Torn From the Land: Black Americans’ Farmland Taken Through Cheating, Intimidation, Even Murder

Todd Lewan and Dolores Barclay, Torn From the Land: Black Americans’ Farmland Taken Through Cheating, Intimidation, even Murder. The Associated Press, 2 December 2001. A three-part series. “In an 18-month investigation, The Associated Press documented a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder. In some cases, government officials approved the land takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today.”

Part 1 of 3: “Black Americans’ Farmland Taken Through Cheating, Intimidation, Even Murder.”

The United States has a long history of bitter land disputes, from range wars in the Old West to broken treaties with American Indians. Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated unfairly, pressured to sell at rock-bottom prices by railroads and mining companies.

The fate of black landowners has been an overlooked part of this story.

The AP in an investigation that included interviews with more than 1,000 people and the examination of 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 stores and city lots. Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or corporations….

Besides the 107 cases the AP documented, reporters found evidence of dozens more that could not be fully verified because of gaps in the public record. Thousands of additional reports of land-takings collected by land activists and educational institutions remain uninvestigated….

AP reporters tracked the land cases by reviewing deeds, mortgages, tax records, estate papers, court proceedings, oil leases and Freedmen’s Bureau archives. Additional documents, including Farmers Home Administration records, were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The AP interviewed black families that lost land, as well as lawyers, title searchers, historians, land activists and public officials.

The AP also talked to current owners of the land, nearly all of whom acquired it years after the land-takings occurred. Most said they knew little about the history of their land. When told about it, most expressed regret….

The land-takings are part of a larger picture: a 91-year decline in black landownership in America.

In 1910, black Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all of it in the South, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland and are part owners of another 1.07 million acres.

The number of white farmers has declined, too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer lands. However, black ownership has declined 2-1/2 times faster than white ownership according to a 1982 federal report, the last comprehensive government study on the trend.

The decline in black landownership had a number of causes, including the migration of blacks from the rural South. However, the land-takings also contributed….

The true extent of land-takings from black families will never be known because of gaps in public records. The AP found crumbling tax records, deed books with pages torn from them and records that had been crudely altered.

The AP also found that about a third of the county courthouses in Southern and border states have burned, some more than once since the Civil War. Some of the fires were deliberately set….

Even when Southern courthouses remained standing, fear of white authority long kept blacks away from record rooms. Today, however, interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and some are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories….

Part 2 of 3: “Landownership made blacks targets of violence and murder.”

The success of blacks…threatened the reign of white supremacy, said Stewart E. Tolnay, a sociologist at the University of Washington and co-author of a book on lynchings. “There were obvious limitations, or ceilings, that blacks weren’t supposed to go beyond.”

In the decades between the Civil War and the civil rights era, one of those limitations was owning land, historians say.

Racial violence in America is a familiar story, but the importance of land as a motive for lynchings and white mob attacks on blacks has been widely overlooked. And the resulting land losses suffered by black families…have gone largely unreported.

The Associated Press documented 57 violent land takings – more than half of the 107 land takings found in an 18-month investigation of black land loss in America. The other cases involved trickery and legal manipulations.

Sometimes, black landowners were attacked by whites who just wanted to drive them from their property. In other cases, the attackers wanted the land for themselves….

The Tuskegee Institute and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have documented more than 3,000 lynchings between 1865 and 1965, and believe there were more. Many of those lynched were property owners, said Ray Winbush, director of Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute….

Some white officials condoned the violence; a few added threats of their own. “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched,” James K. Vardaman declared while governor of Mississippi (1904-1908). “It will be done to maintain white supremacy.” In some places, the AP found, single families were targeted.

Elsewhere, entire black communities were destroyed….

…[There was] a pattern in Southern and border states in the first half of the 20th century: lynchings and mob attacks on blacks, followed by an exodus of black citizens, some of them forced to abandon their property or sell it at cut-rate prices….

Sometimes, individual black farmers were singled out and attacked by bands of white farmers known as the Whitecaps. Operating in several Southern and border states around the turn of the 20th century, they were intent on driving blacks from their land and discouraging other blacks from acquiring it, said historian George C. Wright, provost at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“The law wouldn’t help,” he said. “There was just no one to turn to.”

“Whitecaps often nailed notes with crudely drawn coffins to the doors of black landowners, warning them to leave or die….

One aim of racial violence was to deny blacks the tools to build wealth, said John Hope Franklin, chairman of President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race.

