Economist Trevon Logan: Look At Historical Farm And Land Theft From Black Americans When Thinking About Reparations

Economist Trevon Logan: Look At Historical Farm And Land Theft From Black Americans When Thinking About Reparations

land theft
Economist Trevon Logan: Look At Historical Farm And Land Theft From Black Americans When Thinking About Reparations Photo: mediadrumworld.com / public domain

Reparations have always been about more than slavery. The reparations movement has consistently pointed out that it seeks compensation for the free labor provided by ancestors of Native Blacks to build this country, for systematic racism, for the injustices of the Jim Crow era and for the legacy of it all. This includes, of course, not only the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres but the theft of Black-owned farms and land.

Throughout the decades, Black people have lost land and the potential financial gain from that land. In the 20th century alone, Black Americans lost approximately 12 million acres of land.

Economists Trevon Logan and William Darity Jr. want to make sure land is part of the reparations conversation. Logan is a professor of economics at Ohio State University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Darity is a professor of public policy, economics and African and African American studies at Duke University, and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.

They point to the Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 1919 — one of many in U.S. history — which resulted in Black people’s land being stolen.

“In the first half of the 20th Century, White mob terror against Black Americans occurred across the nation, rural and urban, north and south. In 1910 alone, there were an estimated 16 massacres. The year 1919 was so deadly it was called The Red Summer, with more than 30 separate incidents,” Logan and Darity wrote in a Bloomberg report. More violence against Blacks continued in the years that followed.

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When Black farmers in Elaine sought to form a union, these men “drew the greatest ire.” This action was considered an “insurrection” and it was met by U.S. soldiers and local vigilantes who went on to kill at least 200 Black people, including women and children. After the massacre, the Black victims of violence were charged as perpetrators and 12 tenant farmers who survived the massacre were given the death sentence. Some 75 others, all sharecroppers, got prison sentences.

Black journalist Ida Wells-Barnett reported on the event and wrote the pamphlet, “The Arkansas Race Riot,” a detailed account not only on the event but also of the property lost to the Black farmers due to the massacre and its aftermath. 

Wells-Barnett “calculated that the 12 tenant farmers had been denied any proceeds from their crops on more than 350 acres. The value of cotton alone on that land exceeded $85,000. Adding the animals and farm equipment pushed the value to more than $100,000 — equivalent to more than $6 million today, or $500,000 per family, based solely on what was stolen in 1919. Wells-Barnett also gauged that the other 75 jailed sharecroppers were robbed of a cotton crop worth $1000 each, based on the worst sharecropping agreements in Arkansas at the time,” Logan and Darity wrote. Today, this would be $60,000 each. In all, the total of all the farms involved would amount to more than $10 million today. 

Elaine was just one example of Black land theft. In the 20th century, Black Americans lost approximately 12 million acres of land. “This mass land dispossession—a war waged by deed of title, which has affected 98 percent of Black farmers—can only be called theft,”  Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk II said in a new documentary entitle,d “How Black Americans Were Robbed of Their Land.”

Formerly Black-owned land in the Mississippi Delta has been sold off. Even the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), one of the largest pension firms in the U.S., has a portfolio of more than 80,000 acres in Mississippi alone, most of them in the Delta, Newkirk reported in The Atlantic. The “TIAA reportedly bought 50,000 acres for more than $200 million.”

Hancock Agricultural Investment Group manages more than 65,000 acres of this land in what it calls the “Delta states.” Real-estate trust Farmland Partners possesses 30,000 acres in and around the Delta. AgriVest, a subsidiary of the Swiss bank UBS, had 22,000 acres.

In Tunica County, Mississippi, where TIAA has acquired plantations from some of the oldest farm-owning white families in the state, Black people make up 77 percent of the population but own only 6 percent of the farmland. In Holmes County, the third-Blackest county in the U.S., Black people make up about 80 percent of the population but own only 19 percent of the farmland, Newkirk wrote.

Through a variety of means — some legal and some violent — some of this farmland owned by Black people came into the hands of white people. 

According to the historian James C. Cobb, Black landowners in Tunica County in 1900 outnumbered white ones three to one. The U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicated that there were 25,000 Black farm operators in 1910. In all, Black farmland in Mississippi totaled 2.2 million acres in 1910. This was equal to about 14 percent of all Black-owned agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state.

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Several factors including theft played into the loss of the majority of Black farms. Half a million Black-owned farms across the country failed in the 25 years after 1950, finding it a struggle to fight against dispossession, historian Pete Daniel said. He estimated that about 6 million acres were lost by Black farmers from 1950 to 1969 — an average of 820 acres a day. An analysis for The Atlantic found this translates into a financial loss of $3.7 billion to $6.6 billion in today’s terms.