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The Decline in African-American Land Ownership
December 16, 2007 5:03 AM   Subscribe

In 1910 African-Americans owned 16-19 million acres of land in the United States, much of it rural farmland. Today, that figure has dropped to less than 8 million acres overall, and less than 2 million farm acres. What happened? In some cases, violence— whites would forcibly take farmland, a homestead, or a home from the black residents, who were often powerless to fight back in the face of systemic racism, threats of retaliation, and the 'enforcement' of the thefts by the Ku Klux Klan. More perniciously, many of these losses were the result of forced partition land sales. Many legal scholars and activists today are working to reverse the trend. [some pdfs]
posted by miss tea (41 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
40 acres and a mule, Jack. What happened? Why you try to fool the Black?
posted by cyclopticgaze at 5:58 AM on December 16, 2007


For a frame of reference: USDA's 2002 Census of Agriculture has a report of farmers by race [pdf].
posted by zennie at 6:37 AM on December 16, 2007


Fascinating stuff. It does beg the question, though - what's the delta between white land ownership 100 years ago and now?
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:40 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fuck spinnin' rims
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:41 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


In a recent NYT opinion piece, Henry Louis Gates wrote on the link between long term property ownership and wealth/poverty in African-Americans. Don't quite know how it relates to this FPP. But, it is interesting to look at the implications of both sets of facts.
posted by Xurando at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2007


As cities expand and rural areas get developed the land becomes more valuable the tax rate for the district our county goes up the "po people" can't afford it and so they sell it to developers. Same old story time immortal the world over.
posted by stbalbach at 7:48 AM on December 16, 2007


Following on DenOfSizer's comment, there has been a huge consolidation of farmland into big corporations over the last several decades. Seems like an important thing to remember.
posted by Big_B at 8:04 AM on December 16, 2007


Greed knows no color.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:06 AM on December 16, 2007


See also the discussion of Sundown Towns on mefi a while back: All part of the same pattern.
posted by pharm at 8:11 AM on December 16, 2007


This is crap. My white grandfather farmer was forced in to bankruptcy in the 1970's due to economics after owning a farm over 40 years. It has very little to do with race and everything to do with the universal condition of falling on hard times/bad economy. Was the dustbowl racist, too?
posted by 45moore45 at 8:51 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Related.
posted by Pants! at 8:53 AM on December 16, 2007


To Big_B's point, I'd be interested in seeing those numbers, let's say using the same years: in 1910/today, how many millions of acres of farmland were/are owned by individual farmers versus those owned by big farming conglomerates? I wonder if you'd see the same kinds of declines with farmers regardless of race.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:00 AM on December 16, 2007


Another factor was the discrimination practiced by the Department of Agriculture.

I acknowledge that Black farmers have been treated abominably and should be compensated for their losses, much as the descendants of the Rosewood survivors were. At the same time, I have to wonder how relevant farmland, and agriculture in general, are to the economic prospects of contemporary African-Americans. I don't get the sense that there's this huge grassroots movement among urbanized Black people to move back to the country and take on huge amounts of debt and work twelve hours a day for some gigantic agricultural conglomerate and run the risk of losing everything to a sudden, inconvenient rainfall.

Being a small farmer might have been a route to relative autonomy and prosperity in 1910. The economic landscape is a little different now.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:25 AM on December 16, 2007


Interesting post. Reminds me of Carr's beach near Annapolis, MD which was owned by an African American family for two generations before the government condemned it. The Blacks of the Chesapeake site documents the history of the 246 acre site that became a popular beach resort and stop along the Chitlin Circuit before it was condemned and redeveloped. They estimate about 6 acres of the land are owned by African Americans today.
posted by hoppytoad at 9:37 AM on December 16, 2007


I remember reading about a feminist who got irate about an issue she'd just noticed. There weren't any women serving in Iceland's military! What a scandal! It's possible she'd been taken in by someone else; it turned out that at the time Iceland didn't have a military. No men were serving in it, either.

