African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century

Many factors contributed to the loss of black-owned land during the 20th century, including systemic discrimination in lending by the US Department of Agriculture, the industrialization that lured workers into factories, and the Great Migration. But the lesser-known issue of heirs’ property also played a role, allowing untold thousands of acres to be forcibly bought out from under black rural families—often second-, third-, or fourth-generation landowners whose ancestors were 
enslaved—by real-estate developers and speculators. By one estimate, 81 percent of these early black landowners didn’t make wills, largely due to a lack of access to legal resources. Their descendants then inherited the land without a clear title, and it thereby became designated as heirs’ property. Although heirs’ property exists in many regions of the country, it’s most prevalent in low-income communities. In the South, according to one estimate, more than 50 percent of heirs’-property owners are African-American, many of them the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, based in Charleston County, South Carolina, estimates that there are 105,000 acres of heirs’ property in its 15-county service area alone.