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The reality of Black land loss

February 20th, 2021
By Megan Burton

This article includes an account of lynching and hate crimes.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, Black agriculture was at its peak in America. While the eras of Emancipation and Reconstruction were still recent history, African Americans — largely formerly enslaved people and their descendants — had acquired as much as 14 million acres of land across the United States.

Just a century later, however, that number had dwindled. 90 percent of the land amassed by Black farmers across the country had been lost1. According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census, completed in 2017, Black farmers account for less than 7% of agricultural producers in South Carolina2. By Upstate county, that percentage varies from as little as 0.5% (Pickens3) to 6.9% (Greenwood4). 

The reasons for this steep decline in Black land ownership vary. Of course, the overall decrease in small scale agriculture over the past 150 years is a contributing cause, as is the Great Migration, during which millions of African Americans left the rural South for opportunities in the North, Midwest, and American West.

Black farmers faced discrimination

But more sinister factors were also at play. Discriminatory federal policies and financial lending practices are well documented. Black farmers were often denied access to USDA programs managed by locally elected boards5

In addition to systemic institutional discrimination, African American landowners faced the lasting pervasive racism of many of their neighbors in the South. In some cases, this resulted in the forceful, violent taking of their land, as was the case with Anthony Crawford, a formerly enslaved man who owned a 427-acre cotton farm in Abbeville. 

“Crawford’s prosperity had made him a target,” wrote the Associated Press in a 2001 article about Crawford’s lynching6. For telling a white mercantile clerk he had received a better offer than the 85 cents a pound for his cottonseed the clerk offered, Crawford was arrested for “cursing a white man.” He was released on bail, only to be accosted by a mob who beat and stabbed him before being carried to jail again, where a deputy reportedly gave the keys to Crawford’s cell to members of the mob. He was dragged through the town and hanged. No one was ever tried for Anthony Crawford’s murder, and his lynching led to hundreds of Black residents, including some of the Crawfords, fleeing Abbeville. His children who inherited the farm eventually lost it when they couldn’t pay off a $2,000 balance on a bank loan. A white man purchased the 400+ acre farm for just $504 at an auction, although it had been assessed at $20,000 according to land records.

The leading cause of Black land loss

Freedmen and their descendants often lacked birth certificates and legal documents, as well as access to the legal system, necessary to create wills or estate plans. In this case, the land becomes heirs’ property, fractionally owned by a web of as many as dozens of descendants of the original owner. 

The complex issue of heirs’ property is considered the greatest contributor to involuntary African American land loss. Heirs’ property comprises approximately 3.5 million acres across the South, more than a third of Southern Black-owned land, valued at more than $28 billion7.

Without an official title or deed, families who have lived on a property for generations can suddenly find themselves forced into a partition sale by a distant relative, faced with costly legal fees to attempt to resolve ownership, or have their land sold at auction to a speculator or developer. It should also be noted that farms on heirs’ property have historically not been eligible for programs through the USDA, though the 2018 Farm Bill has provided opportunities to establish a farm number to secure access to USDA loans, assistance, and other programs8

Black Upstate farmers, then and now

Despite facing these myriad hurdles, some families have managed to maintain ownership of their land over the past century. 

Margaret Harrison is a local farmer, newly elected Commissioner for the Greenville County Soil and Water Conservation District, and member of the Upstate Forever Board of Directors. Her husband, Bryant, is the latest among several generations of farmers.

Margaret Harrison, pictured with sweet potatoes from H&G Produce.

“Until my husband was born, his family was sharecroppers,” Margaret shared during a recent conversation. “His father purchased 100-and-some acres of land in the 1950s and Bryant grew up as a farm boy picking cotton and tobacco. He grew up hard, with 14 children in his family. Most of his siblings don’t farm now. They didn’t want to do it anymore because they knew how hard it is. They all had to work as kids growing up on the farm and often had to miss days of school to work. They wanted to get jobs and get married when they grew up. I think that’s why we didn’t see many farmers like us back then. They weren’t making any money.”

But Bryant stuck with it. In the 1970s, he purchased acreage adjoining his family’s in southern Greenville County. 

