Today is the first official U.S. Juneteenth. President Biden signed a bill Thursday making June 19 a new holiday effective at once, so federal employees had off yesterday.

And Gov. Mills signed a Maine law last week making Juneteenth an official state holiday starting on June 19, 2022.

As Isabella Grullon Paz put it in The New York Times, Juneteenth “celebrates the day in 1865 when Gordon Granger, a Union general, informed enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and they were free.”

That was more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) had freed all enslaved people in the confederacy. The enslavers around Galveston had somehow forgot to tell the enslaved people about emancipation.

An official holiday is a balming act, but it does little more than recognize history. Much more to the point would be working to reverse the continuing effects of history.

President Biden took a big step in that direction by ordering that $5 billion of the $2.3 trillion American Rescue Plan go to disadvantaged farmers. That’s nearly half of the $10.4 billion the bill allocated to agriculture. About a quarter of disadvantaged farmers are Black. That’s roughly twice the Black proportion of the overall population.

To understand Biden’s motive, let’s look at the government’s history with Black farmers.

The key years were 1862 and 1865. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of farmland to anyone who would farm it for five years or would pay $1.25 an acre for it.

Oh, wait. That’s anyone who wasn’t Black, Indigenous, a woman or an immigrant not yet a citizen. In other words, only white male citizens qualified. A seventh of the land in America was given out, according to Mark Bittman’s new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk.”

How many white farmers over the decades have grown the original 160 acres into huge farms while Black farmers and their descendants were denied that possibility?

Then, in 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met in Savannah with Black leaders who asked for 40 acres for each Black veteran. Sherman and Secretary of War Edward Stanton agreed, and added a free mule. This was for Black men who had fought for the Union, who didn’t qualify under the Homestead Act for 160 acres.

But it never happened. That “Low Country” land, between Jacksonville and Charleston, stayed in white hands after the war. In fact, even where Blacks had been able to buy land previously owned by enslavers, the feds took it away and by 1877 — the year Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president in a deal with Southern Democrats that reversed Black gains — virtually all Black farm ownership of former slave plantations had ended.

The federal enforcer of farm segregation has been the Department of Agriculture.

Almost since its founding in 1862, the USDA has systematically excluded Black farmers from federal programs. Farm-rescue programs during the Great Depression were handled locally, often by county Extension offices, according to Bittman. This meant that in the South, white local officials stepped in to save white-owned farms but didn’t even make the information available to Black farmers about federal programs.

USDA loans well into the 20th century were made available only outside the red lines. (Redlining is the practice of drawing a line around an area and refusing to lend money to anyone inside the line.) Black-owned farms were inside the red lines.

Biden’s provision in the rescue plan was to try to correct this governmental bias, which hurt not only the Black farmers who were cheated but their descendants ever since.

Not so fast. Some white farmers in Wisconsin got a judge to enjoin the administration from directing any money to disadvantaged farmers, saying it would disadvantage them. (It’s no surprise that the only U.S. senator objecting to the Juneteenth holiday was Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, though he later recognized the futility of voting no. In the House, 14 Republicans voted no, while 415 representatives voted yes.)

Did the forebears of those white Wisconsin farmers get their land when Indigenous people were removed in 1825 and 1832? Or did they get land under the Homestead Act?

Lest you think the government discriminated only against Black farmers, President Woodrow Wilson gave 100,000 acres of First Nations land in 1917 to a man named Tom Campbell to grow wheat. Campbell proposed the idea to avoid military service.

As comforting as it may be to know that we will start observing Juneteenth next year, it would be far more comforting to know that government discrimination against Black and other disadvantaged farmers can be righted by President Biden’s allocation.

Bob Neal hopes we don’t trivialize Juneteenth by wishing people a “happy” observance, as we have with “Happy Memorial Day” or “Happy Veterans Day,” two solemn dates.


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