Attorney Greg Francis: The Black Farmers Case

Greg Francis sitting at a desk in his office

New Book and Life’s Mission Are About Harvesting ‘Good’

Greg Francis remembers riding in a car with Johnnie Cochran, who was heading back to Orlando International Airport. The famed attorney and activist had just delivered a speech to Central Florida lawyers during Black History Month in the early 2000s, and now he was about to deliver a private message to a young attorney who was honored to be in his presence.

Cochran’s words have stuck with Francis to this day. He said, “Look, here’s the best advice I’ll give you: You can do good and do well at the same time. So make sure you do good.”

Today Francis is living out that advice. The Orlando attorney, now a seasoned veteran himself and a partner in Osborne & Francis PLLC, is the author of the new book Just Harvest: The Story of How Black Farmers Won the Largest Civil Rights Case Against the U.S. Government, which outlines how a team of attorneys fought for the legacy of entrepreneurs whose work and earnings were cut short by systemic racism.

In the two-part case, Black farmers won a 1999 decision that led to roadblocks and eventually a second decision in 2010. Francis was proud to be part of a legal team that pushed for the second settlement, which equaled about $1.25 billion from the U.S. government in the largest civil rights class-action settlement in U.S. history, which awards about $50,000 each for some 19,000 farmers or their descendants. Although the case is still making its way through arduous challenges, new publicity about it is pressuring the federal government to stick to the settlement.

 “This is something that for so long has been swept under the rug,” Francis said. “It’s important to identify this for America as a whole. This was not just an attack on Black farmers — this was an attack on entrepreneurialism. This was taking away the opportunity to advance for a whole group of people.”

Francis has also been part of a team of donors who created an endowed scholarship at the University of Florida, his alma mater, to help students from historically Black colleges and universities get into the prestigious UF law school. In order to endow the scholarship, which leaves the original donations intact and awards scholarships from the interest, UF needed $100,000. Two other donors put in $25,000 each, and Francis donated $50,000 to meet the goal. Since then, the investment has grown past $1 million, and he wants to see it reach $2 million by the end of 2022.

“This scholarship is the first of its kind in America in terms of the focus,” Francis said. “We believe it will help the standing of the University of Florida College of Law. For me, it was symbolic because it was like the farmers who were discriminated against for so many years. They planted seeds and there was no way they could know who was going to benefit from the seeds and the produce they were growing. They planted the seeds in fertile ground, with the understanding that ultimately this would be a benefit to someone else. I don’t know who’s going to get the scholarship. But I know it’s going to do good.”

Career Path

Francis didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer. Like many other young boys in the low-income Richmond Heights neighborhood west of Orlando, he wanted to be a professional athlete. “I wanted to be a professional football player. I would be a great athlete and become famous. I didn’t really think about any professional careers aside from sports, because that’s mainly what I was exposed to.”

But in high school, Francis was what he calls “painfully skinny.” He was not cut out for football. He needed a Plan B. He would be the second person in his family to go to college, and the goal was for him to earn a degree.

“I went to the University of Florida with the intention of becoming an engineer because I’d done well in math and that seemed like a likely path,” he said. “And very quickly, after my first semester with calculus and chemistry, that dream was gone. I had to recalibrate. I ended up, fortunately, running into an older student on campus who just came up and started talking to me. I told him I was struggling some academically, and he invited me to the library to study with him.”

That student turned out to be the president of a fraternity, and Francis joined the organization. He heard guys at the fraternity talking about law school.

Then one day as he walked past the bookstore, he made a decision. He went inside and bought a prep book for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). With the mind of an engineer, he methodically mapped out his plan. The next test was in 40 days. “I divided the book into 40 parts,” he said, “and every night, I studied. Ultimately I took the LSAT and did well.”

In law school, he determined there were two kinds of attorneys: those who try cases in the courtroom and those who handle legal transactions. “I was not interested in being a transactional lawyer, exchanging documents and that kind of thing. I felt that in order to effect change as a lawyer, I needed to be in the courtroom speaking out for whatever it was I was fighting for.”

At the time, most minority students weren’t getting internships or clerkships with major firms. “A lot of people were kind of resigned to that fact,” he said. “I took it upon myself to get a volunteer job in the career services office and just hung around and talked to lawyers when they came to interview students. I figured out what they were looking for and who they were looking for, and I ended up getting a clerkship with a firm in West Palm Beach doing medical malpractice defense, where we represented doctors and hospitals, which fulfilled my desire to be in the courtroom.”

The firm offered him a job when he graduated, so he moved to South Florida and started his career at what is now Bobo, Ciotoli, Bocchino, White, Buigas & Corsini P.A. Soon after, he was transferred to Orlando — something he initially was not too happy about. He had wanted to experience life away from his hometown. “But it worked out wonderfully because it was a smaller office, so I was able to do a lot more in the courtroom and on cases that I wouldn’t have been doing in the larger office, where there are more partners and more associates in front of me. It was a godsend.”

He left the firm in 2001 to join what is today Morgan & Morgan, where he became a partner and a shareholder. It was there he first met Cochran and worked briefly with the famous courtroom attorney who had successfully defended O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Sean Combs, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and other celebrities.

Cochran would die of a brain tumor in 2005 at age 67. “I wish I had more time with him,” Francis said. “But that wasn’t in the cards.”

However, another opportunity presented itself. As one of the people in charge of expanding Morgan & Morgan, Francis was working in the new office in Jackson, Mississippi, where the firm was representing a number of poultry plant employees who were not being paid proper wages. The team started getting some calls about a case involving Black farmers.

a book title "Just Harvest" by Greg Francis. The cover is black and white and depicts black farmers planting crops.

