It ranks up there as one of the crimes of the century–the failure of the U.S. government to support African-American farmers and stem the tide of loss that threatens to carry them to a vanishing point. The wrongdoing goes back to the institution of slavery in the United States and continues through failed Reconstruction-era policies (the “40 acres and a mule” allotments to ex-slaves), Jim Crow, the Great Depression and right on up to the present day.

Just ask Shade Johnson, a black farmer from Tillery, N.C., who has never been able to buy a farm, thanks to discriminatory government loan policies. His brothers’ attempts to hold onto their land–once among the largest black-owned and managed farms in Halifax County–have brought them to the brink of financial ruin.

During the height of black farm ownership in the 1920s, blacks owned 14 percent of the nation’s farms. Today, that proportion has shrunk to less than 1 percent. While farming has never been an easy occupation, in the case of African Americans working the land, society–not nature–has been the primary threat to their existence.

For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its local arms have denied black farmers loans, disaster money and other vital support. (During the years of the Civil Rights Movement, such denials were often punishment for black farmers who had the audacity to register to vote).

The USDA has admitted all that. But it hasn’t done much to redress the wrongs. A settlement reached in a 1997 class action lawsuit black farmers filed against the government led to payment of some farmers’ claims. But as this week’s cover story makes clear, for too many, the money has been too little, too late, or nonexistent.

Black land loss is not just a concern for blacks. African-American owned farms are most often small, family farms. When they go, a way of life, a source of economic stability for rural communities, fresh food and scarce green space go with them. Land ownership is also an important source of capital for communities that have long been denied their equal share.

Three years ago, Afefe Tyehimba wrote an article for this paper (“Land of the Free,” March 24, 1999) that predicted that without fundamental changes in the agricultural loan system, more black farms would disappear. Sadly, that forecast has come true.

This year’s Black Culture issue updates the struggle for black land. Through journalism, portraits and poetry, Damien Jackson, Derek Jennings, Darrell Stover and Rachel Hardy explore the issue from roots to branches.

One thing they’ve found is that black farmers aren’t taking their situation lying down. North Carolina may lead the nation in the percentage of black farms that are disappearing, but it’s also home to some of the key organizations fighting for the rights of African-American farmers. Farmers like Andre Richardson of Wendell, who’ve refused payments they deem too small to make up for their suffering. Farmers like Gary Grant, who runs the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

The loss of black farms is bigger than the loss of land. It’s the loss of a proud legacy–one that has survived against seemingly impossible odds. African Americans have been surviving those odds since the start of our country. It’s about time the government did the right thing and righted this wrong–before it’s too late.