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January 06, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

The Contemporary Relevance of Historic Black Land Loss

by Dr. Dania V. Francis, Dr. Grieve Chelwa, Dr. Darrick Hamilton, Thomas W. Mitchell, Nathan A. Rosenberg, and Bryce Wilson Stucki

Luke McElroy, a Black farmer who owned 155 acres of land in Cherokee County, Alabama, was shot to death in 1949 by a neighboring white farmer over a property dispute.

In Amite County, Mississippi, Reverend Isaac Simmons, also a Black farmer, was lynched by six white men in 1944 when he refused to give up his farmland to the men, who thought it might have valuable oil deposits. The men then brutally beat Reverend Simmons’s son and ran him out of the county.

The stories of these men and many others in the Burnham-Nobles Archive of racially motivated killings of Black people in the Jim Crow South highlight the violent theft of Black farmland, often to the benefit of white farmers.

As a result of having their land stolen from them, many Black landowners lost a valuable tool for wealth creation.

As a result of having their land stolen from them, many Black landowners lost a valuable tool for wealth creation.


At the close of the Civil War, Black Americans owned very little farmland but began acquiring it at a rapid pace, so that by 1910, Black farmers owned more than 16 million acres. This, however, would be the peak of Black farmland ownership in the United States as the twentieth century oversaw the rapid dispossession of Black-owned agricultural acreage.

In addition to theft by state-sanctioned violence, intimidation, and lynching, Black farmers also lost land due to discrimination by banks and financial institutions; through the denial of access to federal farm benefits by local administrators who funneled those benefits to white farm owners; through forced partition sales brought about by predatory third parties; through government misuse of eminent domain, including many cases in which Black landowners were compensated well below market value; through discriminatory tax assessments and non-competitive tax sales; and through longstanding, coordinated discrimination by U.S. Department of Agriculture agents who wield power and control over access to credit and essential resources.

By 1997, Black farmers lost more than 90 percent of the 16 million acres they owned in 1910.

In a recent study, we used county-level Census of Agriculture data to estimate the value of the lost Black agricultural land from 1920 to 1997. For all counties in each of the 17 (mostly southern) states that comprised over 90 percent of all Black-owned farmland, we calculated the yearly acreage loss, multiplied by the county-level estimate of per-acre land values. We then compounded those land- loss values forward to the year 2020 at a rate of return of 6 percent per year for the appreciation of the land and a rate of return of 5 percent per year for the income the land could provide.

Our results yield a cumulative value of Black land loss of about $326 billion. To put this figure in perspective, if this represented the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country, that country would rank 41st out of 213 countries in the world ranking of GDP in 2020. This would be in the top 20 percent of countries, ahead of South Africa, Finland, and New Zealand.

We view $326 billion to be a conservative estimate of the value of Black land loss for multiple reasons. First, we use conservative rates of return on agricultural land in our calculations. Second, due to data limitations, we begin estimating acreage loss in 1920, a full decade after the peak of acreage ownership in 1910. Thus, our estimate does not account for the lost acreage in those first 10 years. Finally, we don’t include other potential benefits to land ownership in our estimate, such as the ability of landowners to have more control over their labor and free time, more access to capital to invest in other business ventures, and more resources to provide access to high-quality education for their children so the next generation could experience upward mobility.

This intergenerational aspect of land wealth is precisely what makes the estimation of historic Black land loss so relevant to discussions of racial wealth gaps today. As a result of having their land stolen from them, many Black landowners lost a valuable tool for wealth creation. Accordingly, while the children and grandchildren of white landowners reaped the benefits of ready access to capital—education, home ownership, and entrepreneurial safety nets—the children and grandchildren of dispossessed Black landowners faced the perils of migrating to inner-city ghettos—crime, poverty, and instability.

Thus, from one generation to the next, the initial racial wealth gap that opened through the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and land theft has grown wider and, without intervention, will continue to widen. To view racial wealth gaps as the result of individual differences in the propensity to save or in portfolio allocations ignores this legacy of state-sanctioned discrimination that limited Black wealth building at the outset and persists today through intergenerational transmission of wealth and through ongoing discriminatory structures in our society.

Finally, this discussion of land ownership and dispossession is intimately related to discussions of property rights, specifically the primacy of property rights over human rights when the humans in question are marginalized, discriminated against, and otherwise dehumanized. To emphasize property rights in contemporary policy discussions, especially when simultaneously de-emphasizing the human rights of marginalized communities, without discussing the historical context of the way that property came to be distributed is immoral and only serves to amplify injustice.

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Dr. Dania V. Francis

Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Boston

Dania V. Francis is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research investigates racial disparities in wealth, education, and employment.

Dr. Grieve Chelwa

Director of Research, Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, The New School

Dr. Grieve Chelwa is the director of research at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School. 

Dr. Darrick Hamilton

University Professor and Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, The New School; Founding Director, Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, The New School

Darrick Hamilton is a university professor, the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, and the founding director of the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School. He is one of the nation’s foremost scholars, economists, and public intellectuals and is also a member of the inaugural class of Freedom Scholars for a partnership of the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Group Health Foundation.

Thomas W. Mitchell

Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Endowed Chair, Boston College Law School; Director, Initiative on Land and Housing Rights, Boston College Law School

Thomas W. Mitchell is a professor at Boston College Law School, where he holds the Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Endowed Chair and serves as the director of the Initiative on Land and Housing Property Rights, an initiative that seeks to help disadvantaged people and communities stabilize and secure important property rights. He is also an acclaimed property law scholar and legal reformer who has received many awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship and the Howard University Award for Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement.

Nathan A. Rosenberg

Visiting Scholar, Food Law and Policy Clinic, Harvard Law School

Nathan A. Rosenberg is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. His work focuses on agriculture, inequality, and the environment.

Bryce Wilson Stucki

Writer and Researcher

Bryce Wilson Stucki is a writer and researcher in Washington, D.C. He has published articles in The Nation, Mother Jones, and other outlets.