A Brief History of Black Land Ownership in the U.S.

Black land loss – the loss of land ownership and rights – dates back to the mid-19th century, where in some states Black Americans were prohibited from owning land after the Civil War ended. Meanwhile, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves but did not guarantee a right to land ownership. While the “40 acres and a mule” promise would have been the first large-scale reparations attempt for newly freed slaves, it was promptly overturned by Andrew Johnson during the early months of his presidency.

Despite increasing segregation and land ownership disputes, Black farm land ownership steadily increased in the late 1800s, and hit an all-time-high national average in 1910 – when 14% of all farm owner-operators were Black Americans. This was in the decades following the Civil War, in which freed slaves and their descendants accumulated 19 million acres of land. During this Reconstruction period, Black landowners purchased every available and affordable plot of land that they could.

Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. One of the main causes of this property loss is heirs’ property, where descendants of land owners inherit land from their family, but have no will or legal documentation that proves their land ownership. The issue of heirs’ property loss still persists today. In the early 1900s, white supremacist backlash spread across the United States. The USDA counted close to a million Black farmers across the United States – or about 14% of all farmers at the time. Many Black men during this time period were lynched because white landowners wanted their land. Violent mobs often beat and threatened to murder Black farmers if they didn’t abandon their homes. Over the course of two months in 1912, a mob drove out more than a thousand Black people from their homes in Forsyth County, Georgia.

From the 1920s to today, the percentage of Black land owners steadily dropped from 14% to only 1.3% across the nation. Discriminatory lending practices gave unequal loans to land-grant universities for Black farmers, and several laws were passed that restricted land to educated, white farmers and prohibited people of color from owning land in certain states. In 1997, John Boyd Jr. and 400 other black farmers sued the USDA in the landmark lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, alleging that USDA officials ignored complaints brought to them by black farmers and that they were denied loans and other support because of rampant discrimination. This case was settled in 1999, with the government distributing $50,000 each to over 16 thousand farmers.

During Tom Vilsak’s eight year term in the Obama administration fewer loans were given to Black farmers than during the Bush administration. The USDA foreclosed on Black farmers with outstanding discrimination complaints, and many of these complaints remained unresolved. From 2006 to 2016, Black farmers were six times as likely to be foreclosed on as white farmers. Most states have overturned their discriminatory land laws, but some state property laws are still being reviewed. The Black farmers who have managed to hold on to their land are barely able to make a living today. They make less than $40,000 annually, compared to over $190,000 by white farmers. Their average acreage is about one-quarter of white farmers.

There are several nationwide initiatives that are trying to restore land for Black landowners. Here in Maryland, the number of Black-owned and operated farms is slowly increasing. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s 2017 data, 1.4 percent of Maryland’s farmers are Black – slightly higher than the national average. The Baltimore Office of Sustainability has said that the city of Baltimore has as least 3 times as many Black-led farms as it had 10 years ago. Become acquainted with Black farmers in Baltimore city through this article from WYPR – featuring a Fair Farms partner, BLISS Meadows.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act bill that was recently introduced in the US Senate seeks to expand Black-owned farmland by up to 32 million acres through land grants over the next ten years. This bill would also increase funding for a USDA program to end the issue of heirs property. Half of the $10.4 billion introduced in the American Rescue Plan will go to disadvantaged farmers, and a quarter of those farmers are Black.