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On June 21, 1866, the United States signed the Southern Homestead Act into law. The first Homestead Act had been signed into law during the Civil War on May 20th, 1862, which meant that formerly enslaved Black Americans were unable to take advantage of the land distribution. As a result, the Southern Homestead Act was passed and in the first six months, Aeon writes that “unoccupied southern land was offered exclusively to African Americans and loyal whites.” But after 1867, landless former white Confederates were also applying to the Southern Homestead Act for land.
Federal land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi was redistributed, but the percentage that went to Black Americans is vanishingly small. Over 1.6 million white families became landowners due to the two Homestead Acts, while “only 4,000 to 5,500 African-American claimants ever received final land patents from the [Southern Homestead Act].” Even when land patents were granted, the land was often of poor quality. And as Zinn Education Project notes, “it is important to include how the land was stolen” from the Indigenous people of the North American continent repeatedly, because none of the land redistribution that occurred would have been possible without stealing the land in the first place.
According to agricultural history, this increase in farm ownership was in part due to “the movement of whites off the land to take jobs in industry, jobs which were not available to blacks, [as well as the] readiness of white bankers to extend farm loans to rural blacks.” As a result, Black farm owners were not only able to acquire land, but they were also able to increase their acreage by up to 33% between 1900 and 1910, “compared to 7% for whites.”
Although Black people in America were able to acquire land up through the beginning of the 20th century, holding onto the land was another story. “81% of early Black landowners” didn’t leave a will, either due to a lack of legal resources or distrust of the American legal system. ProPublica reports that as a result, the land would become an heirs’ property, “a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company,” when the landowner died. Sometimes, there can be up to 100 known heirs who are all “legally co-owners.”
The USDA has described heirs’ properties as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Not having a will ends up jeopardizing land ownership, and many “are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property” without the full consent of the family
The Guardian reports that in some cases, the land is passed down informally, but the partial interest in the house is continually split among new descendants. However, none of the descendants with partial interest hold the actual title to the house, and as a result, are “excluded from many federal and state grants historically given to homeowners to recover from disasters.” This was seen after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when “up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.”
It’s estimated that heirs’ property makes up between 33% to 60% of Black-owned land in the south.
Due to the discriminatory lending practices and loan denials, the Equal Justice Initiative writes that Black farmers were forced into foreclosure, “and their property was purchased by wealthy white landowners.” And while white farmers were given checks for operating or relief loans for hundreds of thousands of dollars, The Guardian reports that Black farmers like John Boyd Jr. would be “begging for $5,000” and still be denied. Loans were denied to non-white farmers “at a rate of 10-15% times higher than white farmers, varying between states.” And on the rare occasion that loans were approved, non-white applicants were found to wait “an average of three times longer to receive their money than their loan counterparts.”
The Nation reports that during the worst of the farm crisis in 1984 and 1985, “the USDA lent a total of $1.3 billion to nearly 16,000 farmers to help them maintain their land. Only 209 of those farmers were Black.”
This content was originally published here.