Heirs’ property refers to land that has been passed down through generations without a clear title or legal documentation, often due to discriminatory practices and historical barriers that prevented black families from obtaining formal ownership. From a Black person’s perspective, this issue is deeply rooted in systemic racism and the legacy of slavery and segregation.
In recent years, several states have taken legislative action to address the issue of heirs’ property and its impact on the Black community. In 2018, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act was passed in Louisiana and in 2019, it was passed in Georgia, helping to protect heirs’ property owners from being forced to sell their land at a lower value. Similarly, the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act (CLOUD Act) passed in 2018, which included a provision to protect heirs’ property owners from losing their land through eminent domain. These laws and others like them are important steps towards protecting the land rights of Black Americans and combating the systemic racism that has contributed to the loss of generational wealth through heirs’ property.
History of Heirs’ Property
During slavery and the Reconstruction era, many Black families were denied access to legal documentation of their land ownership. Following the Civil War, the federal government issued land grants to newly freed slaves, but the lack of legal resources and institutional support often made it difficult to obtain formal title. As a result, many Black families resorted to passing down their land through informal means, such as verbal agreements, which often resulted in unclear or disputed ownership.
Systemic Racism and Its Impact
The lack of clear title and legal documentation of Heirs’ property often results in vulnerable land ownership for Black families, making them vulnerable to losing their land to developers or speculators. This issue is further exacerbated by discriminatory practices such as redlining, which made it difficult for Black families to obtain loans and financial support to formalize their ownership. As a result, Black families are often unable to fully benefit from the value of their property and are at risk of losing their land and the generational wealth that comes with it.
Impact on Black and White Communities
The impact of Heirs’ property is felt primarily in the Black community, where it has contributed to the racial wealth gap and the loss of intergenerational wealth. However, the issue also affects white communities, particularly in rural areas, where unclear ownership can lead to legal disputes and prevent investment and development in the area.
Influence on Culture and Why It Is Important
The impact of Heirs’ property on Black families goes beyond financial loss and legal issues; it also affects cultural identity and ties to the land. Many Black families see their land as a connection to their history and ancestors, and losing it can be a traumatic experience. It is important to address this issue and work towards reforming the legal system to protect and empower Black landowners.
How to Be an Ally
One way to be an ally in the fight against Heirs’ property is to support organizations that provide legal resources and advocacy for Black landowners. Additionally, supporting policies and lawmakers that work towards reforming the legal system to protect the rights of Black landowners can also be a form of allyship.
Examples: Black families losing land because of heirs’ property
- The Wilkins family of South Carolina lost their land due to heirs’ property. Their story was featured in a New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/19/us/black-land-loss-heirs-property.html
- The Scott family of Georgia lost their land due to heirs’ property. Their story was featured in a PBS documentary called “Losing Ground”: https://www.pbs.org/video/losing-ground-jznctw/
- The Rev. Richard Joyner of North Carolina has been fighting to keep his family’s land from being lost to heirs’ property. His story was featured in a CBS News segment: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/heirs-property-laws-prevent-black-families-from-building-wealth/
- The Owens family of Alabama lost their land due to heirs’ property. Their story was featured in an NBC News article: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/black-land-owners-were-forced-lose-their-land-heirs-property-n1051481
- The Richardson family of Florida lost their land due to heirs’ property. Their story was featured in a documentary called “The Potomac Syndrome”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0W8NOvP09bY
- “Owning the Land.” Brave New Films. https://www.bravenewfilms.org/owningtheland
- “Black Land Loss: The Cost of Being Pro-Black in America.” The Root. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE1RzEaXEv
- “Heirs Property and Land Fractionation: Framing the Issues.” USDA Forest Service. https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/57254
- “The Cost of Being Black: The High Price of Racially Discriminatory Policies on Heirs’ Property Owners.” Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/10/17/475436/cost-black-high-price-racially-discriminatory-policies-heirs-property-owners/
- “Heirs’ Property Issues.” United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.rd.usda.gov/files/USDA_Heirs_Property_Brochure_Final.pdf