Land is central to the American social, political, and economic imagination, and it has been central to the nation’s growth and development. Today, any strategy to create sustainable energy, produce a healthy food system, strengthen rural economies, and build the wealth of people of color must include a focus on Black rural land ownership and use, especially in the South where 55 percent of the nation’s Black population now resides.
Regaining Ground is a strategic working paper sharing the results of the collective thinking of leading Black land loss prevention advocates. Funded by the Ford Foundation, these advocates, representing Ford Foundation grantee organizations, came together in person and through calls over a two-year period (2008-2010). With assistance from the Center for Social Inclusion, they collaborated to network, discuss, brainstorm and strategize on how to stem, and ultimately reverse, the tide of Black land loss and cultivate community asset building in rural, southern Black communities.
Regaining Ground is both documentation of a strategic process and testament to the value of investing in developing collective solutions. The challenges Black land loss advocates face are enormous, but so are the gains to be made by supporting their collective work.
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Black Land Loss Status: Black farmers and Black-operated farms have virtually disappeared from the American landscape. In 1910, 218,000 Black farmers were registered as full or part owners of 15 million acres of land. By 2007, 28,000 Black farmers were full or part owners of 2.9 million acres of land.1 Because the US government only tracks
privately owned land used for farming (rather than privately owned, non-farmland), the true scope of black land loss, specifically the amount of privately held, Black-owned, non-farmland, is unknown, however, the 1999 Agricultural Economics and Landownership report found that there were 7.8 million acres of Black privately owned land valued at 14 billion dollars. Despite the dire numbers, in parts of the Black Belt South, Black farmers continue to play an important role in the rural economy and civic life. 93% of all Black farms are located in Southern states.
Causes of Black Land Loss: Grantees identified problems related to heirs’ property; lack of access to capital, markets, and technology; and systemic discrimination as major contributors to contemporary Black land loss. Other contributors include: lack of estate planning, lack of legal counsel, delinquent property taxes, and involuntary/partition sales.
Goals: Grantees identified two long-term goals or outcomes: preventing further Black land loss and cultivating Black-owned assets. They defined several intermediate goals or outcomes: (1) strengthening relationships among Black land loss prevention advocates, (2) enabling others to understand the work the advocates are doing and its impact on Black land loss and wealth building, and (3) determining strategic entry points and common places of intersection and opportunity.
Strategies: Grantees discussed a core set of seven strategies that provide multiple pathways for interaction and collaboration in solving challenges. The strategies include: (1) supporting sustainable enterprise, (2) gaining access to legal support, (3) coordinating policy development, (4) developing an educated community, (5) cultivating
financial/resource development, (6) strengthening leadership development, and (7) building infrastructure.
Emerging Approaches: Grantees discussed three, immediate target areas of focus: (1) modeling a state statue on heirs’ property, (2) preventing foreclosures of Black-owned farms, and (3) creating a revolving loan fund. Concerns and Opportunities: Participants were concerned about the decline of funding by national foundations for rural issues and how it would impact funding for the Black land loss field. They felt, however, that Program Related Investments and Mission-Driven Investments offer a very promising avenue for funding, particularly if they are linked to a foundation’s priorities and mission.
Gaps to Be Bridged: Grantees discussed the need for better integration between “Black land loss prevention” groups, which primarily consist of Black farmers’ organizations whose members tend to be older, and “Black land asset development groups” who were not as closely tied to farming and tended to be younger. While the former groups emphasized the priority of immediate aid to Black farmers, the latter groups tended to focus more on land asset development, which may or may not involve farming. Broader Considerations: Grantees also reflected upon broader considerations related to the Black land loss field, including the necessary components to build Black wealth, shared and community models of landownership, amending traditional property appraisal to promote sustainability, and creating a regional Black land loss legal action group.
Conclusion: Black land loss grantees felt energized by learning more about the work and strategies of their peers. The convenings provided a space for reflection and deeper discussion of Black land loss, Black wealth, and building community assets. Despite different priorities, agendas, and needs of their respective organizations, participants were able to come together, network, brainstorm, disagree, and ultimately strategize to collectively forge a set of core solutions to advance their work.