While Bryant’s family made the climb from sharecroppers to landowners, Margaret shared a story of her relatives who had struggled to keep hold of their land.

“My father’s father owned quite a bit of property in Berea. Before the Great Depression, he probably had about 100 acres, but when the Depression came along, he wasn’t able to pay his loans. The bank started taking all of his property.

His wife had been raised by a white family and she got up enough nerve to ask them to loan them money so her husband could save their farm. They made a deal with her to sell it to her, but made them agree her husband could never have his name on the deed. They were only able to purchase about 40 of the original 100 acres in the end.”

Margaret and Bryant’s daughter had the idea about a decade ago that they should start selling their produce together at the farmers market. After a 35-year career as a lab technician, Margaret donned a straw hat and started getting her hands dirty, harvesting and selling watermelon, corn, squash, collards, sweet potatoes — just about everything — from H & G Produce (for Harrison and Greggs, their daughter’s last name) at markets and Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery in Greenville. 

“A man one time at work asked me, ‘why did your husband buy so much land?’ I said, because he wanted to,” she said. “I knew if I was white, he wouldn’t have asked me the same question. I’m glad to see that things have changed, are changing.”

Things are changing

The previously untold — or perhaps, unlistened to — struggles of Black farmers and landowners in the South are becoming more widely known. Their stories are being shared on social media and by neighbors, and news media are illuminating a previously unreported on topic. 

Nonprofit organizations and coalitions like the Lowcountry’s Center for Heirs Property Preservation and SC Black Farmers are working tirelessly to help heirs’ property owners resolve disputes and support African American farmers in South Carolina.

Legislators are also working at the state and federal levels to invest in Black farmers. Berkeley County Representative J.A. Moore has introduced South Carolina House Bill 3543, the “Black Farmer Restoration Program,” that aims to create a fund to purchase farmland and grant it to eligible individuals and provide agricultural training. H.3543 is currently with the Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs.

At the federal level, the 2018 Farm Bill contained a provision to assist heirs’ property owners get farm loans, take advantage of federal programs previously unavailable to them, and receive assistance in resolving land ownership disputes9. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina co-sponsored the heirs’ property language in the bill. Late last year, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced United States Senate Bill 4929, the “Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2020,” that as proposed would end discrimination within the USDA, expand upon funding for the 2018 Farm Bill’s heirs’ property programs, establish a USDA grant of up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring Black farmers, and more.

Update: The American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, includes the $5 billion Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. It's been referred to as "the most significant legislation for Black farmers since Civil Rights Act," and includes direct payments to Black farmers, 100% USDA debt relief, and sets aside $1 billion to tackle systemic racism at the USDA.

Land conservation has also emerged as a solution to existing Black landowners with the goal of preventing land loss. Voluntary conservation easements are agreements between a landowner and qualified land trust, such as Upstate Forever, which permanently protect land from future residential subdivision, commercial or industrial development, even if the property changes owners, while allowing traditional land uses such as farming or timber. Landowners that protect their land through a conservation easement often receive significant tax benefits, as well.

Why Black land ownership matters

It’s been said that a rising tide lifts all boats. Empowering more African Americans to own and farm land would benefit surrounding communities by strengthening local economies, building more resilient communities, contributing to robust local food systems, and helping to reduce suburban sprawl in rural areas.

Plus, in the words of Margaret Harrison, “There won’t be any more land made. The question is, ‘what do we do with what we have now?’”


Megan Burton is the Communications Coordinator for Upstate Forever. You can contact her at mburton@upstateforever.org.


Photos by Morgan Yelton

Sources:

  1. Modern Farmer: How Did African-American Farmers Lose 90 percent of Their Land?
  2. 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture State Profile: South Carolina
  3. 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture County Profile: Pickens
  4. 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture County Profile: Greenwood
  5. PBS News Hour: How southern black farmers were forced from their land, and their heritage
  6. AP: Landownership made blacks targets of violence and murder
  7. ProPublica: Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.
  8. USDA: Heirs’ Property Landowners
  9. Post and Courier: How the 2018 farm bill affects SC: legal hemp, heirs’ property help, food stamps and more

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