This story was originally published June 13, 2014.
Property is the keystone in the arch of the American ethos. Our devotion to that ethos often leaves those without property like ships with no anchors, adrift through seas of uncertainty destined to turn to splinters on the rocks of calamity. So why then, do we often ignore land when it comes to discussing the plight of Black Americans throughout American history? The recent reopening of the reparations debate among more mainstream circles by Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic begs this question. In the article, Coates explores in detail the systematic robbery of land and assets from generations of Black folks. After generating untold wealth for others in chains, even the little that Blacks amassed after the Civil War has been eroded since then, sometimes through incremental legal changes and cultural shifts, and sometimes through single explosive incidents like the Tulsa Race Riots, in which White supremacists burned down the vibrant early 1900s Black community of Greenwood (known as Black Wall Street) simply for being successful.
The burning of Black Wall Street 93 years ago was an atrocity in which perhaps 300 people were killed and up to 10,000 individuals were made homeless, many permanently so. Even those who came back to rebuild lost decades of accumulation of wealth and property. The Tulsa riots were an extreme microcosm of a national cycle of land destruction.
Effective as they were, attacks from private citizens and corporations were only part of the story. The public sector not only enabled such attacks with rulings and laws; often, agencies themselves did the stealing. One of the major culprits in the theft of Black-owned land throughout history has been the US Department of Agriculture. In efforts dating back to Reconstruction, the USDA war machine struck down Black progress wherever it could. On the occasions when Blacks could find land, it was mostly on old divested plantation land that was considered undesirable. Even at that point, Blacks were often swindled, forced, or killed to recapture those lands and force them back into sharecropping. Up until World War I, the peak of Black land ownership in the US, over 70 percent of Blacks worked in agriculture and over 90 percent lived in the South. Blacks owned about 16 million acres of land between 1910 and 1920.
Then came World War I, and along with it a cotton collapse. Black farmers were among the hardest hit by the collapse because they had the worst land and equipment. Between WWI and the Great Depression, loans administered by the USDA to remedy the collapse were largely denied to Black farmers. When the Depression struck, an already weakened base of land ownership was denied its last hope of salvation when oft-celebrated New Deal programs and loans were again largely denied to Blacks. Following the New Deal, the USDA was complicit with corporate racism in a system that combined discriminatory loan denial with tax sales, partition sales, forced “voluntary” sales and eminent domain to become a multi-headed hydra of sorts that consumed Black lands and lives with never-diminishing voracity. While it is difficult to quantify total land and property ownership today, Black rural land holdings have been cut in half among since WWI.
Just how do we reverse such a vicious machine? Taking land back directly from landed heirs of slaveowners is politically infeasible. But there’s another path. There are several large agricultural companies that have profited directly from the seizure of Black land. Civil Rights organizations could petition them to offer land back to Black farmers or offer up preferred shares at discounts to descendants of Black farmers. With funding, a nonprofit could launch a campaign similar to anti-GMO advertisements that identifies and labels all produce coming from pilfered lands. Higher Education advocates could also petition universities that have incorporated plantation land to offer scholarships to Blacks worth the value of that land.
Finally, the federal government is in possession of about 385 million acres of our country’s two billion useful acres of land, mostly uninhabited and containing abundant energy or natural resources. There are also several largely unused buildings for which public funds pay upkeep. The Economist suggests privatization of many of these lands to raise funds and reduce government burden, but a slightly different option provides tremendous opportunity as well. Federal agencies could open up just a small portion of that resource-rich land to tax-free investment and development via grants by Black businesses or create a transfer system by which urban companies received equal value of choice land for every acre they opened up to initiatives like Black organic farming. Regardless of route, there are several real solutions that could end up with Blacks having real opportunities for wealth and production. The primary obstacle is and has always been the lack of seriousness public debate.