Black People’s Land Was Stolen

Thursday, June 20, 2019
New York Times

A House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday held the first hearing in over a decade on the issue of reparations for black Americans. The hearing took place, fittingly, on the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the announcement of the end of slavery in the United States, and five years after the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who testified, reignited the debate with his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” Once a fringe topic, reparations has emerged as an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, with several leading candidates for the Democratic nomination expressing support for various measures to atone for America’s racist past.

Thanks to Mr. Coates and others, today’s movement for reparations places as much emphasis on the racist public policies of the 20th century, which denied black Americans opportunities to build wealth and left them vulnerable to all manner of economic exploitation, as it does on the crimes of slavery. Many leading proponents of reparations point to the federal government’s failure to provide land and resources (40 acres and a mule) to former slaves following emancipation, as promised, as laying the course for today’s inequities. “Had such a racial land reform taken place,” the Duke University economist William Darity Jr. argues, “it is easy to envision that the vast current differences in wealth between black and nonblacks would not exist.” Mr. Darity has gone so far as to use the ungranted 40 acres of land that was due former slaves as the basis for calculating the amount of reparations due to their descendants today.

But in addition to invoking the 40 acres black people never got, the reparations movement today should be talking about the approximately 11 million acres black people had but lost, in many cases through fraud, deception and outright theft, much of it taken in the past 50 years. 

These property holdings could have provided a foundation for black wealth-building in post-Jim Crow America. Instead, they became a source of riches for others. Rather than helping to close the racial wealth gap, blacks’ landholdings became a key force in widening it. Black land-taking has been as instrumental as the denial of opportunities to acquire property in creating today’s racial wealth inequality and offers a more telling indicator of the barriers to upward mobility black people faced — and continue to face — in America. 

Understanding how this happened, identifying who did it and addressing the laws, policies and practices that allowed — and continue to allow — it to happen must be at the center of any discussion of reparations.

In the decades after the end of Reconstruction, as the nation abandoned its black citizens and the South descended into the age of Jim Crow, African-Americans succeeded, against all odds, in acquiring a remarkable amount of land. By 1910, black people claimed ownership of nearly 16 million acres in America. They did so in spite of the constant threat of forced dispossession at the hands of white mobs and officials. Sometimes, black property owners faced sudden and violent attacks, such as the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912 and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.

As often, though, whites undermined black property ownership by more subtle means. White tax assessors routinely overvalued black-owned land, forcing black property owners to bear a heavier tax burden than whites (to pay for services they didn’t receive) and slowly draining families of earnings. If black-owned property became valuable or a black property owner challenged white supremacy, local officials could simply declare the property tax-delinquent and sell it at a tax sale. Writing in 1940, the N.A.A.C.P. special counsel Thurgood Marshall described the manipulation of tax-delinquency laws by white officials in the South as a practice and custom of “depriving Negroes of their property through subterfuge.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, testified at the hearing.CreditMichael A. McCoy for The New York Times

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, testified at the hearing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, testified at the hearing.CreditMichael A. McCoy for The New York Times

Despite this, at the dawn of the civil rights era, African-Americans still held substantial amounts of land, mostly in the South, a substantial portion of which was in some of the region’s fastest-growing areas and hottest real estate markets. Thanks to huge federal investments during the New Deal, the South in the mid-20th century went from being what President Franklin Roosevelt described as the “nation’s No. 1 economic problem” in the 1930s to the booming “Sunbelt” by the 1960s. The region’s rapid growth, along with the emergence of new industries like vacationing and tourism in rural and coastal areas, created an insatiable demand for land and made black property owners targets for removal by white officials and plunder by profit-seeking speculators. Both exploited the byproducts of blacks’ history of oppression to achieve their objectives.

The story of Evelina Jenkins, a black South Carolina Sea Islands native, offers a case in point. She owned dozens of acres of property — including an entire island — at a time in the early 1970s when land values along the state’s coastline were skyrocketing. As a result of the state’s pitiful expenditures on “colored” schools, Ms. Jenkins had received only minimal education and never learned to read. Decades of disfranchisement and white control of local government and the courts had taught her that whatever rights and protections it afforded did not apply to her. Even venturing inside the local government offices where people registered for licenses or paid their taxes was an invitation to be mistreated and humiliated, and was something to avoid. 

