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African American Land Loss

African American Land Loss

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African American Land Loss

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  1. African American Land Loss The Challenge and Promise of Land Title Projects

  2. Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Community Development Project • The committee was formed in 1963 – at the request of President Kennedy • Voting Rights, Fair Housing, Employment Discrimination, Environmental Justice, Community Economic Development • Located in Washington DC, but first office was in Jackson MS • The Community Development Project - 2007

  3. The Community Development Project The Community Development Project mobilizes the skills of transactional lawyers in the private bar to serve historically disadvantaged minority communities to promote racial, social and economic justice: 1. Brick and Mortar Development CHDOs Land trusts Health Clinics 2. Asset Development Heir Property - Title Clearing “land ownership by multiple heirs as tenants in common” Would like to hear from groups in the Delta that are working on housing and homeownership, individual asset building, or wealth building strategies, including small business development. Welcome calls from DCA non profit members and affiliates that need transactional or business law services.

  4. Community Development Project We welcome requests for service from groups in the Delta that are working on housing and homeownership, individual asset building, or wealth building strategies, including small business development. Welcome calls from DCA non profit members and affiliates that need transactional or business law services. (202) 662-8303

  5. Why Is Heir Property A Civil Rights Issue? Status of Black Land Ownership -1865Source: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction by Prof. Thomas W. Mitchell Univ. of Wisconsin Law School –Land Tenure Center • Freedmen’s bureau sells land owned by ex-confederates to freed slaves • Tens of thousands of blacks own land for the first time • President Johnson’s order granting amnesty to confederates leads to the ouster of blacks from land which had been purchased • Despite this set back, between 1865 and 1915, African Americans purchased 15 million acres of land, most of it in the rural south. • The decline of black land ownership in the 20th Century is the story of the decline of the black farmer • Today black farmers own less than 2 million acres

  6. Why is this a civil rights issue?Black Land Tenure: A System Under Stress • The seeds for this century’s rapid decline of black land ownership in the south were probably planted in the 19th century • Enforcement of Jim Crow, political disenfranchisement and violence from 1863-1900 set the stage for massive outmigration to the north • Stable black communities in the south were fractured and traumatized by racial violence, and the lack of legal protection against violence • Dramatic examples of community destabilization, criminal and civil rights violations • 1866 – Black homesteaders ousted by ex-confederates • 1898 – Black citizens murdered and businesses burned in Wilmington, North Carolina • 1920-23 – Black citizens murdered and community members flee their community for safety from lynch mobs in and around south Florida • Research is needed to trace the impact of these and less well known incidents of racial violence on the orderly transfer of land from one generation of African Americans to the next

  7. Other Factors Contributing to the Major Diminution of Land Ownership In the South • Crop Failures natural disaster boll weevil infestation • Voluntary Transfers • Systematic discriminatory denial of farm credit • Foreclosure, tax sales • Partition suits

  8. 1997 Agric. Census – 16,560 Black farm owner/operators owned 1.49 million acres of land (down from 15 million acres in 1920s) * Most black owned land in the South owned by African Americans outside of the South * Lack of Access to credit or access to predatory high cost loans remains a problem * Insecure and problematic ownership structures * Full extent of heirship property and title problems is not known Dimensions of the Problem Today*African American Rural Land Wealth: The Crisis and the Opportunities”, Prof. Thomas Mitchell, Univ. of Wisconsin Law School

  9. What is Heirship Property? • The ownership of property by virtue heir status • This is the default form of ownership that is created when a property owner dies without a will • The ownership interest is determined by statute • If the estate is never probated, those ownership interests are never confirmed and title is never documented in the surviving heirs • This is an unstable form of ownership

  10. What is the relevance of this form of land ownership to the problem of African American land loss? *Heirs own as tenants in common. *They hold an undivided interest in the entire property. *The undivided interest can be transferred but cannot be physically distinguished. *All owners are equally responsible for the stewardship of the land (payment of any mortgage or taxes) * Living on the land or paying all of the taxes does not vest any greater rests in the tenant *Absent owners have the same rights as active owners and owners in possession * Heir ownership becomes fractionated into smaller and smaller interests as the size of the heirship group expands *Any owner has the right to partition the court to partition their interest and cash out

  11. Ownership is fractionated as size of family grows

  12. Problems with Heir Property Ownership • As time passes, breaks or legal defects in the chain of title is common • Very difficult to borrow against the property • It is dead capital for the family group, the equity is trapped • Landowners lack access to the benefits of landownership • This problem is widespread in the South • Failure to communicate often leads to involuntary loss through foreclosure, tax sale or partition

  13. Use a will Get the estate probated and heirship interest documented Set up a family dialogue – use family reunions to have a communication about the status of family land Set up a family tree Obtain legal services to clear and confirm title in the family group Lawyers Committee, DLA Piper Mississippi Center for Justice: 100 families received assistance to obtain clear title and draw down grants to rehab storm damaged dwellings, team moving to the Delta Lawyers Committee, assisting families through the Heirs Property Retention Coalition in North Carolina Lawyers Committee investigating title problems on Eastern Shore of Maryland Solutions