Black to the Land

Listen to this episode

S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. After decades, Bruce’s Beach in California was returned to a black family that had been robbed of their land. There are thousands of stories of this kind of theft where landowners and descendants are still waiting for justice.

S2: There’s been tons of examples of urban properties, rural properties, oceanfront properties taking

S1: African-American property rights and reparations coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Bruce’s Beach, a stretch of oceanfront land that had been an oasis for African-Americans in the early 1800s, was snatched from owners Willa and Charles Bruce by California officials in 1924. Even though the property featured a thriving resort, the city of Manhattan Beach seized the property by eminent domain after racists, including the Ku Klux Klan, targeted the black family that owned it, setting fires and threatening the owners and visitors with violence. But now, after nearly a century, the land is back in the hands of the Bruce’s family

Advertisement

S2: right now, just the return of the land. It’s the start. That’s just the beginning. This is the catalyst. Our property was stolen from us and we want justice.

S1: That was the voice of Anthony Bruce, a descendant of the Bruce family. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation giving the land back to descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce. This is a rare example of a state government stepping in to write this historic and racist wrong since the end of slavery. Millions of acres of land once owned by African-Americans has been taken through violent fraud and legal manipulation, often backed up by more violence. Joining us to talk more about this is Thomas Wilson Mitchell. He’s a law professor at Texas A&M University, and he earned a MacArthur Genius grant for his work on protecting African-American lands from theft. Professor Thomas Mitchell joins us now. Welcome to a word.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Good afternoon. Pleasure to be here

S1: for our listeners who aren’t familiar with the story. Can you sort of tell them the story of Bruce’s Beach and why? What Gov. Gavin Newsom just did was significant?

S2: Yeah. So in Manhattan Beach, California, this incredibly entrepreneurial and enterprising couple, Charles and Will Bruce’s acquired a couple of parcels of land in Manhattan Beach in 1911 1912. They were some of the first African-Americans to acquire property in Manhattan Beach, and they were not welcomed by the white population. First of all, I had efforts to intimidate them, forced them out. The Klan was active. The Klan tried to burn down parts of their resort, but they persevered. Their resort became a go to place in Southern California for African-Americans seeking to have a respite. They have a vacation, so when they effort the extrajudicial or extralegal means of forcing them out didn’t work. The power structures that were in Manhattan Beach just decided to exercise eminent domain to take their property from them. They made up a pretext that they needed their property to construct a park, and for three decades after they took the property, no park was constructed because that wasn’t the public use. The public use was to get rid of the African-Americans successful property owners. And then, in addition, the Bruce’s asked for compensation for their property, and the city of Manhattan Beach paid them fourteen thousand five hundred wow parcels of land that are valued today. The estimate is at 75 million dollars. Sadly, the the Bruce’s, they experienced downward economic mobility. They took menial jobs as cooks. As sad as it is. What happened to Charles and Will? Bruce was not exceptional. Had been tons of examples of urban properties, rural properties, oceanfront properties taken. And sadly, the Bruce family basically didn’t have any formal legal recourse. If you look at the judiciary at that point in the, you know, 20s and 30s, it was highly unlikely that they would have had a legal remedy. But then, after five years passed, the statute of limitations kicked in. Right. And they had no claim. Luckily, the property at some point was transferred from the city in Manhattan Beach to Los Angeles County. And in the last few years, there was a certain racial consciousness among enough members of the L.A. County Board that they recognized this incredible injustice to the Bruce’s family. And then they were determined to do something about it and they wanted to return the property. There was a legal technicality where the county couldn’t do it just by themselves. They needed a bill to pass the state legislature. But the state legislature was very amenable to doing such a bill. What’s remarkable is this may be the first time in U.S. history that a black family that had their property taken from them unjustly. Actually got it back. So, for example, you know, we all know about the Tulsa race riots in the Greenwood right, the Black Wall Street in the early 20s. The state of Oklahoma did establish a commission that commission did detail in an incredible number of atrocities of burnings of businesses, murders of hundreds of people, black families driven out of their homes. But that’s where the report stopped. It was a report. And so this is the first time I think that a black family has actually gotten their property back.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: One of the things that really strikes me about this and I want people to understand is that, you know, this wasn’t just a bunch of Klansmen coming in. This was basically the government using the Klan and extralegal means to take land from black people. And I also want people to understand because I visited Bruce’s Beach. If you look at the housing and the malls, it all of the businesses surrounding the sort of square plot of land that is sort of the original part of Bruce’s Beach that is hundreds of millions of dollars that was stolen from this family. We had a similar situation in Hilton Head South Carolina, right? Tell us a little bit about that and how, again, a combination of white violence and government stole that land from black people.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. So up until 1950s, Hilton Head Island was 90 percent African-American after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans actually became property owners. So even though after the 40 acres and a mule promised, the government within nine months reneged on that there were still African-Americans in the Georgia Sea Islands and South Carolina Sea Islands who maintained ownership of their property, sometimes the property, which is considered too remote. So up until the early 1950s, there was no bridge from the mainland out to the islands, but then the state decided to build a bridge. And the real estate speculators just easily could envision Hilton Head. That was quite different from the Hilton head of the 1950s, one with resorts and golf courses. Essentially, what Hilton has has become. And so Hilton Head after the or construction of the bridge or during the process of that, real estate speculators preyed upon African-American families. So Hilton has gone from being 90 percent African-American in 1950 to six percent today, and the ownership of African-American owned properties in Hilton Head has just plunged precipitously with that development.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I want to talk about another type of land that’s often stolen from black people. Earlier this year, we talked to John Boyd Jr., who leads the National Association of Black Farmers. How much land sea farmland has been stolen from African-Americans? Because it’s one thing for the white government to come in and say, Hey, we want this beach proper, we want to grab it. But it’s something else to snatch farmland because that is a ready made moneymaker. That is an even more direct example of that. Right? How much of that have we say, lost to land theft in the last 50 years?

