Barren: The Decline Of African American Land Ownership From 15 To 7 Million Acres

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Historically, land ownership has always been critical to the health, wellness, and stability of families.

This is especially important to the African American families that survived slavery.  Many of these families amassed significant amounts of farm land in the U.S. and often portions of their property were used to grow food and raise livestock. Even families with a small parcel of land grew vegetables and fruit gardens.

During summer, families celebrated God’s blessings and proudly shared the fresh, rich, ripe strawberries, melons, corn, peas, greens, beans, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and peppers grown by their own hands, on their own land. Families would grow different foods to swap and barter among themselves.

Some farmers operated roadside fruit and vegetable stands where anyone could purchase wholesome freshness at fair prices. It was not uncommon for families to share recipes and tips for cooking. People would wisely preserve their bountiful produce through canning, freezing, and drying procedures; and there would be healthy foods to last through the fall, winter, and spring.

Sadly, many African American families have lost their precious land.

In the 50 years following the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans held over 15 million acres of land. Today, African Americans own less than 7 million acres of land. In 1920, African Americans owned 14% of all farms. Today, African Americans own less than 1% of all farms.

There are many reasons for the rapid decline of African American land ownership including issues related to complex property ownership among heirs including lack of estate planning, tax sales, court-ordered partition sales, inaccessibility to legal counsel, as well as unjust, violent, and legally exploitive land takings.

Many African American families continue to live in the same rural communities where they once owned farms and grew their own food. Ironically, some of these same communities are now large food deserts—geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.

Today these families are making food choices that are sadly limited by the available options and what they can afford—often cheap unhealthy foods processed with high fat, sugar and salt. Is it possible that living in a food desert is linked to poor health outcomes, especially conditions such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, hypertension, and cancer?  Researchers are still working to answer this and other questions; however, it is known that African-Americans are statistically more likely than other populations to live in food deserts, both rural and urban.

Gary Grant, National President of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association, a nonprofit organization created to respond to the issues and concerns of African American farmers in the U.S. and abroad, works diligently to address the continued loss of African American farms.

“We are losing land and wealth that our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents worked, fought, and died to acquire for us," he says.  "We owe our ancestral warriors a debt-- We must help ourselves by insuring that the next generation is ready to control the land.”

Whether it is acreage, a parcel, or a small plot, it is clear that land continues to be vitally important to the health, future, and sustainability of African American families. 

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