When medical marijuana was legalized in Florida five years ago, the legislation promised one license to a class member of Pigford v. Glickman, the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history.
Applying for the license amounted to buying a lottery ticket for Pigford farmers, who claimed the United States Department of Agriculture racially discriminated against them between 1981 and 1996. The license is entry to a state industry projected to top $2.5 billion in the next few years. The license alone can be sold for more than $50 million.
In September, the Florida Department of Health finally signaled its intent to issue the license to one of the dozen applicants, Terry Donnell Gwinn. Nearly all the others appealed the decision.
One of those applicants is Frederick Fisher, who still keeps cattle in Jonesville, a community founded by formerly enslaved people between Newberry and Gainesville.
“Why not me?” Fisher asks on an October day, spreading his hands, eyes questioning under the brim of his veteran’s hat that reads: Time was served. Time to honor.
Surrounding him are the graves of his ancestors, former sharecroppers and enslaved people.
The very racial discrimination the set-aside license was meant to redress created obstacles for Fisher obtain it.
This is Fisher’s story as he told oral historians in 2017, as he swore this year in his application and as he tells it now.
It highlights a paradox: A person may need to be rich and well-connected to win a license intended to remedy historic inequalities in wealth and access.
‘Going up against a brick wall’
Fisher was born in Jonesville in 1946.
He said while white farmers were allotted around 1,500 acres by the government for restricted crops, his family was allowed just one and two acres for tobacco and peanuts, respectively.
They sharecropped to make ends meet, but Fisher said despite assurances, they were never given a share of profits at harvest time: “Sharecropping gained us nothing.”
He described an “unspoken undercurrent” that if they spoke up about this injustice, they could “suffer the fate of Mr. Long.”
A sign commemorating Boisey Long and the Newberry lynchings of 1916 stands in his family graveyard. Accused of stealing hogs, Long was sentenced to death after just seven minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury. During the search for Long, a mob shot and lynched other African Americans. No one was ever charged with the lynchings.
To Fisher’s family, Long wasn’t a history lesson or an abstract concept. He was a neighbor. The story of his killing colored the way Fisher perceived bureaucracy and seeking help.
Over the course of his childhood, his household gained inside plumbing and running water. They grew food and cattle for themselves and a little to sell.
Most importantly, Fisher said, they had their freedom.
He attended A.L. Mebane, a school for Black children that inherited outdated textbooks from Gainesville High School. To his eyes, the books were proof that things were separate but not equal.
“We might have been created equal,” he said, “but when we were born that’s when the disparity started happening.”
He graduated in 1965 and went on to Daytona Beach Junior College, but his parents couldn’t afford to support him and his brother through school at the same time. He dropped out and worked to save money to re-enroll. He’d just pooled enough together, he said, when he “got the little paperwork from Uncle Sam.”
Fisher was drafted to serve in Vietnam to fight people he had nothing against.
“I wasn’t really fighting for a flag,” Fisher said. “I was fighting for my life.”
He estimates half the males in his class were drafted. With less access to full-time college enrollment, African Americans were drafted by mostly white draft boards at higher rates than white Americans. They were also more likely to be assigned to combat units. In Fisher’s unit, they were given the most dangerous assignments.
Fisher came home with a Bronze Star, a back injury and “shell shock,” which in later years he would come to understand as post-traumatic stress disorder. Its effects remain a daily battle.
Fisher started a farm with his youngest brother, the farm he still tends today. He’d get up before dawn to feed the cows and slop the pigs, before heading to grueling work at the railroad, where he labored to outperform white peers who were quickly promoted before him. At night, he returned to assist with the harvest and work on the equipment and buildings. On weekends, he put in another 12 hours or more.
Their farm wasn’t “big-time” but it was modern. They both had tractors and Fisher knew about genetics, how to sample the soil and what each plant needed. They grew mostly watermelon and corn. Fisher traveled to teach other Black farmers about new techniques and the proper use of herbicide and insecticide.
Hurricanes and droughts plagued farmers in the area in the 1980s and early ‘90s, and Fisher’s farm was not spared.
USDA agents would come out to the white-owned farms to help them file claims for assistance, Fisher said, but never came to Black-owned farms.
Fisher’s brother put in an application with the USDA for benefits but was denied with no explanation. They had to borrow money from family to keep the farm going.