Pigford II

“There were really two parts to the case,” Francis explained. In the initial case, Pigford v. Glickman, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in April 1999 in favor of Black farmers in a class[1]action suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The suit claimed the agency had discriminated against the farmers because of their race and had failed to investigate or properly respond to complaints between 1983 and 1997, according to the Congressional Research Service at www.everycrsreport.com.

The deadline for submitting a claim as part of the class action was in September 2000. Many of the farmers didn’t make the deadline for various reasons. The claims process was reopened under a provision in the 2008 farm bill, and a maximum of $100 million was made available to settle the additional claims. The circumstances led to what became known as Pigford II, which was settled in February 2010 for $1.25 billion — an amount that needed congressional approval to exceed the $100 million that had been allocated. It was signed into law by President Obama in December 2010.

“There was a disconnect during the initial case, in terms of being able to connect with the farmers who were actually affected by the discrimination,” Francis said. “Many farmers were late. They didn’t have the proper assistance of counsel or they didn’t have enough counsel or, quite frankly, they didn’t believe that the government that had discriminated against them was going to, in fact, now compensate them. So they missed the deadline.”

A colleague in Mississippi told Francis about the case, shedding light on the phone calls the law office was receiving. Francis started looking into it.

“The more I talked to him and the more I started talking to the farmers, I understood there was unfinished business that needed to be finished,” Francis said. “This was something that had affected generations of families in terms of their inability to keep plying their trade, working the land and owning the land. It became a personal mission for me then.”

Francis has studied the history and can talk about the statistics. In the early 1900s, Black farmers owned and operated farms that grew food for what essentially was 30% of the population in America — everything from corn to livestock. By the time he got involved in the case in 2008, the number of farmers and the acreage they owned had dwindled.

But what drew him in were the stories about the people. Francis and other attorneys involved in the Pigford II case held meetings in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and other states with large numbers of Black-owned farms. Knowing that many of them in rural areas were not connected to each other, the attorneys publicized the meetings on local television stations, timing the announcements to catch farmers watching the evening news.

“We also had big meetings in places like Detroit and Chicago, where children of the farmers settled after college or high school, looking for a different way,” Francis said. “I’m certain that part of their thought process with that was, ‘I’m not going to subject myself to this. This is unfair, and I need to go where I have a chance.’”

The original case stemmed from a lawsuit by Timothy Pigford, a Black farmer who was growing corn and soybeans in North Carolina. He said he was denied loans because of racism, which sent his business into a downward spiral that had tax ramifications and created additional hardship. He sued the federal government, which made U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman the named defendant.

Francis explains how the widespread discrimination took place: “In those farming communities, there would be an extension office from the USDA, and that served as a conduit to interface with individual farmers. Every year the USDA appropriates a certain amount of money that it lends to farmers so they can buy land, tractors, feed or whatever it’s going to take to get the crops going. The white farmers would go in and get their loan and be able to ply their trade, and the Black farmers would come in and sometimes get the runaround. They’d hear, ‘We’re out of money’ or ‘You’re in the wrong office. You should be at this other extension office.’”

Farming is time-sensitive. A delay of 30 days in getting funds and planting seeds could mean a farmer had to skip a season, Francis said. That meant earning less money, and the financial implications of missing out on that opportunity would compound season after season.

Disconnected from one another, many of the Black farmers had suffered in silence. “They didn’t know that this was systemic,” Francis said. “This was happening not only in Jackson, Mississippi, but also in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Nashville. So you would be denied and you’d just go home and sit the family down and say, ‘We’ve got to figure this out.’”

Greg Francis sitting down for an interview.

Personal Legacy

Francis said he wrote the book to bring attention to the plight of Black farmers and others who are fighting similar historic battles, including Native American, Hispanic and women farmers. He also thinks it will offer hope to the next generations.

His involvement spurred him to create a nonprofit, the Greg Francis Just Harvest Foundation, to invest in entrepreneurship and education in local communities. “I want to start here in Orlando,” he said. “Proceeds from my book will help fund that. If you want to effect change, start with you. Look in the mirror. ‘What am I doing that I need to do differently?’ That will start a ripple effect down the line.”

The celebrated attorney is a former president of the Paul C. Perkins Bar Association in Orlando, which promotes the advancements of African Americans in the legal profession and diversity within leadership roles in Central Florida. One of his proudest moments was when his peers in the National Bar Association recognized him with the Vince Monroe Townsend Award for leadership and achievement in the field of civil rights.

“But I will tell you the most significant award for me came from my son, who is now 14,” he said. “He was a fifth-grader giving a speech at his school for Black History Month, and he was talking about what it is to be a leader. He had to say which leaders he looked up to, and he mentioned President Obama at the time and a few other names. Unbeknownst to me, he then broke into, ‘But my hero is my dad.’

“I didn’t expect it,” Francis said. “My children are my muses. That’s who I live for and plan for and try to create hope for.”

He wants his son and his daughter, who is 17, to understand the importance of legacy and of doing good while doing well. “I teach my kids all the time, ‘Listen, this is a community, and you have to invest in it.’”

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About the author

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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  • I read your story with personal interest as I am AS I WRITE, fighting to retain heired farmland from my parents as an African American inherited property owner – Fighting the legal Court system in South CArolina – which has a systematic system in place to rob us of our land with constant legal manipulations – that are almost impossible to fight without a healthy legal funds of almost 50,000 – which don’t have as a teacher. But struggling to find attorneys to fight for justice in this historic and continuing conundrum of us losing our lands our parents and grandparents fourght hard to pass on to us,