Without parallel numbers for white farmers to which to compare, the trend described here cannot be evaluated. That black farmers are in decline is not in dispute. But are they disproportionately in decline?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:55 AM on December 16, 2007


I have to wonder how relevant farmland, and agriculture in general, are to the economic prospects of contemporary African-Americans.


I agree that today it might not be significant. But one point that is always important to consider when looking at the openly discriminatory policies of generations past is the power of compound interest and land ownership as a base for improving the lot of future generations. They lost not only the ownership of the land in their own day, but the lending power and the power of financial appreciation that would have come with it, which their descendents would have benefitted from. Had black farmers been able to get and hold onto land in greater numbers during Reconstruction, their children and grandchildren would have had something to borrow against, a real asset, not to mention a stable place to live during twentieth century redlining and the opportunity to realize savings once the investments were paid off - savings which, as in the white community, became available to send children to college, expand the business, save and invest, or start new initiatives to employ others, as well, extending the chain of gain and ownership. How many white American college graduates have grandparents or great-grandparents who were farmers? It's not a coincidence. The power of early acquistion of an asset is immense, giving a very strong comparitive leg up that makes successive generations far more competitive.

The Dust Bowl argument is specious: there's a big difference between the effect of natural disasters and the effect of public policy crafted by humans representing a voting populace.

Legislation and the marketplace have delivered serious blows to all farmers, it's true, and that continues today in many sectors. Yet it's hard to deny the disproportionate impact of government policies on blacks and whites since the Civil War. In addition to the redlining post, there are some links of interest in my Prison Songs post from awhile back. The more history you read, the more you realize that the divisions of wealth in this country today, with regard to race, cannot be ascribed to purely soft sociological factors - they are often the natural extensions, expressed over a few generations, of seriously harmful and discriminatory policies knowingly put into place by American leadership.
posted by Miko at 10:02 AM on December 16, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'd have to assume that the consolidation trend in modern agribusiness is at least as much of a factor as any kind of institutionalized racism.
posted by frieze at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2007


Only if it's proportionate.
posted by Miko at 10:20 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


"whites would forcibly take farmland, a homestead, or a home from the black residents,"

Reverse that and you have what's going on in Africa right now, except that nobody really seems to care about that.
posted by drstein at 10:23 AM on December 16, 2007


How about agribusiness or that fact that we dont live in a rural society anymore? Naww, racism is much more fun to bitch about.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:28 AM on December 16, 2007


You can't sell out your land to agribusiness or a developer if you lost it or were never allowed to buy it in the first place.
posted by Miko at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2007


But one point that is always important to consider when looking at the openly discriminatory policies of generations past is the power of compound interest and land ownership as a base for improving the lot of future generations. They lost not only the ownership of the land in their own day, but the lending power and the power of financial appreciation that would have come with it, which their descendents would have benefitted from.

I agree wholeheartedly, Miko. And that's why compensation should be in the form of money, not land.

If you want to leverage land purchases into money and influence in the year 2007, your best bet would be to focus on gentrifying urban neighborhoods, not a big plot of land out in the country.

And for those of you who are scoffing, let me say this: I am the kind of guy who is very suspicious of identity politics. I have little patience with leftists who try to make everything into a racial or gender issue and ignore class issues. When people make accusations of racism, I want to see hard evidence supporting that claim.

Evidence abounds that the Federal government discriminated against Black farmers for being Black. The USDA gave support to white farmers that it did not give to Black farmers.
This is all very well documented.
The Department of Agriculture's history of racism was not disputed. In 1997, its own investigators belatedly discovered "years of bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness, rudeness, and indifference" to black farmers.

Charlie Harris stood against a cold marble wall outside Friedman's courtroom last Tuesday morning. A poor black peanut farmer from Pike County, Ala., Harris, 42, remembered how it worked the first time he walked into the local USDA office in rural Alabama and asked for a loan. The council members were sitting around their clubhouse enjoying themselves.

