Environment Committee: A Legacy of Trickery and Discrimination Threatens Black Landowners

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

The Civil War isn’t over. That doesn’t surprise any Blacks, although whites may be clueless.

After the Civil War, when nearly four million people were freed from slavery, Union General William Sherman declared they could have 400,000 acres of land formerly held by Confederates. They never got it, but through hard work, Blacks began to buy land. By 1920, they made up 14% of landowners in the South, while making up only 10% of the population.

But that didn’t last long. Poor white farmers in the South, members of a movement called the Whitecaps, threatened and beat Blacks in order to get them to abandon their land. In 1912, violent white mobs drove out almost all the Blacks in Forsyth County, GA. To this day, governments and the courts continue to find ways to dispossess Blacks of their property.

According to Pro Publica, between 1910 and 1997, Blacks lost about 90% of their farmland, which is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap. The median wealth among Black families is about one-tenth that of white families.

Lizzie Presser of ProPublica described in depth last July what happened to Melvin and Licurtis Reels in Beaufort, on the central coast of North Carolina. Their great-grandfather, whose father had been a slave, had bought land in Carteret County in 1911. Their grandfather didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t make a will; instead the land become “heirs’ property”, whereby descendants inherit an interest. This was common practice during Reconstruction, when Blacks didn’t have access to the legal system. Heirs’ property is the leading cause of Blacks involuntarily losing land because speculators find legal loopholes to acquire it.

After 1970, when Beaufort became a tourist attraction, the brothers’ Uncle Shedrick Reels, a tire salesman in New Jersey who hadn’t lived in North Carolina for 27 years, claimed ownership to the most valuable part of the land. Reels, known by the family as “Shade,” claimed adverse possession, arguing that tenants had stood in for him during the time he lived out of state.

Using the obscure Torrens Act, in which a petitioner doesn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court, Shade gained title. The law was intended to clear up muddled titles, but by the 1930s, there was evidence that indicated it had been corrupted by big business and was used by the rich to take land from the poor. The window to appeal a decision made under the act is one year; by the time the Reels brothers became aware of their predicament, they had missed the window by two years. Shade Reels soon sold the land to developers.

The intentional inflation of taxes has also been used by local officials to push out Blacks in certain areas. In 1992, the NAACP argued that this tactic was used against Black families in Dafuskie, a South Carolina island that has become one of the hottest real estate markets on the East Coast. According to the Pro Publica article, taxes there increased as much as 700% in 10 years.

Partition action is another way land is lost legally. With many heirs, speculators can buy out the interest of just one heir, no matter how small, thereby forcing sale of an entire property. Sales are quick, not well advertised, and tend to yield below-market prices.

For Black farmers, the loss of land, livelihood and economic stability has often come at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency set up to work with and uplift farmers. While the USDA has made the case that the number of Black farmers has increased in recent years, a 2019 report by Nathan Rosenberg and Bruce Stucki of The Counter indicated the agency had manipulated its statistics, and that its practices have continued to be discriminatory and damaging.

The Counter’s investigation found that under Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama administration, USDA employees “foreclosed on black farmers with outstanding discrimination complaints…threw out new complaints, and misrepresented their frequency, while continuing to discriminate against farmers.” In addition, the USDA sent a lower share of loan dollars to Black farmers than under President George W. Bush.

The picture for Black farmers has gotten no better under President Trump. According to The Counter, his Market Facilitation Program, designed to aid farmers who suffered under the administration’s ongoing trade war with China, distributed almost all of its subsidies to white male farmers.

Still, the news isn’t all bad. Locally, we have groups of Black and brown farmers, including Soil Generation in Parkside, West Philly; Farmer Jawn CSA and Greenhouses in Elkins Park, and Black Girls with Green Thumbs, who are dedicated to promoting urban agriculture in Philadelphia, not to mention the many Black and brown members of community gardens throughout the area. Let us hope that through education and awareness, change may happen.