Black landowners in the South have lost 12 million acres of farmland over the past century—mostly from the 1950s onward. The Atlantic reports that a million black families have been ripped from their farms in a “war waged by deed of title” and propelled by white racism and local white power.
The dispossession of 98% of black agricultural landowners in America is part of our history of racial injustice that is hugely important but mostly overlooked.
First, rich farmland in the South, especially along the Mississippi River, was taken from Native Americans by force. It was cleared, irrigated, planted, and reaped by enslaved Africans, who came to own part of it after emancipation.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 25,000 black farm operators in 1910, an increase of almost 20% from 1900. The Atlantic‘s reporting focuses on black farmland in Mississippi, which totaled 2.2 million acres in 1910—about 14% of all black-owned agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state.
Later, through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive, occasionally violent—farmland owned by black people came into the hands of white people. It was aggregated into larger holdings, then aggregated again, eventually attracting the interest of Wall Street.
Starting with New Deal agencies in 1937, federal agencies whose “white administrators often ignored or targeted poor black people—denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people” became “the safety net, price-setter, chief investor, and sole regulator for most of the farm economy in places like the Delta.” As small farms failed, large plantations grew into huge industrial mega-farms with enormous power over agricultural policy.
Illegal pressures applied through USDA loan programs created massive transfers of wealth from black to white farmers in the period just after the 1950s. Half a million black-owned farms across the country failed between 1950 and 1975. Black farmers lost about six million acres from 1950 to 1969. Black-owned cotton farms in the South almost completely disappeared, and in Mississippi from 1950 to 1964, black farmers lost almost 800,000 acres of land, which translates to a financial loss of more than $3.7 billion in today’s dollars, The Atlantic reports.
While most of the black land loss appears on its face to have been through legal mechanisms—“the tax sale; the partition sale; and the foreclosure”—it mainly stemmed from illegal pressures, including discrimination in federal and state programs, swindles by lawyers and speculators, unlawful denials of private loans, and even outright acts of violence or intimidation.
Discriminatory loan servicing and loan denial by white-controlled, federally funded committees forced black farmers into foreclosure, and their property was purchased by wealthy white landowners.
Many black farmers who avoided foreclosure were defrauded by white tax assessors who set assessments too high, leading to unaffordable tax obligations. Tax sales followed, and the land was purchased by wealthy white people.
Lack of access to legal services put black families’ title claims in jeopardy. Lynchings, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation were sometimes used to force black farmers off their land and still more land was abandoned as black families fled racial terror in the South. From 1950 to 1970, Mississippi’s black population declined by almost one-fifth as the white population increased by the same percentage. By the time black people could exercise the vote in that state, they were a clear minority.
Mass dispossession did not require a central organizing force or a grand conspiracy. Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all pushed in a single direction.
The end of the 1970s saw commodity prices drop as inflation accelerated, creating a farm-credit crisis that was impossible to survive without federal assistance. But even 20 years after the Civil Rights Act, federal help was denied to most black farmers. According to a 2005 article in The Nation, “In 1984 and 1985, at the height of the farm crisis, the USDA lent a total of $1.3 billion to nearly 16,000 farmers to help them maintain their land. Only 209 of those farmers were black.”
In 2008, the global financial crisis caused a boom in the market in U.S. farmland and Wall Street investors pounced. One of the nation’s largest pension firms, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, bought more than 130,000 acres in a strip of counties along the Mississippi River, becoming the biggest pension-fund player in the global agricultural land market. These institutional investors made it virtually impossible for smaller farmers to compete, so they bought up millions of acres of farmland that they’ll likely retain for generations.
The foundation of these portfolios was a system of plantations whose owners created the agrigovernment system and absorbed thousands of small black-owned farms into ever larger white-owned farms.
Today, the vast majority of black farmland in America is owned by white people or corporations. From a million black farmers in 1914, there were 18,000 in 1992. “The dispossession of black agricultural land resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of black wealth. We must emphasize this estimate is conservative … Depending on multiplier effects, rates of returns, and other factors, it could reach into the trillions,” researchers told The Atlantic. The large wealth gap between white and black families today exists in part because of this historic loss.
The costs of uprooting black people from their land are readily apparent in the Mississippi Delta. Ten counties in the Delta are among the poorest 50 in America. More than 30 census tracts in the Delta have an average life expectancy below 70, compared to the national average of 79. In some Delta counties, the infant mortality rate is more than double the nationwide rate. And a new analysis from ProPublica found that the Delta is audited by the IRS more heavily than any other place in the country.
“In sum,” The Atlantic concludes, “the areas of deepest poverty and under the darkest shadow of death are the ones where dispossession was the most far-reaching.”