The decline in rural African-American landholdings over the past century has been dramatic, dropping from a peak of about 15 million acres in 1910 to less than 2 million today. The causes are multiple: outmigration, voluntary sales, foreclosures, and lack of access to credit and capital, as well as outright exploitation, threats, and discrimination. Another major problem has been that much of the land has been owned as heirs’ property, that is, land that was passed down through generations without benefit of a written will. Under heirs’ property, multiple heirs of the original landowners jointly own the family land; however, without clear title, heirs’ property creates obstacles to obtaining professional forestry services, procuring loans, and participating in conservation incentive programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
The problem can be traced back to Reconstruction, when African Americans first gained property rights. At that time, African Americans rarely created wills because they were denied access to, could not afford, or did not trust the legal system.
As a former procurement forester for International Paper and the current director of sustainable forestry for the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (CHPP) in Charleston, South Carolina, Sam Cook has witnessed firsthand the steady disappearance of African-American landholdings in the increasingly valuable coastal low country surrounding Charleston. According to Cook, the problem with passing down property without a will is that over time, as the number of heirs reaches into the dozens or even hundreds, the risk of a forced sale increases as family members become targets for real estate developers looking to buy cheap property in coastal South Carolina. “Much of the land around Charleston was given to African-American families because it was too sandy to farm. But, later the developers found out that sand was valuable for tourism. They used this unstable form of heirs’ property ownership as a tool to force the sale of family land,” says Cook.
Typically a buyer purchases one family member’s share in the property. They essentially join the family and become another heir/owner of the property. The buyer is then able to initiate sale of the land with the ultimate aim of obtaining the entire property. In situations with many owners/heirs, it is unworkable to divide the land, so the court typically orders a forced sale and division of the proceeds. Legal options to counter these schemes are often limited for land-rich and cash-poor African-American families due to attorney fees, court fees, survey fees, and other fees. Predictably, family members have been unable to outbid cash-rich real estate developers, and the family loses the land.
The work by Cook and the CHPP in coastal South Carolina is part of a pilot project called the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program funded by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, in partnership with the NRCS and the USDA Forest Service. Other pilot projects involve the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in western Alabama and the Roanoke Electrical Coop in northeastern North Carolina. The goal of the pilot projects is to stabilize African-American land ownership, increase forest health, and build economic assets across the southern Black Belt.
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