So Ms. Jenkins entrusted a white neighbor who had befriended her to take her annual property tax payments to town for her. But rather than submitting Ms. Jenkins’s payments, he pocketed them, then waited for her taxes to fall delinquent, whereupon he bought the lien to her property at the county’s annual tax auction. Then, after the statutory redemption window closed, he gained title to her landholdings, island and all, which he subsequently resold to a developer. In the decades since, the land Jenkins once owned has generated untold amounts of wealth. Houses on the island she once owned today sell for upward of $400,000. Ms. Jenkins, though, never saw a dime of it. Rather than leave her children an ample inheritance, she died penniless, forced to live out her last days in her daughter’s mobile home.

While Ms. Jenkins’s case was particularly egregious, the legal theft of black land in similar ways was not uncommon. In booming real estate markets like Hilton Head and surrounding Sea Islands, tax sales afforded investors a lucrative opportunity to acquire valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Here and elsewhere, local tax assessors served as accessories before the fact, deliberately overvaluing black-owned land or enacting sharp, capricious assessment spikes as development crept near, all aimed at forcing poor black farming families to sell under duress or steering them into tax delinquency.

Tax sales were just one of several ways speculators and developers manipulated property and tax laws, and exploited historic inequities, to expropriate black people’s land. Another was the forced partition sale. Because whites controlled the courts, blacks who acquired property during Jim Crow often opted to handle matters of inheritance informally, outside of the legal system. Instead of probating their wills, black property owners tended to bequeath their property to descendants in the form of undivided shares — an arrangement under which heirs become co-owners of a property, each with the right to sell his or her own interest. Predatory land speculators would search for a person who had recently inherited land this way and was willing to sell his or her share. Once the sale went through, the speculator — now a co-owner of the property — would have the right to petition the courts to order a sale of the entire tract of land (against the wishes of those family members who lived on it) and would then buy it. 

These partition sales invariably resulted in the land being sold at well below its market value, enriching the buyer while leaving the displaced and dispossessed family members with nothing. Speculators have used this legal trick to force the sale of millions of acres of black-owned land over the past several decades. Only in the past couple of years have some states begun to adopt a uniform law designed to curb the most predatory abuses of heirs property laws. Much of the damage, though, has been done.

Indeed, many of the techniques used to take black-owned land remain legal today. The tax-sale law that allowed someone to steal Ms. Jenkins’s land remains on the books in South Carolina and many other states, and continues to be used to extract wealth from poor and vulnerable communities across America. Tax buying thrived in the wake of the 2008 housing foreclosure crisis, as the number of tax-delinquent homes mushroomed, and today in gentrifying cities, where rising property assessments function as a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicting the changes local officials hope to bring and forcing low-income people out. 

Many local governments have resisted calls to protect homeowners from predatory tax buying and have instead sought to increase profitability for investors; other cities have taken aggressive steps to foreclose on tax-delinquent properties. Between 2011 and 2015, Detroit initiated tax foreclosures on one out of every four properties in the city, an epidemic of tax delinquency caused, in large measure, by the illegal over-assessment of lower-valued properties. Then and now, the victims of discriminatory overtaxation and predatory tax buying are disproportionately black.

These continuing practices, more than the government’s broken promise of 40 acres and a mule 150 years ago, explain why black families today have 10 cents to every dollar held by white households and why that gap continues to widen. It’s why the history of black land-taking should be at the center of the reparations debate, not only because the scale of the loss was so great but also because it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that American prosperity has not bypassed black Americans so much as it has come directly at their expense. It’s no coincidence that African-American communities on the Sea Islands suffered their heaviest land losses in the 1970s and 1980s, the same decades when the area experienced its most rapid economic growth. 

Indeed, slavery and Jim Crow not only excluded generations of black Americans from benefits and opportunities enjoyed by white Americans; it also exposed them to the most predatory features of our capitalist system. It turned black people’s earnest attempts to build wealth the American way — through property ownership — into an opportunity for others to profit at their expense.

If we ever hope to repair the damage racism has done to America, and address the dividends it continues to pay to white Americans, we cannot simply open to black Americans previously closed doors of opportunity or merely provide some form of compensation for past injustices. We must also work to dismantle the laws and policies that sanction the continued extraction of property and resources from black communities.

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