What prompted land loss for black farmers? An obscure property law

African-American farmers lost millions of acres of land across the South as a result of an obscure legal provision that is only now being corrected in state legislatures around the country, according to FERN’s latest story by Leah Douglas produced in partnership with The Nation magazine.

The story, “African Americans have lost untold acres of farmland over the last century,” focuses on a family on the tony resort island of Hilton Head, S.C., which at one time was populated by black Gullah families who settled there after the Civil War.

“Gullah communities thrived for decades … largely free of the restrictions of the Jim Crow South. For generations, they maintained an agricultural, barter-based economy,” Douglas writes. But when their land passed to descendants it was often without a will. Under an obscure legal provision, if any of those descendants sold their land to an outsider—such as a real estate investor—that new owner could prompt the sale of the entire parcel of land in an auction. These are known as “partition sales,” and they led to land loss for black farmers across the South.

“In the 45 years following the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendants accumulated roughly 15 million acres of land across the United States, most of it in the South,” Douglas writes. “The hard-won property was generally used for farming, the primary occupation of most Southern blacks in the early 20th century. By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, representing about 14 percent of all farms in the United States.”

Douglas continues: “By 1975, just 45,000 black-owned farms remained. ‘It was almost as if the earth was opening up and swallowing black farmers,’ writes scholar Pete Daniel.”

Many factors contributed to the land loss, including discriminatory lending by the USDA, the lure of factory work in the North, and the Great Migration, Douglas points out. “But the lesser-known issue of heirs’ property also played a role, allowing untold thousands of acres to be forcibly bought out from under black rural families—often second-, third-, or fourth-generation landowners whose ancestors were enslaved—by real estate developers and speculators,” she writes.

Such sales gave rise to Hilton Head, now an upscale resort with golf courses and beachside hotels. But Gullah families still own land, including one property that remains the island’s largest single undeveloped parcel and is now the center of a court case. The outcome of that case remains uncertain, though legal reform in South Carolina around partition sales may prove helpful, Douglas points out.