By Ralph Paige

When President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1862 he referred to it as the People’s Department. The problem is that its services have never been available to all the people. Although more recently, with the Clinton and Obama administrations, efforts have been made to correct discriminatory problems at the USDA, it's an unfortunate fact that the USDA’s history has been marred by rampant discrimination. This is why black farmers filed a 1997 lawsuit against the USDA that focused on discrimination in administration of its farm programs in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

The litigation -- referred to as Pigford vs. Glickman (now Pigford vs. Vilsack) and named after Tim Pigford a black farmer in North Carolina and then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman -- was settled in 1999, and more than 15,000 black farmers obtained relief for discrimination at the hands of the USDA. But the settlement itself triggered such an outpouring of pent-up frustration and demands for justice that more than 12 years later the case is still ongoing.

Black farmers originally needed to file claims by Oct. 12, 1999. While thousands of farmers met that deadline, many others were unaware of the lawsuit. As a result, the judge let people who missed the deadline petition to get into the settlement, providing they did so by Sept. 15, 2000. Again, thousands of farmers filed petitions and are now referred to as “late filers.”

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