S2: Most Americans don’t realize is between emancipation. In 1910, African-American farmers acquired close to 20 million acres of agricultural land in this country. If you just look at the agricultural census that African-American farm ownership is down to about three million, it might be a little bit more than that because the census does not capture farmland that African-Americans own if they don’t have an active farm operation. But once again, this precipitous drop, let’s say it’s been a 15 million acre drop didn’t just happen by happenstance. So if you look at the legal mechanisms, you’ll see that a lot of African-American farmers lost their property due to foreclosure. But one has to understand the context of, well, how did they end up in foreclosure? And what’s undeniable and unmistakable. And there’s one government report after another that documents that is that there was systemic racial discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture targeting black farmers for decades that then rendered them economically vulnerable because they were denied loans, operating loans that they were eligible for. In some instances, they were given loans, but at the end of the planting season when it was of marginal benefit. And so it deprive them of needed income to maintain their payments on their mortgages. And so what looks like in the property record is just a foreclosure doesn’t then provide you the context of how those farmers were essentially softened up to the point that they were just desperate economically. And then that property has never been given back. What is true is that the in the late 90s, the government settled. A class action lawsuit, Pigford versus Glickman case, and there ended up being a second plot takeover. And it is true that African-Americans between the two Pigford lawsuits were paid something like $2 billion. And so sometimes that gets framed as reparations. Right. I am part of a research team called the Land Loss and Reparations Research Project. Our research team has come up with a preliminary estimate of just the economic value of the farmland that has been lost since 1910. Mm hmm. Just for the land. And that’s $300 billion in addition to the value of the land. Our team is now moving to the phase of our research where we’re looking at collateral consequences of losing that land. So not having land that you can use as collateral to get a loan to finance your children’s higher education costs and then looking at the negative impact on the economic mobility of those children, among other things, right? So it’s just been just a tremendous amount of loss. The economic loss is so severe that, you know, one of the things that most Americans have no idea and sometimes even African-Americans is if you go back to 1910, W.E.B. Dubois had an article he published that said in 1910, 80 percent of the black upper middle class in this country were African-American farm owners.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more on African-American land rights and reparations. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else, I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today we’re talking about returning stolen land to African-Americans. Our guest is law school Professor Thomas Mitchell, so your background and what you were awarded for was your work on African-American land theft. How did you get into that? What made you interested specifically in this idea of how America has routinely and systematically stolen land out from other black people?

