Editor’s Desk: The law that drove land loss for black farmers

The story of the Great Migration may be familiar, as black families uprooted from the South and sought a better life in the industrialized North. Many factors came into play in the move, but in FERN’s latest story, Leah Douglas points to one that isn’t often cited — loss of their farmlands.

In our latest story with The Nation magazine,“African Americans have lost untold acres of farmland over the last century,” Douglas points out that an obscure legal provision was behind this land loss and is only recently being corrected in states around the country.

The story 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. Since the title was unclear, any descendant could decide to sell their share to an outsider — such as a real estate investor. And that new co-owner could prompt the auction of the entire parcel of land. By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, representing about 14 percent of all farms in the United States, Douglas tells us. By 1975, just 45,000 black-owned farms remained.

Such sales gave rise to Hilton Head, with its golf courses and beachside hotels. But Gullah families still own property, including one that remains the island’s largest single undeveloped parcel and is now the center of a legal battle over its future.

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Best Regards,

Sam Fromartz
Food & Environment Reporting Network

Photograph by Richard Ellis