By: Lee Davenport, Ph.D
Are you working with clients who might have family land that they don’t remember? What about in your own family? You may be.
For example, if your clients have formerly enslaved ancestors, they might have rights to land that they don’t know about. Let’s start with a little primer on the Land Back (or LandBack) Movement.
In short, this initiative is an Indigenous-led movement that seeks to return public land to Indigenous governance. According to the Community-Based Global Learning Collaborative, “The Land Back movement advocates for a transfer of decision-making power over land to Indigenous communities. The movement does not ask current residents to vacate their homes but maintains that Indigenous governance is possible, sustainable and preferred for public lands.”
The movement is thought to have many benefits, including a more substantial forward motion toward fair and equitable housing and environmental restoration. It’s important to note that even though this is an Indigenous-led movement, the native communities believe that returning land to Black and brown Americans for whom land rights were stripped is just as crucial to equity and fair housing efforts as returning public land to Indigenous governance. This article will focus on the history of land ownership in the African-American community.
Did you know that in 1910, U.S. land ownership for the formerly enslaved generation of freedmen remarkably peaked at 14%? Post-civil war conditions were indeed looking up! Today, however, U.S. land ownership by Black Americans has dropped to a mere 1%.
This fact might lead you to ask: what happened to the other 13%?
Measured and intentional efforts to keep Indigenous and people of color from land ownership and homeownership is an answer. For more context, here’s an excerpt from my book, which is based on my Fair Housing DECODER training:
The Pursuit of Property for All (1866): The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first federal law providing all citizens, regardless of race or color, with the same rights to make and enforce contracts, including property rights. Thus, newly freedmen were just in time for the “Land Rush” spurred by The Homestead Act. Starting in 1866, the Homestead Act expanded land ownership to everyone, which resulted in an ownership surge. Of some 500 million acres dispersed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, 80 million acres went to homesteaders—move over John Dutton! Interestingly, Black American land ownership peaked in 1910 at 10% (a fantastic feat for the first generation post-Emanicipation).
Fallout from “Land Rush” (1910s – 1940s): Several states, including California and Texas (note large, prime real estate places today!), enacted laws that prohibited mostly non-white people from owning land or property. Additionally, land previously owned by Black, Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese (c.f. WWII internment camps) and Mexican Americans from over 50 towns/counties was stolen via forced removal, adverse possession and/or eminent domain (with low/below fair market value or often no compensation) policies (c.f. Rosewood, Tulsa, Seneca Village, Bruce’s Beach, Oscarville/Lake Lanier, etc.).
To better understand the LandBack movement, a primer on the history and a deep understanding of how that history informed fair housing throughout the years is needed.
Regaining Access to Forgotten Land
A recap: the Land Back Movement is a contemporary quest that seeks to address those above-mentioned historical injustices and restore land ownership and sovereignty (or at least back-owed compensation) to Indigenous peoples and other Americans who were forcefully displaced (often without fair market value compensation) through methods including violence, eminent domain seizure and adverse dispossession.
One example that gained national attention is the case of Bruce’s Beach. Bruce’s Beach was once a thriving Black-owned beach resort owned by spouses Willa and Charles Bruce in the early 20th century. The Bruce family faced racial discrimination and harassment from neighboring white residents, which led to their property being forcibly taken through eminent domain (fair market value was not offered) in the 1920s. The land was ostensibly for the purpose of creating a park that was never actually developed and remained unused and under the control of the city for approximately a century.
As real estate pros, we more than most understand the familial wealth and generational legacy that real estate in popular, prime beachfront communities commands. Thus, it seems only natural for us to be the biggest proponents of real estate sold at its fair market value, whether to or from governments or private owners. Consequently, in recent years, there has been a Land Back Movement to rectify this specific historical injustice and return the property to the descendants of the Bruces.
After years of petitions that gained momentum on social media in 2020, the Bruce family was given the land back in 2021 and could sell it back to the county this year for the fair market value of $20 Million. Thanks in part to the groundswell of (social) media attention, the Bruce family was able to reclaim their access to building generational wealth, though it’s worth noting that they also lost out on years of wealth building as a result of the seizing of their family’s land in the first place.
Likely, the Bruce family is not the only family in this predicament. In a summary of reporting and data provided by the Equal Justice Initiative, sources estimate that in the South alone, one million Black families have lost access to a staggering 12 million acres of their family’s farmlands. </p
How Real Estate Pros Are and Can Get Involved
The Land Back Movement is layered, and as a real estate professional, you might be wondering how to get started or where to find information. It is vital to understand the movement, it’s origins and the sensitive nature of the topic before jumping into helping clients.
Step 1: Start with History
Knowing the history is an important step. To move forward, we must understand where we started, and in real estate, as in all industries, history informs the present. Start with this video to learn more about the history that led to specific communities losing access (or having access stolen) to their land. In the video, Yale University Clinical Assistant Professor and BothAndPartners Founder, Dr. Dietra Hawkins, shares that her family member who is a real estate agent, helped her family reclaim a portion of land that belonged to their family. What an inspiration for all real estate pros!
Step 2: Do Your Research
First, have your clients talk with their oldest living relatives or the family members that are “historians.” Some families may call them the “busybodies” or “family gossips” because they stay in everyone’s business, but they are exactly who you need for this project.
Second, do a records search of city, county and U.S. Census databases that may show family and business addresses. As real estate pros, this is where our resources and personal contacts come into play and shine. Your preferred closing attorneys or settlement offices may be willing to assist with this process. Of course, you can directly check your various city and county records but my favorite online, one-stop-shop database for this (especially if you have family in multiple counties or states) is Ancestry.com.
Step 3: Educate Yourself and Connect with Those Doing the Work
Enlist the service of your local university. I have gathered a wealth of information and volunteer hours from local law school pro bono clinics, urban planning departments and real estate colleges. These can turn into graded projects for them and additional expertise for you.
Education isn’t enough, though. It’s important to note that many Indigenous and Black communities are already doing the work. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, get involved with an already-established organization and see how you can further their efforts.
Step 4: Advocate Locally
Be sure to connect with your local officials. For example, Evanston, Illinois (based on advocacy from community members, which any of us can do) has created a homeownership fund for those who experienced unfair housing in the form of redlining (reminder: this was the undervaluing of land/real estate specifically and mostly in predominantly Black neighborhoods), which is a great example of how local initiatives can support the overall goals of the Land Back Movement.
Lastly, do what this generation does best – take your vetted findings to social media to amplify this movement. As real estate professionals, we occupy a unique space in being able to help our clients find and restore their access to generational wealth. Use the resources at your disposal, get involved and let others know how they can get involved, too.
Dr. Lee Davenport is an Atlanta-based real estate coach who trains agents, teams, brokerages, and other business organizations on how to use today’s technology to work smarter. Join Lee’s free RE Tech Insider’s Club by visiting LearnWithLee.REALTOR