Advertisement

S2: Two things came to mind. One, I grew up in San Francisco. I was born in nineteen sixty five. It turns out that in 1970 was the high watermark for African-Americans. In San Francisco, about 13 and a half percent of the population was African-American. San Francisco has had the steepest decline of a black population of any major city in United States. It’s probably sitting at three percent now, and that three percent is disproportionately incredibly poor or homeless. And so I was growing up kind of on the front end of that trend of African-Americans being driven out of the city. And in my childhood started noticing one business after another. Sometimes my father’s personal friends were being forced out in addition to residents. And I found that deeply disturbing because that was part of our network. So I realized that even though I never studied urban policy or planning in college or any related course in law school, that really was a through line in my life of things that I thought about all the time. The second was when I was in college. My grandfather died in Newark, New Jersey, and my father asked me to go to the funeral. They had been estranged. And so I had never met the family until I kind of showed up as the family representative. And one of the things on that trip, even though my relatives in Newark were desperately poor, I mean very different in terms of socioeconomic status than I grew up in. They had photo albums from the South and from the families in like Southwest Georgia and Americus, Georgia. And those photo albums had, you know, like instant realization that folks had been slaves of my family. Folks have been sharecroppers, and I just was looking for something as a research topic that was at the intersection of property loss and African-American heritage. And I came across some newspaper articles, but they were talking about this property law of something called heirs property, and it was something that seemed to be flying under the radar screen but hiding in plain sight. And so I decided, you know what? Let me kind of find out more about what this heirs property is.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You know, what you just said was really fascinating to me because one you were talking about the sort of devastating numbers in San Francisco, how the city can go from a 13 percent African-American population to three percent over the course of 30 or 40 years? What are, say, two or three of the methods that have been used by local and federal governments to kick black people out of their homes and take their land?

S2: So there are a few different ways one is restricted to private parties. So part of it is this law. I talked about the heirs property ownership that is prevalent among African-American families, and there is a property law called Partition that has it’s an arcane law, but it’s been abused by real estate speculators and developers to force the sale. And then there’s other private laws. In addition to that, you have governments who will use eminent domain. And also, there’s oftentimes the intersection between areas of the city that were subject to racially restrictive covenants that precluded African-Americans from living. And then the ownership they could get was outside of those areas. Often it was kind of second rate ownership. And then third, you have things such as urban development projects, urban renewal, which historically African-Americans are referred to as negro removal. So in San Francisco and I grew up there was this notion that the Western addition or the Fillmore needed to be redeveloped. So it was urban renewal and there were things that the city did that were quite cynical. They essentially told businesses in the area that there was going to be this wonderful economic development and renewal. So those businesses would have to shut down during the period of the urban renewal. But then then when it was done, they would get first dibs at coming back that they would give them vouchers. They told them that it only would take a few years to do this renewal. It was stretched out over a much longer period of time so that most of those businesses just couldn’t hold on for 10 years. And then when the few that did try to turn in their. Vouchers, they were told, oh, yeah, you could turn into vouchers, but it’s going to be at the current fair market rental value, which is, you know, multiple times more than what you paid before the renewal. So almost none of them could afford the new rent, you know? And so the one thing I’ll say about the San Francisco example that really, you know, still to this day, it makes me a little angry is that when they were justifying why this area, the Fillmore needed to be redeveloped or renewed in the media, the overarching portrayal was there’s crime, there’s prostitutes, there’s pimps. There was no thing positive that was ever brought up about the Fillmore. And up and down the Fillmore. Now, at least when I was there two years ago, they had these banners talking about the historic jazz district. What I didn’t even realize when I was growing up was that the Fillmore was home to more African-American jazz clubs than anywhere else west of Harlem. So it was called the Harlem of the West. So while they’re justifying the renewal, we heard about crime and prostitutes and pimps. Now that most of the African-Americans have been driven out, the city is marketing the Fillmore as the historic jazz district to get tourists in to, you know, enrich the coffers of the City of San Francisco. Which, to me, is just it goes beyond just displacing its cultural misappropriation.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on African-American land rights and reparations. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about returning stolen land to African-Americans. Our guest is law school professor Thomas Mitchell. So if you are a black family today that has a history that says that there is land that was yours that was stolen through Klan terrorist violence or unethical means by the state? What are your options?

