At six or seven years old, John Slaughter remembers getting up at night to use the bathroom and seeing his father, Eddie, asleep on the couch with his boots still on.
“I took his boots off when he was still asleep, being exhausted all day, trying to farm and work the job that he had at the time,” John Slaughter said. “He fell asleep trying to figure it all out.”
It wasn’t just the on- and off-farm work. Black farmers like him faced decades of discrimination from the federal government, and he was a tireless advocate pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make it right.
He battled for that — in particular, for farm loan debt relief for the Black farmers who needed it — until the very end. Slaughter died suddenly Wednesday morning after experiencing shortness of breath at his home in Buena Vista, Georgia, according to friends and family.
He was 72.
Slaughter spoke at length with Public Integrity as a source for stories about discrimination against Black farmers. He is featured in the upcoming season 3 of Public Integrity’s The Heist podcast, in partnership with Pushkin Industries. In episode four, Slaughter said he was still actively fighting for Black farmers.
“Till the day I die, or we receive justice,” Slaughter said. “Whichever come first.”
Errick Thornton, one of Slaughter’s stepsons, was grieving both his loss and the unfinished battle.
“He said, ‘For us to get out of this debt, we’re going to have to die.’ And that’s so overwhelming,” Thornton said. “He never saw what he was pushing for.”
Slaughter was born in Buena Vista but mostly grew up in Miami.
“I was like a fish outta water,” Slaughter told the Center for Public Integrity last year. “I was country when country wasn’t cool.”
Every summer break from school, he would return to Buena Vista. Eventually, in his early 30s, he moved back for good. He wanted to be a farmer. And relatives showed him the ropes.
“When you finally get stuff up and it’s growing and you finally are able to harvest it and eat it, you become full circle,” Slaughter said. “And I wanted to learn so much more about it.”
Slaughter got a loan from the USDA. But as his lending relationship with the department grew, so did his debt. He alleged that he was encouraged to open more loans, buy more equipment and take on more debt, to meet department guidelines.
“That was the worst mistake I made because when you get into it with them, you fight them forever,” Slaughter said.
In 1997, Slaughter testified at a congressional hearing the Congressional Black Caucus held on USDA lending discrimination. He also became a claimant in Pigford v. Glickman, a class action lawsuit against the USDA that resulted in a settlement for Black farmers in 1999. Slaughter always contended that the $50,000 he received as part of the settlement was too little to cover his damages.
Although he said he was able to settle his debt under the Trump administration when he asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for a debt compromise, he continued to advocate on behalf of other Black farmers still tangled up in loans they saw as predatory. He organized Zoom meetings with them and alerted members of Congress to challenges they were facing with the USDA in his home state.
Politically, he was tough to pin down: He felt both Democrats and Republicans had failed Black farmers. At the local level, constituents have better contact with their elected officials, but Slaughter thought it could be tough to hold federal officials accountable, John Slaughter said. They could be too far removed from the people they’re serving and those like Eddie Slaughter, who didn’t fit neatly as a Democrat or a Republican, John Slaughter said.
Beyond his advocacy, friends and family say they will remember Slaughter’s service as a local pastor and his love of both God and his expanding family. He had six children with his first wife, Angeline, who died in 2017. About four years ago he married Gloria, who was also a widow and has nine children. Their families had known each other for years. With Gloria by his side, several family members said Slaughter’s faith in God grew.
Over time, though, Slaughter’s body started to fail him.
He was a double amputee. He told the Center for Public Integrity that he had been on dialysis for 12 years. In 2013, he had a kidney transplant. He was blind in his left eye. He had stents put in his heart. He’s had gangrene.
None of that stopped him from farming.
“He would go out there and get on that tractor and he’d plow them acres,” said Thornton, his stepson. “The biggest part that will tie me to Mr. Slaughter is probably going to be his ability to work even after some people would have call it quits.”
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