TUSKEGEE, Ala. (December 10, 2010) — In the wake of a landmark settlement for U.S. black and Native American farmers approved by President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at Tuskegee University on Tuesday, Dec. 7 in the University Chapel. The secretary's visit was part of the 68th Professional Agricultural Workers Conference held at the University.
"Civil Rights is not a reflection of today; it's not a reflection of those who work at the USDA — it is recognition of the things occurred in the past that have to be recognized and dealt with," said Vilsack, referring to the charges brought forward by the farmers.
Obama on Dec. 8 officially signed the Claims Settlement Act of 2010, a $1.15 billion measure to fund the settlement reached by the government and plaintiffs in the 1997 Pigford v. Glickman (former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) case. The class action suit claimed discrimination against black farmers, denying them loans and other assistance. The case was settled out of court in 1999. Under a federal judge's terms dating to 1999, qualified farmers could receive $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias. The legislation also funds a separate $3.4 billion settlement reached with the Department of Interior for mishandling Native American trust funds, along with four separate water rights lawsuits brought by Native American tribes.
|Vilsack and Tuskegee University President, Dr. Gilbert L. Rochon
sign the MOU between the University and the USDA.
Vilsack said the work doesn't stop here.
"In hopes to start new chapter in Civil Rights, we hope to be able to heal some of the wounds that have been caused over time," he said. "We hope that those who work at the USDA today appreciate that in settling claims of yesterday, we are not necessarily suggesting not focusing on the claims of today and we hope to improve service to not have claims."
Vilsack, who was appointed by Obama in 2009, said the Department of Agriculture should continue to focus on development and outreach.
"(We should) focus on three areas: Continuing our effort to reach out to socially disadvantaged farmers; do not forget those rural communities that are poverty stricken; (and) address issues in our own organization," he said. "We are not just a part of history, we are writing history and we want the USDA chapter to be a positive chapter because it is a wonderful department."
Tuskegee University President, Dr. Gilbert L. Rochon, and Vilsack signed an official Memorandum of Understanding between the University and the USDA. The document states: "The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), including its various component Agencies, and Tuskegee University hereby affirm their mutual interest in and desire to broaden cooperative research, education, and service programs and exchanges through initiation and implementation of the Tuskegee University USDA 1890 Center of Excellence: Carver Integrative Sustainability Center."