By Tom Bassing
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - After decades of discrimination and years of legal wrangling, black American farmers are rushing to beat a May 11 deadline to file racial discrimination claims against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its lending practices.
Many of them missed an earlier deadline to file claims for part of what has become a $1.25 billion settlement resulting from a 2008 federal farm bill and subsequent congressional action.
For those filing claims to shares of the settlement fund before the new May 11 deadline — as many as 40,000 farmers and their heirs — there is a sense of relief, if not of justice.
"Justice is a very personal thing," said the farmers' co-lead counsel, Gregorio Francis of Florida-based Morgan & Morgan PA.
"Many of these farmers lost their land and their livelihoods. With the settlement, there seems to be a sense that finally there's at least an acknowledgement of what was done. In that sense, there's gratitude. Is there justice? I don't know."
The Department of Agriculture has conceded that some of its local offices engaged in persistent, racially discriminatory denial of farm loans and other financial aid, mainly in the South, and roughly tracing the contours of the so-called Black Belt, named not for its large African-American population but for its rich, ebony soil.
"Ninety percent (of the claimants) are in the South, in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and in Georgia," Francis said.
The $1.25 billion settlement received final approval in October 2011 after years of litigation in which black farmers accused the Department of Agriculture of ignoring their complaints about discriminatory lending practices throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
The department is relieved to put the case to rest.
"Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack has made it a priority to resolve all claims of discrimination against the department," said USDA spokesman Justin DeJong. "The closing of this claims process marks another milestone in (the department's) efforts to correct the wrongs of the past."
It is also aimed at ending the legal skirmish, which dates to 1997 when a black North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford sued then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, accusing the department of racial discrimination in its lending practices.
That litigation and a related class-action suit were settled in 1999. But tens of thousands of black farmers who similarly alleged discrimination missed a subsequent deadline to file claims for redress.
Among those filing in the run-up to the deadline was Mississippi state Representative Tyrone Ellis, a former House speaker who lost his dairy farm outside Starkville to bankruptcy in 1983, several years after he first took office.
"I first applied for a $250,000 loan (through the department) in 1978," Ellis said. "I only received $125,000. My second loan request also was for $250,000, in 1981. I was denied altogether. I was told to ‘make do with what I have.'
"With $125,000, we knew it was only a matter of time until we'd be in trouble. When you're undercapitalized going in, you have just enough to hang yourself."
When his fears played out and he was forced into bankruptcy, he said, "I just thought, 'Come and shoot me now.'"
Adjudicating the claims will take months and no payments will be paid until all claims are decided.
Ellis figures his farm's bankruptcy cost him "in excess of $500,000." Worse still, he said, "I lost my livelihood."
Ellis now augments his statehouse income through real estate and other ventures. His claim against the Department of Agriculture is for $50,000, the maximum allowed in the claims tier he has filed under. It is a sum he described as "symbolic."
The reality, he said, is that "if I were to receive $500,000, it wouldn't be enough."
Pauline Haynes filed a claim last week on behalf of her mother, a North Carolina farmer who died in January 2003, having been denied an operating loan.
"They gave her no explanation, none at all," Haynes said. "We had a mule pulling a plow and we could see the white farmers on their new tractors. It was heartbreaking."
She shares Ellis's sense of resignation. "If (the claim) is denied," she said quietly, "it won't be nothing we had anyhow."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and David Brunnstrom)