Post-World War II, Percy Patterson, from Drew, Mississippi, was weighing his options for a future. Instead of heading north like a lot of young men his age, he decided to stay in Mississippi.
All around him, the flatland boasted some of the most fertile soil for agriculture. Percy would learn that one thing--the soil--would change the trajectory of his life and even the life of his future generations. But, it would not just be the rich soil that built a foundation for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; it would be the quiet determination, tenacity and honest work ethic they inherited from Percy that prepared them for what was to come.
In 1946, the 28-year-old found a sharecropping opportunity about 45 miles south of his hometown. Along with his young bride, Viola, he moved to the area known as Hollyknowe and began farming 40 acres with one mule and a borrowed plow. Viola helped her husband work the land. Their first crop was cotton, then soybeans. Just two years later, they welcomed their first son, Percy Jr. During the next decade, Percy and Viola’s family grew to include Willie, Viola, Samuel, Joe, Michael and Clara.
BUILDING A FARM
As their family grew, so did the amount of land Percy farmed. By the time Percy Jr. was ready for college, his parents had saved enough money to send him to Alcorn State University, where he earned his degree then moved to Chicago for a career with the U.S. Customs Department.
All the Patterson children would go on to attend college, but it was Samuel and Joe who earned agriculture degrees with plans to farm with their father. During Michael’s second year in college, he made the decision to return home and help full-time.
The four Patterson men worked together for nearly 10 years and built the farm to 1,000 acres. Samuel and Joe also started separate farms and a trucking business. They added wheat to their crop rotations of cotton, corn and soybeans. In that time, Samuel and Michael married sisters, Essie and Bea, and Joe married Ruth.
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Life was busy but good until one fall evening in 1982. “Around suppertime that day on Sept. 22, my father suffered a heart attack and died,” Samuel says. “It was so unexpected, and we were devastated.”
In the days that followed Percy’s death, the Pattersons grieved the loss of their beloved patriarch. They also had to scramble to get their agricultural loans together to plant the upcoming spring crops.
“We kept running into obstacles,” Essie says. “We’d go to the local lending office with the paperwork they’d asked for only to be told we needed one more thing. Then, we’d get that one more thing and would be made to wait in the lobby as we watched other farmers go in one by one and get their loans approved. The FSA [Farm Service Agency] office in Jackson would tell us our loan had been approved, so we’d go to sign the papers locally only to be put off again. Finally, we got the loan late in the fall when the crops were already being harvested.”
Over the next several months, Essie began to keep meticulous notes on what they had been told and when. “It was very difficult, but I kept track of every conversation, every expense and anything that happened,” Essie explains. “People would show up at our house saying they heard our farm was for sale, and they wanted to look at buying it. We felt like they were trying to intimidate us to sell.”
In 1999, the Pattersons joined the class action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman against the USDA, alleging racial discrimination against black farmers who were applying for farm loans. Among other claims, the lawsuit proved that on average, it took three times longer for the USDA to process the application of a black farmer than a white farmer’s application.
The lawsuit was settled in April 1999 in the U.S. District Court of Columbia, and nearly $1 billion has been paid or credited to more than 13,000 farmers under what is reportedly the largest civil rights settlement to date.
DETERMINATION TO WIN
“The lawsuit lasted 10 years, and those were very difficult years for us,” Essie says. “But, we were determined to fight it. We all felt this huge responsibility not to let what Percy built be taken away.”
During the time the lawsuit was pending, the Pattersons had to look for other sources of income to support the farming operation. Essie opened a day-care center, others began teaching, and they put a lot of expenses on credit cards. “We all got outside jobs in addition to those related to the farm,” Bea says. “We had to learn how to farm without depending on the banks. When we made money from the crops, we saved it and did without a lot of things. We would not have made it without the help of our neighbor farmers, both black and white. They knew what we were battling, and they loaned us their equipment during planting or harvest, or sometimes they would just show up and do the work for us. Those things meant a lot.”
Samuel and Bea Patterson have turned a scenic portion of family land along the banks of the Bogue Phalia River into a bed-and-breakfast and event center called Cabin on the Bogue. They welcome guests from all over the world and use the facility for special events, conferences and meetings.
In 2008, Michael was asked to serve on a new committee organized by Monsanto. The group of black farmers came to form an organization called the National Black Growers Council (NBGC). Michael served on its board of directors.
However, on New Year’s Eve, 2017, Michael suffered a heart attack, similar to his father, Percy, and died. “Mike Patterson had vision and true leadership skills,” says Leigh Allen, executive director of the NBGC. “He knew that black farmers needed to know and network with other black farmers with businesses that looked like each others’. His leadership is missed, but his brother, Sam, has done a great job stepping in.”
“DO ALL WE DO”
With Michael gone, brothers Samuel and Joe, along with Essie and Bea, continue to operate their farming, trucking and event-center businesses. Their sons, Michael Jr., Rodrick, Arnell and Samuel Jr., all work in agriculture research at the nearby Delta Research Extension Center. Collectively, they feel good about what they’ve been able to accomplish and what they will be leaving to the next generation.
Percy’s great-grandson, Samuel III (Trey), is currently studying finance and ag economics at Tougaloo College and will begin an internship at J.P. Morgan Chase in New York. Another great-grandson, Alvin, is studying ag economics at Alcorn State, and 14-year old great-granddaughter, Madison, says she really likes the technology aspect of farming.
“We do all we do for them,” Samuel says. “Just like my father, Percy, did what he did for us.”
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