African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last CenturyRoundup
tags: Black History
... It was Dennis Allen, Matthew’s great-grandfather, who purchased the land on Hilton Head. The son of slaves, Dennis Allen bought his first parcel of nearly 20 acres in 1897, at a time when African Americans were purchasing land across the country. Today, the Allen family owns the largest undeveloped lot on Hilton Head.
But as the land enters its 120th year in the family, the Allens are struggling to hold on to it. Because of ambiguities surrounding the land’s title, there is no primary owner of the property; all of the heirs of the original owners—and there are more than 100 known heirs—are legally co-owners. As such, the land is classified as “heirs’ property,” a designation that makes it vulnerable to being sold without the family’s full consent. As the Allens attempt to overcome a stacked legal system—exacerbated by corrupt lawyers and predatory developers—they are at the center of a decades-long fight to retain black-owned land across the South.
In the 45 years following the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendants accumulated roughly 15 million acres of land across the United States, most of it in the South. Land ownership meant stability and opportunity for black families, a shot at upward mobility and economic security for future generations. The hard-won property was generally used for farming, the primary occupation of most Southern blacks in the early 20th century. By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, representing about 14 percent of all farms in the United States.
Over the course of the 20th century, however, that number dropped precipitously. Millions of farmers of all races were pushed off their land in the early part of the century, including around 600,000 black farmers. By 1975, just 45,000 black-owned farms remained. “It was almost as if the earth was opening up and swallowing black farmers,” writes scholar Pete Daniel in his book Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. Implicit in the decline of black farming was the loss of the land those farmers once tilled. Today, African Americans compose less than 2 percent of the nation’s farmers and 1 percent of its rural landowners.
Many factors contributed to the loss of black-owned land during the 20th century, including systemic discrimination in lending by the US Department of Agriculture, the industrialization that lured workers into factories, and the Great Migration. But the lesser-known issue of heirs’ property also played a role, allowing untold thousands of acres to be forcibly bought out from under black rural families—often second-, third-, or fourth-generation landowners whose ancestors were enslaved—by real-estate developers and speculators.
By one estimate, 81 percent of these early black landowners didn’t make wills, largely due to a lack of access to legal resources. Their descendants then inherited the land without a clear title, and it thereby became designated as heirs’ property. Although heirs’ property exists in many regions of the country, it’s most prevalent in low-income communities. In the South, according to one estimate, more than 50 percent of heirs’-property owners are African-American, many of them the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, based in Charleston County, South Carolina, estimates that there are 105,000 acres of heirs’ property in its 15-county service area alone. ...
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