Preserving Black-Owned Land Is One of Our Greatest Triumphs Against Racial Wealth Inequity

By Anne Price, President

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The President’s recent attacks on four congresswomen, telling them to go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” and his latest assault on a Black congressman, calling his district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” speaks to the unique relationship of place to the Black experience.

The late Ira Berlin, a renowned historian of the Black experience, explicitly asserts that from land theft and racial covenants to redlining, urban removal, and gentrification, the struggle for place has been an ongoing part of Black life. Place has been and remains a vehicle of extraction and control but is also a social imperative — as in “stay in your place” — as powerful whites have defined the “place” of Black people as one of subordination.

According to Berlin, place is more than a locale, “it is an attitude, a condition, a policy that white people enacted again and again with a tip of the hat, a downward glance, a silent acceptance of subordination. Yet, Blacks have always twisted the meaning of place, transforming spaces of repression to ones of liberation and places of confinement to escape routes.”

For Black people, owning land has been a source of liberation, power, and intergenerational wealth generation, but they have never been able to fully realize the power and wealth that land bestows.

Journalist Brentin Mock notes that Black people emerged out of a century of Jim Crow with one asset — land. Less than 50 years after the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendents owned 15 million acres across the South. Much of that land was located on the coasts, which was considered some of the most undesirable real estate at the time and was used mostly for farming.

In 1920, there were 925,000 Black-owned farms. Comprising 10 percent of the population, Blacks accounted for 14 percent of farm owners. By 1975, only 45,000 Black-owned farms remained. While white farmers also lost land during this time, the rate of loss of Black farmers is estimated as two and a half to five times higher than that of white farmers.

Over the last 50 years, Black people have been stripped of nearly 11 million acres of land through violence, fraud, deception, and theft, thus creating wealth for white families.

Going back decades before, the common practice of using lynchings and white mob attacks on Black people as means for grabbing Black-owned land and keeping Blacks “in their place” is still a largely untold chapter of our nation’s sordid racial history. In some cases, government officials not only approved land theft but were active participants in stealing land.

And by the second half of the 20th century, there were new legal tools of dispossession like partition sales, which were available through the courts and targeted heirs’ property owners who did not have wills or clear titles to their property.

Heirs’ property, which is the form of ownership that the law will give you if you do not have a will or an estate plan, represents the most unstable form of common ownership of real property. It works this way: When a landowner dies without a will, the heirs, usually a spouse and children, inherit the estate. They own the land in common, with no one person owning a specific part of it. If more family members die without wills, within a couple of generations 20 or 30 or more people (who may be scattered across the country) can own land in common. Anyone can buy an interest in one of these family estates and it only takes a single heir willing to sell. One person who owns a share, no matter how small, has the legal right to request that the entire property be sold at auction without the consent of the other owners.

Hilton Head Island, on the southeastern coast of South Carolina, is one of the most striking examples of once predominately Black-owned land that was bought up by wealthy white speculators seeking to create vacation homes and resorts, and is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, largely due to this type of practice. Blacks got little to nothing.

According to a recent Pro-Publica article, “heirs’ property is ‘the worst problem you’ve never heard of’ and the leading cause of black land loss and a major contributor to the racial wealth gap in this country. Black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of it.”

If land loss is the major contributor to racial wealth inequities, the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act (UPHPA) not only represents the most significant modern reform to partition law in this country, but perhaps the biggest triumph America has seen in addressing structural racial wealth inequities.

UPHPA provides family members who hold heirs’ property the opportunity to buy the land first, without having to put the entire property up for public sale, and allows the court to consider non-economic factors, such as heritage and the historical or cultural value of the land, in deciding how to partition it.

In our most recent episode of Hidden Truths, I speak with Thomas W. Mitchell, a professor of property law at Texas A&M University, who is a major architect of the UPHPA legislation and its systemic reforms.

UPHPA has passed in 14 states, spanning every geographical region in the country, including Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Iowa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, New Mexico, Texas, and even South Carolina, the state with the greatest number of Black landowners and the greatest Black land loss.

Most recently, UPHPA passed in New York, demonstrating that heirs’ property is not just a rural phenomenon. Moreover, the 2018 farm bill further strengthened UPHPA by allowing owners of heirs’ property to become eligible for a variety of USDA programs, including lending and disaster relief programs that were previously closed to them.

As dreadful and threatening as the political climate is today, the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act is a reminder that we can make critical progress when we work together and never waiver in our deep commitment to racial justice and equity.

Indeed, the reforms put forward by UPHPA are especially momentous for their unique precision in fighting back against systematic wealth extraction while preserving opportunity, in so many forms, for affected families and communities.

The methodical stripping of land from Black Americans has been an endless theft that has robbed successive generations of families, and whole communities, of not only wealth but the fundamental assets and values that wealth bestows within the structures of our economy — assets like dignity, freedom, and, yes, the right to place, as we envision it, create it, and define it for ourselves.

This is why racial wealth inequality is one of the greatest failures of our economy — it robs so many of us of the opportunity to be free, to be whole, to be home.

By expanding rights to land ownership and pushing back against one of the key drivers of racial wealth inequities, reforms like UPHPA allow the most marginalized to have a true stake in this economy. And that means not just the ability to build wealth but having a place, a home, a community, that we’re not “going back” to, because we’re already there.

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