Even driving to Gainesville’s USDA office was a risk. On the way to and from, Fisher said, they were harassed by a sheriff’s deputy.
Fisher had bought a sparkling gold Corvette when he returned home from Vietnam, something he’d dreamed of for years. He said the deputy pulled him over and told him “a n—–r shouldn’t be driving no Corvette.”
At the office, they were not allowed to speak with an agent. They filed oral claims for benefits and were told as Black farmers there was no way they were going to get assistance; by the time all the larger white-owned farms were taken care of, there’d be no money left. They were given a stack of forms to fill out with no guidance.
When they tried to check the status of their benefits, Fisher said they were told the application “couldn’t be found” and it was too late to resubmit.
He said Black farmers seemed to be the only ones whose applications were lost.
He made an oral complaint with the USDA about this discrimination and attempted to file a written one, but faced the “same runaround.”
Fisher wasn’t alone in this experience. It’s a driving force behind the disappearance of Black farm operators in the U.S. – from almost 1 million in 1900 to fewer than 50,000 today.
He remembers between 15 and 20 Black-owned farms in the Jonesville area when he was young. Unable to obtain assistance and the credit needed to acquire new innovations like tractors and irrigation, it was impossible to compete with growing white-owned farms. Most Black farmers sold their land and moved away.
This discrimination is what prompted the class-action Pigford suit, for which Fisher never filed a claim.
When he wasn’t working on the railroad, he was laboring to save the farm. When would he have time to meet with lawyers and make phone calls?
Besides, he said, he’d never seen actions by the government result in lasting change or actual benefit to his family.
As Fisher described it: “It’s like going up against a brick wall.”
In 2015, Fisher met a man who would try to break down that wall for him.
The cost of playing the game
Richard Markow’s veteran housing apartment was next door to Fisher’s cousin’s, where Fisher spent time recovering from a surgery. Markow and Fisher would spend hours talking on the porch while Markow’s son played. When Markow began attending the University of Florida Levin College of Law, he helped Fisher and other veterans apply for benefits.
The two stayed in touch. When Markow heard about the Pigford Black Farmer License, he told Fisher to apply.
The application, however, presented puzzling barriers for the very group it was intended to benefit.
Pigford farmers were old, many in their 90s by now, and by the very nature of having been discriminated against by the USDA, tended not to be capital-rich. Black-owned farms in the U.S. are about 50 times less profitable today, on average, than white-owned farms.
The non-refundable application fee alone was $146,000 – more than double what the previous Florida licensees had been charged and the highest in the country by far – and it required the operation be vertically integrated. The applicant would have to manage every part of the process from seed to sale. Even if they could find that money to risk, they’d still need to afford attorneys, technical writers and consultants, real estate sourcing and massive start-up costs.
It was a rich man’s game inviting the poor and disenfranchised to play.
(It’s not the first paradox of the industry. Black people are more than 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates. But they make up less than 2% of marijuana business owners.)
Fisher currently keeps only the minimum amount of cattle needed to receive an agricultural tax exemption for his land. His farm doesn’t earn money, and like many Black farmers whose property is in historically Black areas, Markow said Fisher’s land isn’t worth much as collateral.
Fisher’s luck in sharing a porch with Markow became his entry ticket to the game.
Markow had access to wealthy investors and retired major league athletes. He gathered the enormous capital backing for Fisher and navigated the extensive paperwork and application hoops. He took a legal eye to the wording of a Pigford class member – Fisher met the definition of the class, Markow said, even if he never filed a claim.
Markow said they haven’t yet received the scoring rubric results for Fisher’s application. He’s not yet sure why they lost out to Gwinn, who farms over 1,100 acres in Suwannee County and has “deep roots in the community.”
Fisher is now appealing the rejection of his application. Similar efforts were successful in the previous round of Florida marijuana licenses – all but five of the current 22 were issued after lengthy legal and administrative challenges.
If Fisher is granted a license, he hopes to use some of the proceeds to start a chamber of commerce of sorts for local Black farmers.
If his appeal is rejected, it would add to his family’s history with bureaucratic brick walls. But his family also has a history of persisting.
“From slavery up even today, the things we have to improvise just to survive sometimes, you know?” he says, surveying the cemetery and making plans to fight back invading brush.
“We are a resilient people. We are.”
He gazes at the headstones of his family members, generations who toiled to build America’s wealth without a share of the profits.
All he wants, he says, is a fair opportunity.