Black land loss in the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Black land loss in the United States refers to the loss of land ownership and rights by blacks residing or farming in the United States. In 1861 and 1862 the United States government passed the Morill and Homestead Acts, which were intended to give land grants to white Americans for colleges and those seeking land to farm. These acts were also accompanied by offers of subsidies to facilitate the acquisition and use of the land. As slavery was not abolished in the United States until 1865, many slaves and free blacks were unable to benefit from these acts.[1]

After slavery was abolished and black Americans began seeking out land of their own, Special Field Orders No. 15 was issued through the Savannah Colloquy. The order issued freed slaves 40 acres of land that lay on the coastline of Georgia and South Carolina. In addition, the mules that had been used in the war and were now idle were expected to be offered to these black Americans for use in farming, leading to the phrase "forty acres and a mule". The Freedmen's Bureau was created by the government and President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 to deal with the issue of the freed slaves and their settlement in the abandoned land. Sherman's Land was a Field Order that gave a significant number of freed slaves the opportunity to settle on land in Georgia and South Carolina. There were around 40,000 of these freed slaves who settled in over 400, 000 acres of land. However, it later turned out these lands belonged to rice plantation farmers.[2] According to Linda Faye Williams, it also turned out that while the Freedman's Bureau had the potential to help freed slaves get on their feet, ultimately all of the land that was supposed to be distributed amongst the freed slaves was given back to their original owners. Beyond that, if in the case a black person did receive some portion of land, they were still dependent on government aid and jobs provided by the white people to survive. This meant that they were not making enough to be able to maintain ownership of land.[3]

Causes of Land Loss[edit]

1865 marked the abolishment of slavery with the creation of the 13th Amendment and although many people were now free they were still being restricted in some ways. Common issues causing land loss amongst freed slaves and their descendants were caused by a lack of necessary paperwork and documents. The lack of or inability to produce these items resulted in unequal access to programs and services that would have assisted them with both obtaining land and ensuring that it remained within the family. Many newly freed slaves lacked necessary documents such as birth certificates that would prove their identity. They were able to obtain citizenship documentation after being freed, as they were required to register for citizenship. This documentation was not seen as proof of identity, however, and many freed slaves were given the same last names as their owners.[4]

Another issue was that many freed slaves and their earlier descendants did not write wills that would correctly pass down landownership, resulting in the proper titles not getting passed down. If land was not explicitly passed down to a certain person or group of people, the property would go to all of the next heirs, who would have the ability to sell their piece of land without informing the others.[5]

In the years following 1865, newly freed slaves experienced difficulty acquiring land because there was a lack of documents that proved their identity. This made it hard for these people to gain ownership of various things (land included) because this was one of the ways that white people were able to restrict the freedmen from acquiring status.[6]

Civil War[edit]

In the year 1862, the Department of Agriculture was created. At this time the legal administration still heavily favored white Americans despite the ongoing Civil War and the issue of slavery of the black people. During the same year the U.S Congress passed the Morill Act of 1862. Also referred to as the land Grant Act, the Morill Act of 1862 was meant to offer land grants to whites-only colleges that taught agriculture and mechanical courses. In addition, Congress also passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which legalized the acquisition of land in the West. The legalization came with the offer of subsidies to facilitate the acquisition and use of the land. However, these benefits were reserved for whites only, which shows that during the slavery era black Americans were not able to enjoy their rights to land nor the benefits that came with the support of the government in the way that they were described and had the right to.[7]

Post Civil War[edit]

When slavery was abolished in 1865, the Black Americans started agitating for a piece of the American land. One of the responses offered to their demand for land was Field Order 15 issued through what is famously referred to as the Savannah Colloquy. The order gave roughly 400,000 acres of land that lay on the coastline of Georgia and South Carolina to freed slaves. In addition, the mules that had been used in the war and were now idle were to be offered to these black Americans for use in farming.[7]

To help freed slaves deal with starvation, housing issues and medical aid, Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865. A significant number of freed slaves were settled in Georgia and South Carolina. Approximately 40,000 freed slaves were settled in over 400,000 acres of land, however their claims were contested by rice plantation farmers who claimed to own the land.[2] After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865 the Presidency was assumed by Vice-President Andrew Johnson, who overturned Special Field Orders No. 15. The new presidential order required black landowners to return the land to the white rice plantation farmers, a move that was vehemently opposed by the black landowners.[2]

When Black Americans finally gained citizenship in 1866, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act 1866. This Act was meant to avail land in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to acquisition by the people, which included the black population. At the core of Act was the endeavor to give Black Americans the chance to buy land in these states, of which Black Americans took advantage. Though Black Africans' right to land was improving, their political and social rights, among others, were declining at a worrying pace, especially in the South.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives was created in 1867 and was intended to offer financial assistance to the black farmers to assist in their quest to acquire land and do better farming.[8] A second Morill Act was passed in 1890 and gave blacks grants to colleges to learn arts and agricultural courses. In line with this, the blacks formed the first cooperative union in Arkansas and the United States in order to fight for and protect their rights.

