Reckoning With the Loss of Black-Owned Land

NAR screens the groundbreaking film “Gaining Ground,” which examines the erasure of Black culture and history through the taking of land.

Black Americans amassed millions of acres of land in the decades following the Civil War. But today, approximately 90% of that land is no longer in the hands of Black families.

Violence, eminent domain and lawful government discrimination resulted in the loss of ownership, disrupting the primary path to generational wealth, said a panel of experts Wednesday during NAR NXT, The REALTOR® Experience, in Anaheim, Calif. Following a preview of the award-winning documentary “Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land,” panel members discussed the continuing threat and impact of residential land loss and its remedies and actions.

“It was a bold move for NAR to welcome the film to your convention,” said Tharlyn Fox, who leads the LEAP Coalition at John Deere. LEAP (Legislation, Education, Advocacy, Production Systems) helps Black families regain title to their land and determine the best way to unlock its economic value for passing on to the next generation. “You sit at the precipice of many Black families’ legacies,” Fox told the audience.

Panelists encouraged REALTORS® to educate themselves about heirs’ property, which is created when the original owner dies without a will, leaving the property to multiple beneficiaries. Estate planning is one of the least known racial gaps, with Whites nearly three times more likely to have a will, according to panelist Thomas Mitchell, a property law scholar at Boston College Law School.

Attendees heard the story of Bruce’s Beach from panelist George Fatheree, who led the legal team responsible for the first land restitution case for an African American family in U.S. history. In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce developed a tourist property in Manhattan Beach, Calif., popular with Black families. In 1924, Manhattan Beach took the property through eminent domain, paying the couple a fraction of its value. “The magnitude of what was lost is immeasurable and represents the loss of both culture and history,” said Fatherlee.

The return of the land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce in 2021 is just one model for reparation, according to Fatherlee. “We need a range of solutions if we’re going to be serious about addressing the debt,” he said.

Mitchell encouraged the audience to learn the status of and advocate for the& Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act in their state. UPHPA seeks to address partition action abuses that have led to significant property loss. Enacted in 22 states, the Heirs Act is expected to be introduced in at least seven states in 2024.

Destructive practices, such as subprime lending and redlining, continue today. Fatherlee beseeched the REALTOR®-filled audience: “You are on the front line and can make a difference. Be a people of conscience.” –Written by Carol Helsel