"An ol' boy there took my application and said, 'You got this wrong, and you got that wrong,'" Harris said in his soft Alabama lilt. "They was scratching out all my answers with a red pen."

He still manages to sound surprised at how blatant it was.

"Most of 'em were openly joking," Harris said of the loan officer and his pink-faced, tobacco-chewing cronies, "saying, 'You got to do this, you got to do that.'" The council members told him to come back later, he said. But as he was leaving a white farmer walked in and got a slap on the back and an invitation to the back room for a few minutes of chewing the fat. A little while later the farmer emerged smiling, loan approval in hand.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:01 AM on December 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


From the same article:

While small farmers of all races have been run off the land, crushed by a triple whammy of bad weather, failed loan gambles and the relentless march of corporate agribusiness, blacks have edged toward complete extinction, dropping from 14 percent of the nation's farmers in the 1920s to less than 1 percent today.

Tim Pigford, 47, began fighting back in 1984, when he ran into the usual hurdles for blacks at the USDA loan office near Wilmington, N.C. "They treated me like pure dirt," he said. One official crumpled up his loan application and, with a big grin, tossed it in a wastebasket. At USDA headquarters, according to several accounts, one white manager kept a hanging noose in his drawer, which he took out and toyed with in front of his black subordinate.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:05 AM on December 16, 2007


I agree, though I think the issue of cash compensation is complicated - but this is, in part, one reason why I see certain elements of affirmative action for systematically suppressed groups, and policy support for the poor of all races, as continued necessities.
posted by Miko at 11:30 AM on December 16, 2007


I remember reading about a feminist who got irate about an issue she'd just noticed. There weren't any women serving in Iceland's military! What a scandal! It's possible she'd been taken in by someone else; it turned out that at the time Iceland didn't have a military. No men were serving in it, either.

Statistically speaking, I'd estimate the likelihood of that story being both
(1) bullshit, and
(2) created by, and primarily for the enjoyment of, people who use the term "feminazi"
to be approximately 99.325%.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 11:33 AM on December 16, 2007 [5 favorites]


I'm sure ADM and Monsanto et al would just as much prefer that angry blacks and angry whites remain snapping at each other's throats. Though I would be interested to hear about the proportionality aspect of this.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:45 AM on December 16, 2007


I'm sure ADM and Monsanto et al would just as much prefer that angry blacks and angry whites remain snapping at each other's throats.

Dude, pass the bong. This is totally a conspiracy to keep up down. Monsanto has finally infiltrated metfilter. Its like Ford and the water powered car all over again!!
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:54 AM on December 16, 2007


Citing the growth in large agribusiness companies does not explain away the problem. Even if white and black farmers lost land to agribusiness proportionally, the problem remains that those companies are disproportionately white owned and managed. In the end, whites are still making out better, just a different set of whites.
posted by jedicus at 12:02 PM on December 16, 2007


Has anyone asked whether the same decline in farm ownership at least, is not statistically as true for whites? Seems obvious and likely. My family owned a lot of dairy pasture 3 generations ago. Now collectively I am sure we own fewer acres of much more expensive urban and suburban property. But no more farmland. I don't think we've lost power as a result. We are, of course, white.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:05 PM on December 16, 2007


Dude, pass the bong. This is totally a conspiracy to keep up down.

Yeah, dude, 'cause people in power have never played divide and conquer to stay in power — in the entire history of the species, dude, it's never happened. Dude.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:15 PM on December 16, 2007


Well, I think one of the most interesting aspects to this is that it occurred, at least partly, because so many African-Americans died intestate, and profiteers figured out how to work the legal system to force partition sales. It wasn't necessarily any kind of planned repression, but was created by way property law is structured, in conjunction with the fact that many poor farmers may not have had the tools or the understanding of the importance of creating estate plans or wills. I agree that it would be interesting to find out how extensive this problem was among poor whites as well. I haven't looked into that issue at all, but would love to see some research if it is available. I also wonder if some of those who forced the partition sales were in fact working with agribusiness.
posted by miss tea at 1:24 PM on December 16, 2007


Reverse that and you have what's going on in Africa right now, except that nobody really seems to care about that.
You're wrong. Lots of people care about that.

