During a four-day hearing in late November, Marvin Smith testified that he’s still fighting for his American dream: land ownership.

After mostly Black residents refused to sell their property, the Sandersville Railroad Co. filed a petition with the Georgia Public Service Commission to seize the land through eminent domain. The private company wants it for a new railroad in Sparta, Georgia.

“The American dream says if you play by the rules and work hard, justice will prevail and you will be rewarded,” Smith said. “It never occurred to me … over 43 years of playing by the rules … I would end up in a position where my land could be taken through eminent domain.”

Smith owns some of his family’s 600 acres, which was acquired in 1926. It’s been used to help pay for education and is still being used for farming today.

Smith’s American dream is at odds with Sandersville Railroad’s president. During that same hearing, Benjamin Tarbutton III testified that economic development is important to him, and “the American dream starts with a job.” He believes his railroad project will provide jobs, which is why he deems the project public use.

Bill Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who represents Sparta property owners, later asked Tarbutton: “Do you think part of the American dream is having property without it being taken for others use?”

“I’m going to stick with my first comment,” Tarbutton said.

The relentless fight in rural Georgia is representative of the continued push by hundreds, if not thousands, of Black families to protect one asset that is hard to come by: land. For many Black folks across the United States, it has been a struggle to keep it due to racism, discrimination, and theft. Despite the barriers, they press on in hopes to preserve their legacy for the generations to come.

On the front line of this battle is Jillian Hishaw, who fights on behalf of Black farmers who have experienced discrimination. Before becoming an author, agricultural attorney, and nonprofit leader, Hishaw’s family lost their farm in Oklahoma. It’s also the childhood home of her grandfather. Her great-grandmother and grandfather hired an attorney to pay their taxes on the farm, but the attorney kept the money and sold the farm. Years later, they discovered the home “was replaced by an oil pump — leaving the Hishaw family to believe the presence of oil was known, which incentivized the theft of the land.”


Read more: The Government Failed to Help Black Farmers. These Women Created a Fund for Them.


Motivated by her family’s history, Hishaw secured a law degree and master’s degree in agricultural law, and worked as an adjudicator for the United States Department of Agriculture within the Office of Civil Rights. But she decided she could have a greater impact on the lives of farmers through her law practice and international nonprofit Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S), which provides technical and legal assistance to farmers in an effort to eradicate hunger in the farming community.

Despite her work, it’s been challenging to get the courts to hear her clients’ claims. In one of her most recent cases, the judge didn’t grant discovery — or the process of getting information to another party — for 20 months and dismissed the case.

“It’s just been difficult. With all of the [dozens of] lawsuits filed by the white farmers, they got discovery within days, and they got an injunction within days,” Hishaw said, referencing the class-action lawsuit brought by a group of white farmers last year alleging that a federal debt relief program racially discriminated against them.

She went on to say, “for me representing all Black farmers, whether it’s in front of whatever court, they’re not even giving me discovery.”

Worldacad spoke with Hishaw about her work, the USDA’s latest discrimination program, and how discriminatory practices have affected her clients. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Worldacad: A number of clients you represent have experienced discrimination by the USDA, which resulted in them owing more debt or having their farms illegally foreclosed on. How has this affected them?

Jillian Hishaw: There are various ways of how they have pigeonholed Black farmers into debt. Most of my clients are older. The average age of my farmer is 75 to 80. They are not receiving their Supplemental Security Income or disability because they owe the federal government money. They’re not even receiving Social Security, let alone tax refunds. Some of my clients’ bank accounts have been frozen since 1999. These are the things I’m presenting to the courts, but they are not honoring what I’m presenting.

Some of the plaintiffs I represent have received relief, and that definitely keeps me motivated to continue. I feel as though that these [discrimination] cases are blatant racism. The evidence is there. I just really want the families to have peace of mind before my clients pass away because they’re not young, they’re not spring chickens, even though they raise the chicken. The legacy that my grandfather wanted me to leave is lost, but hopefully, through these farm cases, it can be restored.

What are some misconceptions that people have about Black land loss?

With a lot of my cases, it's not just white people stealing land. It was Black folks stealing Black folk land, Asian people trying to steal Black folk land, and white people, of course, trying to steal Black folk land. It’s not just quote, unquote the white man, and we need to get away from that because you can’t really trust people when it comes to land ownership. I’ve had cases in Texas and Mississippi of Black people trying to steal land and filing deeds in Mississippi that are false. When it comes to land theft, a thief is a thief. But, based on my experience, more land is lost by the USDA than by an individual.

The USDA has extended the deadline to January 13, 2024, for the Discrimination Financial Assistance Program, which was created through the Inflation Reduction Act to provide financial assistance to those who have experienced discrimination in the agency’s lending programs prior to 2021. Do you have any advice for Black farmers interested in applying?

The USDA has paid three companies millions of dollars to settle past civil rights complaints. Usually, you file the complaint, and then legally, the Office of Civil Rights has 180 days to basically finalize and investigate. The Office of Civil Rights issues a final agency decision, which is what I used to write, and then with the final agency decision, is sent up to the Office of General Counsel, and then it’s finalized and sent to the claimant who filed that complaint. And it’s either yes, we violated your civil rights, or no, we did not. Then, if that claimant wants to appeal it, then they're allowed an administrative hearing. From there, if they don’t like … the decision, they can file a complaint in federal court.

The problem is that USDA has paid these three companies … to bypass the farmer’s due-process right. Once you submit that form — which for Black farmers is 37 pages, but for white farmers, it’s just a couple of pages — you’re signing away your appeal rights and due process, and that’s the only guarantee that you’re given. There is an illiteracy problem with a percentage of Black farmers, and they are thinking that [this process] is going to be like Pigford v. Glickman settlement, and they’re just going to get an automatic check.

I want people to understand that, when you sign this, just read the fine print. There’s no guarantee that you're gonna get money, and if you do get money, there’s no set amount like with Pigford.

Are you a Black farmer or producer who has been discriminated against? Email rural issues reporter Aallyah Wright at [email protected]

Aallyah Wright is Worldacad's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice