Land Ownership: African America’s 40 Acres Crisis

By William A. Foster, IV

“He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into a competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” – W.E.B. DuBois (Souls of Black Folks)

The United States as a whole is comprised of 2.3 billion acres of land.  As the Civil War came to a close in 1865 it was General Sherman who issued Special Field Order No. 15 that would establish the 40 acres & a mule so that former slaves could establish family farms. With 4 million African Americans who were now free this would equate to approximately 160 million acres (or 7% of America’s land) in African American control. Unfortunately, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln this order would find no support by new president, Andrew Johnson. The 10,000 African American former slaves who had received 400,000 acres would see this land stripped and returned to its former European American owners courtesy of the Johnson administration. This would have profound social, economic, and political (SEP) implications for African America going forward for generations to come, and be as close to reparations as African America would ever see from the U.S. Government.

In the early part of the 20th century as African America looked to establish itself,  the reality was and is that African America like all groups in America and in the world are in a competition for resources for the survival of its very existence and it is of no incentive for another group to make this competition easier for its opponent. In other words why would McDonald’s ever give Burger King a prime property rather than use it for its own development? Or America give Canada control over valuable resources it controls? This applies to ethnic Diasporas (African, Arabic, Asian, European, & Latino) as well. Control of land is the foundation of SEP development. In capitalism that equates to land ownership. As African American continues to lose wealth, the primary cause could be argued that this is in large part because of the depletion of our land ownership.

Land is at the base for everything. It develops neighborhoods and communities. Neighborhoods are designed with great detail, such as who will live in it, and not just haphazardly put together as many assume.  A land developer already has done multiple SEP studies before they dig the first piece of dirt from the Earth. Who they want to attract to the development can be something as simple as making sure there is a specific religious building in the development or pricing the housing at a high-end average like $5 million per home or $1 million per lot, or placing certain commercial developments in proximity such as a Whole Foods or Wal-Mart. You certainly know that will narrow you down to a certain demographic of people who most likely share similar values and the vice versa is true as well. On the lower income end when one builds government funded housing, which is typically owned by someone wealthy, they receive subsidized payments from the government for use of said property to house low-income tenants which brings a completely different demographic, but again all well studied and placed depending on land values. Low-income developments tend to get the brunt of locations near undesirable locations in a town or city while more affluent will have access to city services more abundant per capita.

In any economic development you need land. Even a web-based business like Amazon has a facility or economic interest in land somewhere for production of its Kindle and other products. When a store chooses where to build a new business it searches for enough land that a lot of times they lease (which provides its owner long term cash flow) for its business’s building capacity to be met. It also seeks land around a demographic that it caters too. This is why luxury brands are located on Rodeo Drive and not in South Central. The location is catering to a certain demographic and hoping to discourage other demographics. My former professor happened to be in possession of a piece of property that a certain do-it-yourself orange box company wanted to build a store on. They leased land on a multi-decade lease and once the lease is up if they leave – he keeps the land, the building, and all the cash generated by the lease along the way. Its more likely they will continue to lease the property from him and he will pass the land and its cash flow onto his heirs.

Land also allows a group to control the political makeup of a community in terms of how political lines are drawn for voting districts and how schools are zoned in terms of funding. This is why there is often an uproar when lines are being redrawn and such because by moving certain lines -be it schools or voting-it can ensure certain economic development will come your way in the future, be it through the development of neighborhoods or commercial. As a land developer you know you can get people to pay a premium if you build a neighborhood in a higher rated school district.

Historically control of land provided African America after reconstruction the opportunity to create and control the SEP of their communities as it was with European Americans when they first came to America, and all other cultural groups who followed in immigrating to the U.S. and built communities united by similar cultural values. Buying land they were able to build communities like Black Wall St. in Tulsa, OK and Rosewood in Florida. In these communities the strong social fabric of families, control of the curriculum in the schools, and faculty who could relate to the students helped provide a social setting that led to a strong economic development. This included a number of African American owned banks, grocery stores, doctors, and the only African American founded and owned automobile manufacturing company in Greenfield, OH named C.R. Patterson Automobile Company. These communities because they were controlled and owned by us (as with any group) hired predominantly people from its community and therefore it kept employment rates high and crime rates virtually non-existent. Unfortunately these communities had not been given enough time to develop proper political capital that would allow them to defend themselves and many communities would find themselves burned to the ground with the complicit relationship that neighboring European American communities had with the mixing culture of the police and Klansmen (which is why the police distrust in large part continues today). With no way to protect themselves and in many cases all out massacres would take place and these communities would be left with no way to rebuild as they appealed to governing bodies made of the very neighbors who burned them. Today, we lose our land through gentrification of our neighborhoods (see Harlem), poor estate planning (social), unpaid taxes or rising taxes on the elderly on fixed incomes who can’t afford to keep up with them as developers use their political capital to muscle into an area, and simply just selling land to those outside of our community instead of circulating it.

So what is the state of our land ownership today? According to Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Report the early 20thcentury was our zenith in terms of land ownership at almost 20 million acres –  a far cry from the 160 million acres we would have had if Special Field Order No 15 had been honored. However, today that number is even more tragic at roughly 7.7 million acres (or 0.33% of America’s land) spread across the ownership of 68,000 African American landowners. To put this in perspective Land Report Magazine who tracks the top 100 landowners in the United States who are all European American – their top 5 landowners own 7.8 million acres combined. Ted Turner owning 2 million acres by himself or roughly 25% of African America’s total land holdings.

Another tidbit to note comes from my visit to Timberland Investment World Summit in 2009. I was the only African American present at this 3-day conference in which some of the heaviest hitters in terms of financial institutions were present along with timber companies looking to invest in land for the use of timber. It just so happened that during the recession timber was the only asset class that did not decline. Why? Because as one presenter said “As long as the sun is shining trees will grow and so will their value.” The minimum investment amount a family or business had to invest to have an institution manage their timber investment – $50 million (which was down from its $100 million minimum thanks to the recession and banks need for cash).

More importantly the question has to be what now? There is no recourse for our 40 acres and African American farmers continue to fight today for past discrimination with no resolve even under the Obama administration. But the fight is costly and many of the older farmers are dying out. I dare say the U.S. Government is simply waiting them out. My belief is with $800 billion (said to reach $1.1 Trillion by 2012) in buying power the largest amount by far of any minority group in America we must begin take this fight in our own hands with our own dollars as Native Americans have begun to do as featured in “Tired of Waiting, Native Americans Buy Back Their Old Land”. But it must become a priority and a conscious effort. Our HBCUs, primarily the Agriculture HBCUs and African American financial institutions must begin to hold more seminars that help us understand the process of the importance of buying land and the obstacles that go along with it which are much different than buying a home.

I didn’t even begin to mention land as the very base of agriculture (or this would end up being a doctoral thesis) which supplies the quality foods a community eats, the ethanol that is the new rage in alternative fuel, and the land which has valued minerals beneath it and water running through it which just happens to be the very base of life and existence. Land. Yes, it is kind of a big deal or as my grandmother always told me “They’re not making any more of it so you better hold what you have and try to get more of it.” A wise woman she indeed is.


5 responses to “Land Ownership: African America’s 40 Acres Crisis

  1. Pingback: 40 Acres and a Fight: HBCU Land & Institutional Power Part II | HBCUstory.

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Landowners in HBCU States | HBCU Money™

  3. Pingback: America’s 100 Largest Landowners Own Almost 2 Percent Of Nation; 42 Million African Americans Own 0.33 Percent | HBCU Money™

  4. Pingback: 42 Million African Americans Own Only 0.33 Percent Of America’s Lands |

  5. Pingback: Colin Kaepernick & Craig Hodges: The Mistake of 1947 |

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