Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday where Black History Month is never over! BHFFF is coming to you every Friday where I strive to introduce to you lesser known faces and lesser known facts. Today, we are talking Black Land Ownership, the most underrated , least discussed black business yet.
Land ownership has always been important to African Americans, although we own less than 1% of rural land in the United States today, it has not always been this way.
At one point, Black Land Ownership was at its peak (the 1910s – 20s) and helped to start such communities as The Mound Bayou in Mississippi, Rosewood in Florida, Blackdom in Albuquerque New Mexico, and, Black Wall Street in Oklahoma and many, many more. (See 7 Black Communities that Prospered) “In the 50 years following the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans held over 15 million acres of land. Today, African Americans own less than 7 million acres of land. In 1920, African Americans owned 14% of all farms. Today, African Americans own less than 1% of all farms.” (Vivian M. Lucas, Barren: The Decline of African American Land Ownership from 15 million to 7million acres).
In Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, the book that opened me up to the world of Black Literature as a child, Mildred D. Taylor starts a slew of books centered around the Logan family and their fight to keep their land. Land, always that place families could come back to, where gatherings could be held and where communities could root themselves. In Forty-Acres, Phyllis R. Dixon centers her story around black landownership. Rising from a sharecropper’s son to the largest Black Landowner in Dwight Count, Arkansas, C.W. Washington’s stroke forces him to retire from farming and he must decide what happens to the land. And finally, In Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile, now a TV show executive produced by Oprah, it again brings to light the subject of black landownership when Charley Bordelon inherits her father’s eight hundred acres of sugarcane land.
Unlike today, where paper money is valued above anything else, land ownership had always been praised as a vital contributor to financial and economic stability for the African American community. Landowners could build houses on the land, raise animals on land and grow food. We sold food we grew, bartered among neighbors, had bountiful dinners and when The Great Depression hit, many southern black land-owners didn’t notice until years in. Land ownership was something cherished, something we could call our own, and something to which we could be proud of.
What happened to families like the ones we read about and have grown to love? Where did Big Mama go and the land with her? What happen to Black Land Ownership and why was it so important to the people who came before us?
“Comparing the U.S. Agriculture Census data on African-American farmland ownership for 1910 and 1997, it shows a drastic decline from its peak of 15 million acres in 1910 to 2.4 million acres in 1997. A recent study estimated that in the early 20th century, rural landownership among African-American farmers and non-farmers was between 16 and 19 million acres (Gilbert, J., 2002). The 1999 Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey (AELOS), which assessed private rural landownership across race and use (i.e. farming, forestry, etc.), found that there are currently 68,000 African-American rural landowners and they own a total of approximately 7.7 million acres of land, less than 1% of all privately owned rural land in the United States. (AELOS, 1999). Sixty percent (60%) of which is owned by non-farmers. (AELOS, 1999). However, this acreage is valued at $14 billion. (AELOS, 1999).”
-Miessha Thomas, Jerry Pennick & Heather Gray, Federation/LAF staff, 2004
There are many factors that play into why land has lost its prominence among blacks today:
- Discrimination of Black Farmers
- Little political and technical understanding of the business of farming on behalf of the farmers themselves
- Poor land management
- Movement of blacks from the South to the North, in which case many sold their land
- Heir Property passed down to heirs who don’t really care about the land
- Underappreciated of the business of farming by young people who equate it to slave labor
- Landowners dying off without leaving Wills
When my husband and I lived on our cousins’ 40 acres, we loved it. The land I mean. The house wasn’t much to speak of, but oh the land! We lived there for five years of our lives and as a couple who is interested in acquiring land of our own we learned a lot.
Not only did many families leave their wealth (land) for better financial opportunities in the North (which many of them did not find), many blacks also did not leave Wills to their children and grandchildren. Known legally as Estate Planning, this is the process of arranging for the distribution and management of your estate after you die which, sadly, many black families fail to do. The generation just a few steps out of slavery more than likely cared very much about the land but if the children who will keep the land going do not care, then the land is lost. In most families, when the older generation dies off (and did not leave Wills to indicate who the land passed down to), the land then falls into the hands of the State who then controls who owns the land and how much of land they own. In the case, there was estate planning, the land may also become heir property.
Heir property is when the land is passed down to heirs according to the state or blood relative successors who are in place to inherit the land. The problem with this in the Black Community is that the land was typically passed down to family members who are not as interested in the land, who does not live in the state where the land is, who is only interested in the oil rights of the land (royalties given to landowners who have had their land drilled on for oil by the oil companies, which, taints the purity of the soil so many of these lands are no longer good for growing food), and who could care less about the land’s upkeep. Heirs also comprised of relatives who may not have known each other and will probably never know that the land exists.
Gary Grant, National President of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association, a nonprofit organization created to respond to the issues and concerns of African American farmers in the U.S. and abroad, addresses the continued loss of African American farms:
“We are losing land and wealth that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents worked, fought, and died to acquire for us,” he says. “We owe our ancestral warriors a debt– We must help ourselves by ensuring that the next generation is ready to control the land.”
During our time on the land, from which we acquired dogs, chickens, a horse, and started two gardens, my husband and I had long petitioned our elderly cousins on what it will take for us to buy some of the lands. After all, this was family. However, the land is heir property that must first be passed down to certain individuals. Individuals who do not live near the land, rarely check up on the land, and who do not have a connection to the land in a way that would compel them to live on the property. This is not unusual. Many landowners, especially young ones, are more interested in living in the city and in brick houses. Thus, the land becomes abandoned since lack of land management can quickly get out of hand and little by little, the land is lost.
Still, land ownership is still a big deal in the African American community. There are still many blacks who own land and much more who are stepping out there in the quest to secure acres of their own. Whether it’s an acre, five acres, or forty, I encourage the reestablishing of Black Land ownership, the education of farming and the motivation of our young people to truly understand what land has meant to us as a people—long before slavery we were a farming people—and what it means to us today.
My husband and I are starting by growing our garden in the backyard. We may not have our acres yet but its a start! We’re growing Spinach, Onions, Tomatoes, Lettuce, Basil, Thyme, Rosemary, and Oregano.