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April 15, 2022 Feature

Where is My Land: Restoring Our Legacy, Reclaiming Our Land

Kamala Miller-Lester
“We are on the precipice of making history. No other state in this nation has given land back to Black people. There are Black families across the nation who have had land stolen from them and they have been working for decades to try to reclaim their land. One can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps if their boots were stolen from them. This is part of what reparations is—repairing the damage that has been done.”

—Kavon Ward, founder of Justice for Bruce’s Beach and co-founder of Where Is My Land

Activist Kavon Ward and writer Ashanti Martin formed Where Is My Land (WIML) in July 2021. A national advocacy, research, and technology organization that focuses on reclaiming land stolen from Black Americans and securing restitution. Where Is My Land is an outgrowth of the landmark success of Ward’s leadership and community organizing in Manhattan Beach, California, where Bruce’s Beach is being returned to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, nearly a century after their resort business was subject to violent harassment and seized by the city. WIML is replicating and scaling this success to help even more Black families pursue their own claims of stolen land.

The mission of WIML is to connect Black families with a network of free services, including policy advocacy, community organizing, and public awareness campaigns. The organization will help families research and gather evidence for their claims, using publicly available data and information collected from Black Americans. Our goal is to create and provide access to a clearinghouse of information that will allow people to discover the history of stolen Black land and whether they may have connections to it.

Private Theft: A Legacy of Unequal Power

Public documents and official records often tell a sanitized story of land transfer. What looks on the surface to be a neat and tidy land transfer from Black owners to other entities was often in actuality the result of threats, violence, intimidation, fraud, or other outside pressure. Upon closer examination, the circumstances of many transfers simply don’t add up. The official records show a pattern of Black family land wealth, built up over generations and carefully maintained, abandoned to squatters or sold at below-market prices. The family histories tell of harassment, illegal pressure, and threats, resulting in families having to choose between keeping their land or keeping their lives. In one instance, a Black landowner purchased land from a government entity, paid the mortgage in full, and then transferred that same land back to the government for less money than she paid for it. Her descendant says the transfer occurred after significant illegal pressure and threats.

Her family is not alone. It is like many others that seek our organization’s assistance. These families, whose entire net worth was based in the property they owned, did not voluntarily choose to leave lives of abundance and self-sufficiency on vast acres of land, only to move to squalid, more crowded conditions where they oftentimes found themselves dependent upon government assistance. WIML works with claimants who tell us their ancestors were purposeful in their efforts of acquiring property, and that for decades they meticulously and deliberately transferred it to other family members and/or bequeathed it to heirs in order to keep the property in the family. These are not the actions of individuals who would subsequently “abandon” land to squatters or sell it to the government at prices that were insufficient to allow them to establish comparable lives elsewhere.

Our families face many obstacles in their efforts to regain ownership of their land, or to be paid fairly for it. For some, the historical record that would show their ancestors’ ownership of the property is incomplete: Documents have been destroyed, altered, or are missing from official records. Others have fought uphill legal battles even when opposing parties lacked documentation supporting a claim to the land. On one property where a company was extracting oil, but lacked evidence of the voluntary transfer of mineral rights, there was a simple declaration in court that “at some point, someone must have transferred those rights.” This was enough to justify the presence of oil rigs on the property. The family was never fairly compensated for the oil extracted and hauled from beneath the backyard where their children had played, the corral where they had tended their livestock, or the farm that had fed their families and allowed them to be self-sustaining and independent.

WIML also works with families that have experienced loss by “a war waged by deed of title” that is propelled by “white racism and local white power,” such as reported in the September 2019 issue of The Atlantic.2 Although the article focuses on the loss of Black farmland in the South, theft of Black land in this manner is not limited to that area of the country. Many of our families lost their land through mechanisms mentioned in the article that appear to be legal, such as “the tax sale, the partition sale, and the foreclosure.” The losses have come, however, after the families faced various types of illegal pressures that eventually were successful against them. Examples of tactics our families have confronted include: fraudulent signatures on loan documents; threats, acts of violence and intimidation; executors blatantly refusing to distribute property as laid out in a decedent’s will; and, revisions of town maps removing evidence of Black-owned land or property.

“Property rights are a fundamental American value. If they are not upheld, then this country is not living up to those ideals. Property theft has resulted in Black Americans being shut out of generations of economic opportunity and political representation. The return of rightfully owned property is not up for debate.”

—Ashanti Martin, writer and communication strategist, co-founder of Where Is My Land

Public Theft: Property Loss by Improper Government Action

Rights in property have long been recognized as basic civil rights, so much so that the eminent domain powers granted by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution are limited to takings where it can be demonstrated that they are for “public use.”3 Historically, property loss via eminent domain has disproportionately affected ethnic minorities in a way that WIML feels has significantly prevented such families from accumulating and passing down generational wealth. In 2007, analyzing data from the 2000 census, the Institute for Justice found “eminent domain project areas include a significantly greater percentage of minority residents (58%) compared to their surrounding communities (45%).4

However, these protections have been severely eroded in recent decades. In 2005, the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo vs. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), upheld a local government’s use of eminent domain to transfer property from a neighborhood of homeowners to a pharmaceutical company simply because the transfer had the potential to lead to economic development that might someday benefit the public. Nearly 20 years later, this “public benefit” has yet to materialize, and the once-thriving neighborhood sits empty and unused.

Because of the harm caused to landowners by the loss of their property, governments have a responsibility to be honest brokers when they condemn private land for public use. In many of the cases brought to WIML, this responsibility has been ignored. Some condemned property has sat unused for decades. Other properties have not been used for the purposes for which they were originally condemned. In many cases, the claimants’ former property was eventually turned over or sold to private entities that developed it and made millions in profit. None of the families were given an option to repurchase or reclaim their land.

Looking Forward: Recovery and Restitution

One of the major issues facing our clients is the statute of limitations. Many claimants’ families have long been aware their land was stolen; some have been in a decades-long fight to recover it. Others, however, are just uncovering evidence of how the land was taken and by whom. Though many have compelling evidence that their property was stolen and can prove the identities of the thieves, they are prevented from seeking restitution and being made whole because it took them too long to find information that had been previously inaccessible or hidden from them.

WIML seeks to shine a light on the injustices committed against Black families with regard to land theft. Among our goals are restitution for as many of our families possible, and legislative change. We have already received submissions from hundreds of families, but also encourage others with known land claims to submit them at


1. Where is My Land? Is a  is an S-Corporation registered in the State of California. It was founded in 2021 by Former Congressional Black Caucus fellow and public policy lobbyist Kavon Ward and, veteran writer and communications strategist Ashanti Martin.

2. Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic,, March 22, 2022

3. Brief of Amici Curiae National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, et. al. in Support of Petitioners at 3, Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005) (No. 04-108), 2004 WL 2811057, at *5 [hereinafter NAACP Amicus Brief].

4. p6

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Kamala Miller-Lester

Kamala Miller-Lester is Research Lead at Where is My Land. Prior to that, she was an attorney for a major law firm in Washington, DC. She previously was an adoption counselor for Tennessee Children’s Services, an associate at a law firm in the US Virgin Islands, and a Project Manager at SEIU.