The rest of these eras is characterized by the Jim Crow policies that had been legalized by the Supreme Court under the Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 decision that allowed separate treatment of whites and blacks as long as it was equally done.[2]

For a period after the Civil War, Black ownership of land increased and was primarily used for farming. At one point Blacks had gained ownership over about 15 million acres, which meant that they were also in control of 14% of the farms located in the United States (that is 925,000 farms owned by Black people). According to Leah Douglas, this number is drastically different from what can be seen in the 20th century as Black people not only own far less land in general but also own only 2% of the farms located in the US.[5]


By 1910 records showed that more Black Americans owned land than ever before in the history of the United States. Over 14 million acres of land were owned by approximately 210,000 black persons, leading some historians to refer to this time period as the height of black land ownership. Since then, however, black land ownership has been on a steady decline.[9] In a bid to address this worsening issue Congress came up with the Farmers Home Administration, which was intended to extend credit to small income farmers, particularly Black Americans. With the establishment of political rights for all Black Americans, rights to land in the southern states began improving.[8]

Despite these efforts black ownership of land continued to decline and many Black Americans were still experiencing land loss. In 1969 James Forman began a campaign dubbed the 'Black Manifesto', which called for reparations to be paid to Black Americans as well as a land bank in the south meant to offer financial assistance for those experiencing land loss. This call was later followed up by the 1973 'Only Six Million Acres' campaign led by Bob Browne. This campaign led to the creation of the Emergency Land Fund during that same year. Also founded by Browne, this fund was intended to address the loss of land by the black population.[10]

Using government grants, the Emergency Land Fund conducted research determining why Black Americans were losing land at an alarming rate. The research showed that the primary reason for the land loss was the heir property policy and that family owned land was easily lost in loans and other encumbrances.[11] Further research has suggested that additional reasons for black land loss was discrimination by the Department of Agriculture and discriminatory policies put in place by the Farmers Home Administration.[12]

Eventually, the Emergency Land Fund merged with other federations with similar goals and in 1990 they petitioned for the passage of laws to offer assistance to black farmers. During the same year a lawsuit was filed that sought redress for the plight of black farmers. Despite these actions and awareness campaigns such as the 1992 Caravan to Washington March, black land loss was still ongoing.[13] In 1997 the Department of Agriculture responded by holding talks with farmers and by coming up with 92 ideals that were intended to defeat discrimination. Another lawsuit was filed based on the black farmers' plight, prompting the Department of Agriculture to agree to offer a class payment in 1999.


In 2002, a USDA Report showed that Black people owned less than 1% of the rural land in the United States and the total value of all of that land together is only 14 billion dollars, out of a total land value of more than 1.2 trillion dollars, While the total land that the White people owned 96% of rural land which brings their land's joint worth just over one trillion dollars.[14]

Some of the consequences of being unable to maintain ownership of land show in the homeownership field where Black American and farmers are not only less likely to own the land they are living on (instead they are renting) but in doing so it makes them less likely to be able to afford to buy land later. [15]

In the year 2010, President Barack Obama authorized the payment of a 1.25 billion dollars from the USDA to Black American farmers though offered through the Pigford v. Glickman case.

Even with the Pigford settlement Black people losing their land remains prevalent, groups that are designed to combat this reality are doing what they can to help people maintain ownership of their land. One such group is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, who has a Land Assistance fund that can go to African American families who need it. While this group is willing to help any African American in need of help maintaining ownership of their land, they are Southern-based which means that a lot of their help goes to African American farmers (whose numbers of land ownership are also decreasing).[16]

Black Land loss' impact on the present[edit]

Landownership is important because it is a type of wealth that people can establish and benefit from themselves but also pass down (if properly maintained) for generations. During slavery, Black people were denied ownership of themselves let alone land and after slavery ended laws were set in place to ensure that this remained the same. The large migration of Black workers from the South to the North after globalization and technological advancements replaced the need for a lot of manual labor, created such a large population of Black people in the North that people in power initiated redlining. Redlining made it so that black people were only allowed to living in certain areas (whether that was because Real Estate agents would only show them certain houses and refused to show houses out of a certain area or banks would deny Blacks the loans necessary to buy a house in certain areas).[17]

Since redlining limited Blacks to certain areas not only did overcrowding become an issue but because of this there were fewer options for owning land (let alone space enough to establish farms). Being able to own land is one of the easier ways to establish wealth, but Black people were denied this option for so long that now it is one of the only forms of wealth they have.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Owles, S. & Gintis, H. (2002). The Inheritance of Inequality. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 16 (3): 3–30
  2. ^ a b c d Conley, D. (2010). Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
  3. ^ Williams, Linda Faye (2010-11-01). Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Penn State Press. pp. 3–43. ISBN 0271046724.
  4. ^ Williams, Linda (2004). The constraint of race: legacies of white skin privilege in America. Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 3–43.
  5. ^ a b Douglas, Leah. "African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century". The Nation. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  6. ^ Facing History and Ourselves. Reconstruction era and the fragility of democracy. Facing History and Ourselves. ISBN 978-1-940457-10-9.
  7. ^ a b Bowles, S. &Gintis, H. (2002). The Inheritance of Inequality. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 16 (3): 3–30
  8. ^ a b Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham: Rowman& Littlefield
  9. ^ The Journal of southern history. (1961). Baton Rouge: Southern Historical Association.
  10. ^ Bowman, W., (2011). Multigenerational Interactions in Black Middle Class Wealth and Asset Decision Making. Journal of Family Economic Issues. 32 (1): 15–26
  11. ^ Angel, J., (2008). Inheritance in Contemporary America. Baltimore Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  12. ^ Shapiro, T. (2004). The Hidden Cost of Being African American. New York: Oxford UP
  13. ^ Oliver, M. & Thomas M. (2006). Black Wealth, White Wealth: a New Perspective on Racial Inequality. New York: Routledge
  14. ^ "Who Owns the Land? Agricultural Land Ownership by Race/Ethnicity" (PDF).
  15. ^ Rothstein, Richard (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company.
  16. ^ "Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund". Retrieved 2018-12-01.
  17. ^ Rothstein, Richard (May 2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing.
  18. ^ Hanks, Angela; Solomon, Danyelle; Weller, Christian. "Systematic Inequality - Center for American Progress". Center for American Progress.