This whole, "Blacks can be mean too, but you don't see anyone fighting for the whites" argument is pure bullshit. If, like the woman who lives down the road from my other half, you're a white woman who was chased off her farm in Zimbabwe, then I'd give you some credence. I doubt it though.

Fuck spinnin' rims
Gangsta rap is not to blame. It's shocking that you'd conflate this issue with the rhymes of Bomani Armah. At the very least you're guilty of dangerous stereotyping.

My white grandfather farmer was forced in to bankruptcy in the 1970's due to economics
If I had a penny for every time I'd seen or heard nonsense like this peddled by racists, I'd have a fair few pounds. Your personal story is a single data-point in this issue. The fact that it's more relevant to you does not make it more statistically relevant.

Seriously, I'd have thought metafilter could do race issues better than this. A disturbingly large number of you are coming off as either ignorant or racist.
posted by seanyboy at 1:29 PM on December 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


seanyboy , if you want mefi to do race better than I would think a good start would be to not call everyone who disagrees with your a racist. Maybe youre the problem?
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:43 PM on December 16, 2007


seanyboy , if you want mefi to do race better than I would think a good start would be to not call everyone who disagrees with your a racist.

He's not saying that at all. He's pointing out the cliched, hackney responses that most people have come to expect from frustrated, privileged white teenagers who are being told for the first time that their privilege is partially a product of their skin color.

d.d.d. - "How about agribusiness or that fact that we dont live in a rural society anymore? Naww, racism is much more fun to bitch about."

How about pulling your head out of the sand and acknowledging the fact that blacks in the U.S. have been systematically and categorically discriminated against for centuries - why is it so surprising to you that this same institutionalized racism exists in agribusiness? Even when presented with the evidence linked to above? You haven't provided a single reference or link in this entire discussion. You've simply acted threatened - as though someone is attacking your pet issue.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:29 PM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


[few comments removed - go directly to METATALK for off-topic slagging or preferably go shovel some snow or swim in a lake depending on your latitude]
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on December 16, 2007


It does beg the question, though - what's the delta between white land ownership 100 years ago and now?...

I wonder if you'd see the same kinds of declines with farmers regardless of race....

Without parallel numbers for white farmers to which to compare, the trend described here cannot be evaluated. That black farmers are in decline is not in dispute. But are they disproportionately in decline?...

Has anyone asked whether the same decline in farm ownership at least, is not statistically as true for whites? ...


From the second link:

From the 1920s to now, African-American land holdings have declined at a rate that far exceeds loss among other ethnic groups. There has been an actual rise in land ownership among Whites.
According to the 1997 Agriculture Census reports, African-American farmers own 1.5 million acres (Gilbert55). Comparing the rate of African-American farmland loss to other groups, they have lost fifty three percent (53%) compared to 28.8% for other ethnic groups, while their White counterparts have experienced steady growth.

posted by Danila at 3:34 PM on December 16, 2007


Danila, I'm sure that statistic includes white owners of corporate farms. The question is whether white "family farm" ownership has declined at a similar rate.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:48 PM on December 16, 2007


Yes, let's take a tough stand against the misconseption that corporations are run for and by white people, that's a terrible assumption to make.
posted by Artw at 6:02 PM on December 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


Steven C. Den Beste, you're in red herring-ville. First, you're going to have to define 'family farm,' because it's a loaded and emotional term with no specific meaning. Enormous agribusinesses can be and are owned by families. Doesn't mean they're moral leaders or apples and apples. So do you want to work with acreage, crop type and whether subsidized or specialty, declared income, what?
posted by Miko at 6:48 PM on December 16, 2007


"You're wrong. Lots of people care about that"

Ask Mr Mugabe. He seems happy with it.
posted by drstein at 2:56 PM on December 17, 2007


What does that even mean?
posted by seanyboy at 7:58 AM on December 18, 2007


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