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Black Farmers File Claims To Show Discrimination 'Not Okay'

Black farmers or relatives gather in hotel meeting room to learn about filing claims in the long-running discrimination

Black farmers or their relatives gather in hotel meeting room to learn about filing claims in the long-running discrimination settlement. Photo: Julie Rose Black farmers and their descendants are gathering in Charlotte today and tomorrow for help filing a claim in a long-running discrimination settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford filed the original complaint that became a landmark class-action discrimination lawsuit in the 90s and led to the current settlement. It's too late for Horace Walker's farming dreams. He's 67. But back in 1983, Walker was fresh out of the military and hoping to follow in the agricultural footsteps of his father. He had designs on some land a neighbor was willing to lease in Clarendon County, South Carolina where he hoped to "put some grain and some corn and some shrub crops - vegetables, things." But he needed about $20,000 for seeds, supplies and such. The US Department of Agriculture offers loans for that very thing, but the white farm bureau agent told Walker he was too late to apply. The next year he applied in time, but was told all the money was gone. "I just thought he was giving me the runaround," says Walker. He abandoned his farm dream and became a computer technician. He was not alone. In 1999, the Department of Agriculture admitted to widespread discrimination against black farmers and agreed to a settlement. But tens of thousands of black farmers - including Horace Walker - didn't get word of the settlement and filed claims too late. Now, Congress has approved $1.25 billion in compensation for those late filers. Many have since passed away or become disabled. Charles Irving Hooper, Sr. was too feeble to attend a public meeting for claimants in Charlotte today, so he sent his daughter Angela. "We've been filling out paperwork since 1998 about this claim," says Angela Hooper. "My goal today is to complete the claim for him and have it seen to fruition." Settlement payments to black farmers will probably average between $20,000 and $50,000. Angela Hooper says that'd be enough to make life a little more comfortable for her elderly parents. No amount of money will restore Horace Walker's dream of becoming a farmer, but he says the payment's real value is the message it sends about discrimination. "If there was no claims - if everybody decided there was no reason for it then it would just keep going. It must be okay. Somebody needs to know that that's not okay." The deadline to file a claim is May 11. Attorneys who have been appointed to represent black farmers in the settlement free of charge will be available for consultation again tomorrow at the Marriott Executive Park off Tyvola Road.