How an obscure law allowed white, rich developers to steal African-Americans' land for a century

After the civil war, formerly enslaved people bought about 15 million acres across the US (mostly in the south), but those landowners lacked clear legal title and also often did not have access to legal advice for estate planning — combine that with lending discrimination (redlining) and the diasporas that scattered families across the country and that land has become easy pickings for crooked property developers and their crooked lawyers.

These crooks use the obscure law surrounding "heirs' property" to steal land from black people. By locating a single descendant — or person who claims to be a descendant — anywhere in America, the crooks can force a sale of family property that has been continuously occupied for a century or more. These sales take place at poorly attended auctions, and the property sells well below market value.

Ground zero for this theft is Hilton Head, South Carolina, the historic home of the Gullah people, who have been systematically deprived of their ancestral lands for 70+ years, since their isolated homes became a sought-after vacation destination for wealthy whites.

"The property that we owned was prime property," says Alex Brown, a Gullah native and chair of the island's planning commission. "Over time, it's been sold and traded and stolen." And because of the Gullah's unique history of agricultural production, the loss of land amounts to a loss of culture.

"If we don't have our land, we don't have our family," says Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. "This is the battle we're in now."

Beyond Hilton Head, all of South Carolina has experienced enormous demographic shifts in the past 50 years. African Americans comprised nearly half of the state's farmers in 1950, but by 2012 represented just 7 percent. In Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head and other coastal islands, the population is now 
77 percent white, compared with 57 percent black in 1950. This shift has created tension between "native islanders" and the newcomers, many of them white retirees from the North. And it was facilitated by the forced sale of thousands of acres of black-owned land. To this day, Mitchell says, South Carolina is the "ground zero" of African-American partition sales.

 African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century [Leah Douglas/The Nation]

(via Naked Capitalism)