Paula J. Giddings, a Duke University historian, said that “by the 1880s and 1890s, a significant number of blacks began to do very well in terms of entrepreneurship and landownership, and it simply couldn’t be tolerated.”…

Part 3 of 3: “Developers and Lawyers Use a Legal Maneuver to Strip Black Families of Land.”

Lawyers and real estate traders are stripping Americans of their ancestral land today, simply by following the law.

It is done through a court procedure that is intended to help resolve land disputes but is being used to pry land from people who do not want to sell.

Black families are especially vulnerable to it….

The procedure is called partitioning, and this is how it works:

Whenever a landowner dies without a will, the heirs — usually 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, things can get messy within a couple of generations, with dozens of relatives owning the land in common.

Anyone can buy an interest in one of these family estates; all it takes is a single heir willing to sell. And anyone who owns a share, no matter how small, can go to a judge and request that the entire property be sold at auction.

Some land traders seek out such estates and buy small shares with the intention of forcing auctions. Family members seldom have enough money to compete, even when the high bid is less than market value….

“Imagine buying one share of Coca-Cola, and being able to go to court and demand a sale of the entire company,” said Thomas Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin law professor who has studied partitioning. “That’s what’s going on here.”

This can happen to anyone who owns land in common with others; laws allowing partition sales exist in every state. However, government and university studies show black landowners in the South are especially vulnerable because up to 83 percent of them do not leave wills — perhaps because rural blacks often lack equal access to the legal system.

Mitchell and others who have studied black land ownership estimate that thousands of black families have lost millions of acres through partition sales in the last 30 years….

By the end of the 1960s, civil rights legislation and social change had curbed the intimidation and violence that had driven many blacks from their land over the previous 100 years. Nevertheless, black land loss did not stop.

Since 1969, the decline has been particularly steep. Black Americans have lost 80 percent of the 5.5 million acres of farmland they owned in the South 32 years ago, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Partition sales, [Jerry] Pennick [a regional coordinator for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives] estimates, account for half of those losses. A judge is not required to order a partition sale just because someone requests it. Often, there are other options.When the property is large enough for each owner to be given a useful parcel, it can be fairly divided. When those who want to keep the land outnumber those who want to sell, the court can help the majority arrange to buy out the minority. In at least one state, Alabama, the law gives family members first rights to buy out anyone who wants to sell.

Yet, government and university studies show, alternatives to partition sales are rarely considered. When partition sales are requested, judges nearly always order them….

Partition statutes exist for a reason: to help families resolve impossible tangles that can develop when land is passed down through several generations without wills….

Even when the process works as intended, it contributes to the decline in black-owned land; the property nearly always ends up in the hands of white developers or corporations….

But the process doesn’t always work as intended. Land traders who buy shares of estates with the intention of forcing partition sales are abusing the law, according to a 1985 Commerce Department study.

The practice is legal but “clearly unscrupulous,” declared the study, which was conducted for the department by the Emergency Land Fund, a nonprofit group that helped Southern blacks retain threatened land in the 1970s and ’80s.

Blacks have lost land through partitioning for decades; the AP found several cases in the 1950s. But in recent years, it has become big business. Legal fees for bringing partition actions can be high — often 20 percent of the proceeds from the land sales. Families, in effect, end up paying the fees of the lawyers who separate them from their land.

Moreover, black landowners cannot always count on their own lawyers. Sometimes, the Commerce Department study found, attorneys representing blacks filed partition actions that were against their clients’ interests. The AP found several cases in which black landowners, unfamiliar with property law, inadvertently set partition actions in motion by signing legal papers they did not understand. Once the partition actions began, the landowners found themselves powerless to stop them.

The Associated Press studied 14 partition cases in detail, reviewing lawsuit files and interviewing participants. The cases stretched across Southern and border states.

Each case was different, each complicated with some taking years to resolve. In nearly every case, the partition action was initiated by a land trader or lawyer rather than a family member. In most cases, land traders bought small shares of black family estates, sometimes from heirs who were elderly, mentally disabled or in prison, and then sought partition sales.

All 14 estates were acquired from black families by whites or corporations, usually at bargain prices.

Migrations that have scattered black families increase their vulnerability to partition actions. Historians say those who fled the South seldom spoke of the lives they left behind. Their descendants may not realize they have inherited small shares of family property and have no attachment to the land. All a land trader has to do is find one of them.

Some families have hired attorneys and tried to fight back. However, said Mitchell, the Wisconsin law professor, “the families nearly always lost.”