S2: African-Americans still own a significant amount of property. What they can do is essentially upgrade their ways that they own property. Today, one of the studies I’ve looked at shows that only, you know, 23 percent of African-American families have a Will or estate plan. And unfortunately, if you’re in that situation and you own property when you die, your property will pass down to your heirs, your descendants under the worst form of what we call common real property ownership in America. We obviously have a lot of racial gaps in our country and K through 12 in the prison system and health care. But a little known racial gap is this massive racial estate planning or Will making gap? There’s like a 40 percent gap. Something like 63 or 64 percent of white families have a Will or a state plan. So African-Americans A can have a Will. So that’s kind of at the kind of individual level. You know, there’s roles for like nonprofits in terms of getting out the word about the importance of state planning, of what are the other options legally of owning the property. What are some of the things they could do to generate wealth? And then there’s a role at this level of kind of systemic change. So my statute, for example, that was addressing the worst features of this Ayres property in terms of this partition law.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So how does Ayres property end up being manipulated to the detriment of black people?

S2: And so if you don’t have a Will or a state plan, basically the state will then say the property will be transferred. The law is called intestacy or intestate succession, and the state will basically give the descendants the heirs a form of what we call common real property ownership, where a group of people own property together, where they have a fractional interest, just like having shares in a corporation. OK, but the form of that real property ownership the state gives you is the worst form of the options. There’s far better ways of structuring that ownership. So the point is the families get this second rate legal form of ownership, and that form is very susceptible to a forced sale, for example. And that is, this law of partition enables any one of the common owners who no longer wants to be part of the group. Going could be a one percent owner, and they can go into court, file this partition action and request that in resolving the action that the court order a forced sale of the property, even if everybody else in the group wants to maintain ownership. And what courts started doing routinely starting several decades ago was to routinely order the forced sale. This property, even when, if it was rule land that they could have ordered, like the property physically divided and then allocate different parts to different groups, which was supposed to have been the preference under the law.

S1: So you can basically pay off one family member to force the sale to put it into your pocket. That’s that’s that’s probably what we’ve seen then, right?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah, it’s actually worse than what you described because this property often passes down through multiple generations. So instead of five people, you got 25 or 50. Oh, wow. So because of northern migration. Part of the family is now in Detroit, they’re in L.A., they’re in Chicago, they’re in Pittsburgh. Anybody could sell their interest to somebody and they don’t have to be part of the family. So what these real estate speculators typically do is they identify a family member who has the most tenuous tie to the property. It’s free money to them. They get offered a thousand dollars, and it turns out that their fractional interest is actually worth five thousand. But they have no idea that by selling their interest, that real estate speculator is technically now part of the family. And they have then set in motion this domino effect, where the speculator then goes in court and as somebody who’s part of the ownership group now asks for this forced sale.

S1: I want to close with this. I just think this is important. What’s the name of your organization again? And if there are, say, an umbrella group that Black Americans could reach out to to to possibly get help on these kinds of issues?

S2: Yeah. So the sad thing is, the organization that I work with is called Thomas Mitchell. This is so this is what I have done in my free time. What I’m hoping to do is to leverage the MacArthur to build an institute that will provide more comprehensive solutions. With that said, I have partnered with a number of organizations. One group of them is a coalition that is formed called the Heirs Property Retention Coalition. There’s a project that’s been working with the sustainable African-American farmers and land retention program SFR. So if you have land rural land that’s got forestry potential, that’s now something that is a potential resource. There’s a huge need for there to be far more resources and more organizations that could address the problem more robustly.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Thank you so very much. Professor Thomas Mitchell is the co-director of the Real Estate and Community Development Law Program at Texas A&M University School of Law. Professor Mitchell, thank you so much for joining me today on a work.

S2: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to spend time with you.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by A-Gonna Angel and Jasmine Ellis Asha. Asha Saluja is the managing producer of podcast Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.