Excerpted From: Dania V. Francis, Grieve Chelwa, Darrick Hamilton, Thomas W. Mitchell, Nathan A. Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki, The Contemporary Relevance of Historic Black Land Loss, 48 Human Rights 4 (2023) (Full Document)


FrancisChelwaHamiltonMitchellRosenbergStuckiLuke McElroy, a Black farmer who owned 155 acres of land in Cherokee County, Alabama, was shot to death in 1949 by a neighboring white farmer over a property dispute.

In Amite County, Mississippi, Reverend Isaac Simmons, also a Black farmer, was lynched by six white men in 1944 when he refused to give up his farmland to the men, who thought it might have valuable oil deposits. The men then brutally beat Reverend Simmons's son and ran him out of the county.

The stories of these men and many others in the Burnham-Nobles Archive of racially motivated killings of Black people in the Jim Crow South highlight the violent theft of Black farmland, often to the benefit of white farmers.

At the close of the Civil War, Black Americans owned very little farmland but began acquiring it at a rapid pace, so that by 1910, Black farmers owned more than 16 million acres. This, however, would be the peak of Black farmland ownership in the United States as the twentieth century oversaw the rapid dispossession of Black-owned agricultural acreage.

In addition to theft by state-sanctioned violence, intimidation, and lynching, Black farmers also lost land due to discrimination by banks and financial institutions; through the denial of access to federal farm benefits by local administrators who funneled those benefits to white farm owners; through forced partition sales brought about by predatory third parties; through government misuse of eminent domain, including many cases in which Black landowners were compensated well below market value; through discriminatory tax assessments and non-competitive tax sales; and through longstanding, coordinated discrimination by U.S. Department of Agriculture agents who wield power and control over access to credit and essential resources.

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Finally, this discussion of land ownership and dispossession is intimately related to discussions of property rights, specifically the primacy of property rights over human rights when the humans in question are marginalized, discriminated against, and otherwise dehumanized. To emphasize property rights in contemporary policy discussions, especially when simultaneously de-emphasizing the human rights of marginalized communities, without discussing the historical context of the way that property came to be distributed is immoral and only serves to amplify injustice.

Dania V. Francis is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Grieve Chelwa is the director of research at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School.

Darrick Hamilton is a university professor, the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, and the founding director of the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School.

Thomas W. Mitchell is a professor at Boston College Law School, where he holds the Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Endowed Chair and serves as the director of the Initiative on Land and Housing Property Rights, an initiative that seeks to help disadvantaged people and communities stabilize and secure important property rights.

Nathan A. Rosenberg is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. His work focuses on agriculture, inequality, and the environment.

Bryce Wilson Stucki is a writer and researcher in Washington, D.C. He has published articles in The Nation, Mother Jones, and other outlets.