longview.

John and Fannie gave their inheritable land to their daughters upon their passing, and the Blanton descendants have enjoyed the fruits of their ancestors' labor ever since. To this day, Johnnie owns ten acres of the property in her name and visits the town frequently with her family. She is proud of the progress her parents made during their lifetime and the legacy they created through grit and perseverance. This precious property will continue to pass through generations of the Blanton family. Someday I will be given the responsibility to care for my ancestors' land.

This Article proceeds in four parts. Part I provides the history of land dispossession by analyzing the post-emancipation landscape for Black Americans and the modern issues plaguing minorities in the farming industry. Historical context lays a foundation for the evident remnants of racism present in Pigford. Part II reviews what Pigford entailed through the lens of race, the relief sought by the plaintiffs, and the implementation of the settlements. In Part III, I argue the plaintiffs did not receive sufficient relief--and analyze how and whether the law has changed after Pigford. I propose alternative legal solutions that address the historical injustice. In Part IV, I reflect on the current state of affairs for descendants of Black farmers--and consider what a post-Pigford society of agricultural economics and legal opportunities entails for the descendants of sharecroppers.

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Litigation has proven an insufficient solution, and perhaps legislation will prove to be the most effective avenue. Yet Miller v. Vilsack warns that even if legislation is passed, equitable solutions can become tied up in litigation. Alternatively, the root of the problem has proven to remain in the USDA system at a local level. Given that control remains at local FSA offices, racial discrimination may continue to perpetuate the original issues that gave rise to the Pigford settlements. As a result, it is imperative to remove local control, require minorities receive equal access to local committee membership, and enforce strict anti-discrimination procedures at local offices. The USDA must smash the remaining vestiges of racism through defined objectives, accountability, and oversight by Congress.

If the USDA elected to create a national route, it would remain imperative to guard against discrimination permeating every facet of such a program. Certainly, an algorithm route would initially provide more objective review; however, facial recognition systems in the criminal legal system have proven that artificial intelligence is equally susceptible. Discrimination in coding could arise if the code creators are prejudiced, or if algorithms are created using white farmers as the template. When there is not a tenable legal solution to remedy the remnants of racism, society must confront this reality with acknowledgment and uplift those who have been historically trampled by racist government policies. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The law certainly changed after the Pigford settlements. Black farmers may not have brought the USDA to its knees, but they forced this nation to confront the remnants of racism in agricultural policy and administration. These litigants planted trees whose shade they may never enjoy; many class members knew they would not reap the benefits for which they fought. Still, Pigford claimants sought justice, in the hopes their descendants may inherit progress with the sun shining on their faces.


University of Oklahoma College of Law JD Candidate 2023.