Ralph Paige, former Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/and Assistance Fund, died Thursday at 74.
He served as Executive Director for 30 years from 1985 to 2015. He began working for the Federation in 1969 and served the organization for 46 years.
A native of LaGrange, Georgia, he was the seventh of twelve children. Ralph attended local public schools and graduated with a BA degree in Education from Fort Valley State College, an HBCU, in 1967. He was active in sports of football and swimming during college.
After serving briefly as a school teacher and coach, Ralph became a cooperative organizer with the Federation in west Georgia in 1969. He assisted the Harris County Farmers Co-op to grow and expand its scope and services to become the West Georgia Farmers Co-op. He later headed the Federation’s Business Development Office in LaGrange, Georgia giving advice and loan packaging services to cooperatives and small businesses in the area.
In 1977, he directed the Federation’s National VISTA program providing 110 volunteer staff at 60 locations from South Carolina to Texas. In this role, he traveled and met with the membership and leadership of the Federation throughout the South.
In 1985, when Charles Prejean, the Federation’s first Executive Director stepped aside, the organization’s Board of Directors chose Ralph Paige to succeed him.
During his thirty years as Executive Director, he built the Federation into the premier organization representing Black farmers and low-income rural people in the South. He helped to organize 70 cooperatives and 18 community development credit unions during his tenure as Executive Director. He supported the development of the Federation’s unique Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama, including an agroforestry component and forestry demonstrations.
He led the Federation in a 1992 Black Farmers Caravan to Washington, D.C. to highlight the discriminatory policies of the United States Department of Agriculture. The Caravan ended with a protest in front of USDA by several hundred Black farmers who brought a pig to show their distain for USDA policies.
He spearheaded efforts from the mid-1990’s forward to file suit against USDA for discrimination in credit, conservation and rural development. These efforts led to the historic Pigford I and Pigford II class action cases, which became the largest successful discrimination lawsuits against the U. S. Federal government and yielded $2.5 billion in payments to thousands of Black farm families. He also supported discrimination settlements for Native American, Hispanic and Women farmers who were also subjected to discrimination by USDA.
He worked on legislation to reform farm and rural policies to allow for the formation of the National Co-op Bank, creation of the Section 2501 Outreach and Technical Assistance Program for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, expansion of farm credit to include Micro-loans, appropriate to family-size farming operations; and the creation of the Rural Cooperative Development Program to support cooperative development and training centers, like the Federation’s at Epes.
In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives implemented a comprehensive Relief and Recovery Project (RRP), which focused on both short and long term assistance to thousands of farmers, fishers, families and individuals displaced and affected by the hurricanes. The RRP has enabled a significant number of victims and affected communities to receive the resources and assistance necessary for them to cope with their immediate situation while developing concrete plans for the future.
Despite obstacles, financial problems, and many times a hostile and racially charged environment, Ralph maintained the Federation, an annual budget of $3 million, and a staff of 30 or more trained specialists around the South. He mentored and trained, Cornelius Blanding, to take over his position as Executive Director. In 2015, Ralph retired to take care of his health. His greatest legacy is that the Federation has continued and flourished, celebrating its 50th anniversary in August 2017. A succession plan that he initiated has replaced the ‘founding generation of core staff’ with a new generation of capable leadership to guide the organization for the next generation and into the future.
Ralph served on many boards and received many honors in his lifetime. Among the Boards were: Nationwide Insurance Company, National Cooperative Business Association, Cooperative Development Foundation, Cooperative Business International, the President’s (George Bush) Twenty-first Century Agriculture Commission, Rural Policy Advisory Committee to President Barack Obama and many more.
He received numerous awards including induction in to the Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2004, Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award from SCLC, George Washington Carver Hall of Fame at Tuskegee, Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Award, NCBA Co-op Month Leadership Award and many others.
Ralph leaves to cherish his memory, a wife of 51 years, Bernice, two children, Bernard and Kenyatta, five grand children and many relatives and friends. His funeral services will be held in LaGrange, Georgia on Friday July 6, 2018.