Race Based Land Redistribution in America
Racist land redistribution in America became a norm in 1865. Since emancipation, there are numerous accounts of seized homes and land belonging to Blacks have been taken by whites in America.
For generations, since the 18th century, Black families in America have passed down the stories: “They stole our land.” In 2004, the Associated Press, in an 18-month investigation revealed that many of these rumored oral histories are accurate. Time and time again Blacks have been cheated out of their land and many times driven from it through threats, violence, and murder. In some incidents, government officials approved the land takings. In other circumstances, they knowingly took part.
The earliest on record occurred before the American Civil War; others involved people who are still living. Some property taken from Black families became a country club in Virginia, oil fields in Mississippi and a baseball spring training facility in Florida and more. America has a long history of bitter land disputes, from range wars in the Old West to broken treaties with Native Americans. Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated dishonestly, pressured to sell at rock-bottom prices by railroads and mining companies and other businesses. An investigation over Black land seizures that included interviews with more than 1,000 people examined tens of thousands of public records documented 107 land takings in 13 Southern and border states.
In those cases, alone, 406 Black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farm and timberland plus 85 smaller properties, including businesses and city lots. Presently, whites or corporations own almost all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars. These losses were devastating to families struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery. Besides the previous cases acknowledged, reports found evidence of dozens more that could not be fully verified because of gaps in the public record. Thousands of other reports of land takings collected by land activists and educational institutions remain un-investigated. Examples of land takings are: After midnight on Oct. 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a Black farmer in Hickman, Ky., and ordered him to come out for a whipping. When David Walker refused and shot at them instead, the mob set fire to his house. Walker ran out, followed by four screaming children and his wife, carrying a baby in her arms. The mob shot them all, wounding three children and killing the others. Walker’s oldest son never escaped the burning house. No one was ever charged, and the surviving children were deprived of the farm their father died defending. Land records show that Walker’s 21/2-acre farm was folded into the property of a white neighbor. The neighbor soon sold it to another man, whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today.
In 1964, Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, alleging that the cousins had no right to two 40-acre farms their family had worked in Sweet Water, Ala., for nearly a century. The land, officials contended it belonged to the state. A Circuit Judge urged the state to drop its suit, saying it would result in “a severe injustice.” But when the state refused, the judge ordered the family off the land. Deeds and tax records showed that the family had owned the land since an ancestor bought the property on Jan. 3, 1874. Alabama’s Governor called the Sweet Water case “disturbing” and asked the state attorney general to review the matter.
The land takings are part of a larger picture a 91-year decline in Black landownership in America. In 1910, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census African Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all in the South. Today, Blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland and are part owners of an additional 1.07 million acres. The number of white farmers has declined, too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer hands. Yet, according to a 1982 federal report, African American ownership has declined 21/2 times faster than white ownership. This issue was documented in “Failing the Grade,” The Kansas City Star’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the Department of Agriculture in 1991. This report showed Black farmers had tumbled 97 percent from the 1920s to 1991. In the 1980s alone one-third of Black farmers left the land, compared with one in 10 white farmers.
One reason was that Black owned farms often were smaller than their white counterparts, and Black farmers often had less capital. But the report showed prejudice in the Agriculture Department’s nationwide network of county offices regarding access to loans, subsidies and advice that contributed to African American farmers being forced out of business. After the American Civil War, in the decades between Reconstruction and the American Civil Rights struggle when Black men and women were lynched, few Blacks dared to challenge whites. With the implementation of Jim Crow Laws, Blacks were powerless to prevent abuses and those who did could rarely find lawyers to take their cases.
In the 21st century, some African American families have sued to regain ancestral lands, but the cases were dismissed on grounds that statutes of limitations had expired. Some legal experts say remedies for many land takings may not be possible unless laws are changed. The Espy family in Vero Beach, Fla., lost its heritage in 1942, when the U.S. government seized its land through eminent domain to build an airfield. Government agencies frequently take land this way under rules that require fair compensation for the owners. In Vero Beach, however, the Navy appraised the Espys’ 147 acres, which included a 30-acre fruit grove and 40 house lots, at $8,000. The Espys sued, and an all-white jury awarded them $13,000. Records show that this amounted to one-sixth of the price per acre that the Navy paid white neighbors for similar land. After World War II, the Navy gave the airfield to Vero Beach. Ignoring the Espys’ plea to buy back their land, the city sold part of it, at $1,500 an acre, to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965 as a spring training facility. The team sold its property to Indian River County for $10 million in August 2001.
The complete extent of land takings from Black families may never be known because of gaps in public records. Found today are crumbling tax records, deed books with pages torn from them, and records that had been crudely altered. About a third of the county courthouses in Southern and border states have burned some more than once since the American Civil War.
On the night of Sept. 10, 1932, 15 whites torched the courthouse in Paulding, Miss., where property records for the eastern half of Jasper County, then predominantly Black were stored. A few years after the fire, the Masonite Corp., a wood products company, went to court to clear title to its land in the area. Masonite claimed it owned 9,581 acres and said it had been unable to locate anyone with a rival claim. In 1938, the court ruled that the company had clear title to the land, which has since yielded millions of dollars in natural gas, timber and oil. From the few property records that survived the fire, it was found that after the Ku Klux Klan drove off African American owners; Masonite had acquired at least 204.5 of those acres. At least 850,000 barrels of oil has been pumped from this property. Presently the land is owned by International Paper Corp., which acquired Masonite in 1988.
Today, interest in genealogy among African American families is surging, and some are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories. Bryan Logan, a 55-year-old sportswriter from Washington, D.C., was researching his heritage when he uncovered a connection to 264 acres in Richmond, VA. Currently the land is Willow Oaks, a country club with an assessed value of $2.94 million. But in the 1850s, it was a plantation worked by the Howlett slaves Logan’s ancestors. Their owner, Thomas Howlett, directed in his wills that his 15 slaves be freed, that his plantation be sold and that the slaves receive the proceeds. But the Blacks never got a penny. Court records show that after Howlett’s death, Benjamin Hatcher, the executor of the estate, ran the plantation as his own.
When the Civil War ended, the former slaves complained to the Union army, which ordered Virginia courts to investigate. Hatcher testified that he had sold the plantation in 1862 but had not given the proceeds to the former slaves. Instead, records show, the proceeds were invested on the slaves’ behalf in Confederate war bonds in 1864 a doubtful investment in the fourth year of the war. Within months, the Union army was marching on Atlanta and Richmond, and the bonds were worthless. The African Americans insisted they were never given even that, but in 1871, Virginia’s highest court ruled that the former slaves were owed nothing. Willow Oaks Corp. acquired the property in 1955 for an unspecified amount.
Reparations has been a constitutional bill introduced in every legislative session since 1989 and a talking point in the 2020 democratic presidential campaign. We chose this date as it coincides with General William T. Sherman issuing Special Field Order #15 that would have provided each African American family 40 acres of land and an army mule to work the land. But in addition to invoking the 40 acres Black people never got, the reparations movement today could be talking about the approximately 11 million acres Black people had but lost, in many cases through fraud, deception and outright theft, much of it taken in the past 50 years.