I was at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore this past September, presenting my first lecture on using land records effectively. Because it’s a museum dedicated to African-American history, I wanted to focus not just on genealogical use of the records, but also the unique history between land and African-Americans and its relevance to our family histories.
I started with the failure of Reconstruction to provide former enslaved laborers with land ownership, dooming most to decades of sharecropping and tenant farming. In spite of that, by 1910, African-Americans had amassed 15 million acres of land, a figure that astonishes me even still today. The great migration north, along with continual discrimination in agricultural subsidies and loans have decimated those numbers today. Obama signed the law in December 2010 that fully funded the landmark Pigman vs. Glickman case, which we should all know about. The Department of Agriculture admitted to historical discrimination, and black farmers were awarded billions in the largest class action settlement ever.
The subject fascinated me more and more as I researched in preparation for this lecture. As an agricultural nation, land was central to our experience. Heck, it’s why we were brought here to begin with. In some of my slavery studies, I have found that some former slaves felt emotionally tied to the land they worked; some determined that it was as much theirs as their owners.
Think about how it wasn’t enough to just buy the land: who was going to provide seed & fertilizer? How were you going to get animals and tools? Like everywhere else, the South moved on credit. These things lead you to see how hard a proposition it was to even approach independence. Never mind the racism and violence and illiteracy on top of all that.
I think about my 3rd great grandfather, John W. Holt, who was the largest black landowner in Hardin County, TN in the early 20th century. His first land purchase (with his brothers) was only 6 years out of slavery. All of this and at his death, his son sold most of that land out of the family. Also, consider that many families who later migrated North were simply not as connected to the land as their parents, and many lost it to tax sales or simply sold it because of that.
One thing that particularly struck me was the use of partition sales by speculators and developers to wrest control of inherited land from heirs. The majority of black farmers who owned land did not leave wills, so their land was inherited by spouses and children. All someone had to do was buy one share from one of those parties, and they could now force a sale of all the land. Some of these sad stories will take your breath away.
I don’t think I’ll ever think about land the same way again. Take a look at some of the links below, but more importantly, think about the history of land as it relates to your family lines. In what ways did it make or break their fortunes? Did some choose to stay on land owned by previous owners? For how long? Which lines were able to eventually purchase land, and did they end up losing it? Do you have pictures of the old homeplaces that no longer stand? What crop did your ancestors grow?
Black Farmers Win Settlement; Congress passes legislation
Tell me, what stories about your ancestors relationship to the land have you discovered in your research? If you haven’t searched the records fully yet, what has been your biggest obstacle?
In Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll provide some basic definitions and examples of deed types that we can build upon in future posts.