September 27, 2023

Reparations Movement Profiles: Reclaiming Black Land

“In the case of Evanston, there was a housing policy that was enforced, a law that was anti-Black, that really shaped our racial segregation that we still have today and stripped away wealth and opportunity from our Black residents.”
Robin Rue Simmons, former alderman of Evanston, Illinois; architect of the Evanston Reparations Legislation; and founder and executive director of FirstRepair

It is no secret that real estate is a major wealth driver in the United States. The first time the federal government considered reparations for Black people was in 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War. Union general William T. Sherman issued a special order to reserve a total of 400,000 acres of coastal land for the formerly enslaved Black population—an order that, following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was quickly rescinded. This is often referred to as the promised-but-never-delivered “40 acres and a mule.” Meanwhile, from 1862 through 1890, with the passage of the Homestead Act, nearly 50 million acres of land were distributed to white settlers. It is critical to acknowledge that all this land was stolen from Indigenous people.

As historian Andrew W. Kahrl, who has researched how the seizure of Black land along the coasts has directly contributed to white wealth, points out, for “so many real estate markets formed in 20th-century America, value was created and capital accumulated through racialized forms of dispossession, while Black exclusion from these same markets served to protect and enhance those values.” In other words, Black people’s property loss, through deeply discriminatory policies and their implementation, was the real-estate industry’s financial gain. It was a pernicious form of state-sanctioned theft.

Approaches to steal Black land and prevent Black land ownership took many forms. A few examples include:

  • Heirs’ property leads to involuntary land loss. Heirs’ property refers to when descendants inherit property without a will or formal estate planning strategy. The practice was common during Reconstruction, when Black people did not have access to the legal system, and continued for decades thereafter during the Jim Crow era, when Black Americans were distrustful of white Southern courts. After several generations, heirs’ property leads to “fractured” titles among multiple family members that make it difficult to legally prove ownership of land and easy for speculators and developers to prey on these families. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recognized it as the leading cause of involuntary Black land loss. Approximately 76 percent of African Americans still do not have wills, more than twice the percentage of white Americans. Today, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of Black-owned land in Southern states is heirs’ property.
  • Biased implementation of the GI Bill denied home ownership opportunities. The GI Bill in 1944 included a host of benefits for military veterans, including low-cost mortgages, college tuition, and unemployment insurance, that are credited with creating a thriving (white) middle class after World War II. However, the GI Bill was structured in a way that denied those benefits, including the refusal of mortgages and loans to purchase homes, to the 1.2 million Black veterans who served in World War II’s segregated ranks. By the early 1950s, only 2 percent of homes built with government-backed mortgages since World War II were occupied by Black people or other people of color.
  • Discriminatory lending practices by the USDA hurt Black farmers. The USDA routinely discriminated against Black farmers with biased loan denials, loan-processing delays, crop-disaster payment withholdings, and a variety of other practices. This led to the 1999 class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, which resulted in a $1.2 billion settlement to Black farmers, a landmark legal recognition of racist implementation of USDA policies and practices. However, confusion around paperwork and deadlines led to thousands of claims from Black farmers being denied, while others have yet to receive their settlements. Disparities persist; in 2022, just over a third of Black farmers were approved for federal aid, compared to 72 percent of white farmers who applied for the same loan.
  • Redlining and biased use of eminent domain for urban infrastructure projects limited wealth-building opportunities. Established in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) aided segregation by refusing to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods, a policy known as redlining. At the same time, the FHA also subsidized builders who were creating entire whites-only subdivisions and also recommended that highways be constructed as an intentional way to separate Black from white neighborhoods. These housing policies have had lasting impact. Today, formerly redlined areas generally remain more racially segregated and economically disadvantaged, with lower home values and lower median household income.

To put numbers to the impact, in 1910, just 47 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Black farmers owned more than 16 million acres. By 1997, Black farmers were stripped of more than 90 percent of those 16 million acres. Today, Black farm ownership is at just three million acres. This land loss is roughly estimated to be worth $326 billion today. That wealth loss extends beyond farmland, as residential homes, small businesses, and entire thriving Black communities have been destroyed in urban redevelopment projects or taken by eminent domain at the bequest of white neighbors or political officials, developers, and speculators using loopholes to acquire property at below-market prices. Sometimes white racist vigilantes, enabled by government officials who turned the other way, were responsible for such land theft, as in the cases of the Tulsa Massacre, Rosewood Massacre, and Wilmington Massacre, among others. Additionally, as Richard Rothstein documents in his book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, an onslaught of discriminatory federal and local housing policies during Jim Crow undermined the ability of Black families to own homes and build wealth.

A group of economists whose research focuses on the racial wealth gap writes in The New Republic: “This enormous loss not only cost the families who saw their land and dreams taken from them, but destroyed a rural Black middle class that had, by sheer will, emerged in the aftermath of slavery. Since family wealth is iterative—growing slowly at first, adding to itself, and accumulating and expanding over time—this blow to a nascent Black middle class has reverberated down the generations.”

Today, that generational impact is seen in a Black homeownership rate that is declining instead of rising. The home ownership rate for Black Americans is now 43 percent, which is lower than it was in 2010. Conversely, the rates of white, Asian American, and Latinx homeownership continue to grow, with the white home ownership rate, at 72 percent, nearly 30 percentage points higher than it is for Black Americans.

A diverse set of organizations and actors are fighting to reclaim and protect Black land.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a 56-year-old regional cooperative and rural economic development organization born out of the civil rights movement, helps Black farmers, landowners, cooperatives, and other low-income rural people in the South to develop cooperatives, retain their land, and advocate for policies that support Black farmers and land ownership. This includes offering heirs’ property assistance or mediation in Southern states to reverse the trend of Black land loss through inheritance-law loopholes. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, based in South Carolina, also offers legal education and direct legal services to resolve heirs’ property title issues and provides technical assistance to historically underserved landowners on sustainable land use. 

Where Is My Land helps Black families reclaim stolen land. The organization is working hard to remedy past harms, and its founder, Kavon Ward, was instrumental in winning back ownership of Bruce’s Beach in California for the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce (see “Philanthropy’s Role in Reparations and Building a Culture of Racial Repair”). However, despite Ward’s success, the organization has found it difficult to secure multiyear funding commitments, and without an increase in resources to grow its team, it will be difficult to keep pace with the urgent demand. Today, Where Is My Land has a waiting list of more than 700 Black families with compelling claims for land theft.

“Reclaiming the land and providing some sort of restitution is important for healing,” says Ward. “For some of our clients, the courts have failed them, everybody has failed them, and they’re living in poverty. They are still fighting, because that’s what they feel like their life is dedicated to.”

As land ownership continues to be the principal way most families build wealth in America, addressing these historic wrongs is a necessary component of repair to truly ensure equitable opportunity for all.

Organizations exploring reclaiming and preserving Black land (this list is not exhaustive, nor have the organizations been independently vetted by the authors):

Where Is My Land | Federation of Southern Cooperatives | Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation | Land Loss Prevention Project | Brown Grove Preservation Group | Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition | Pierce Chapel Cemetery (Black burial grounds since 1840) | The Brownsville Project | Jubilee Justice | National Black Food & Justice Alliance | Black Farmer Fund

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