Washington Better legal aid for the poor could be a partial remedy for black Americans' continuing loss of land, especially in the South, participants at a congressional forum were told Tuesday.
At a town hall meeting put together by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, black lawmakers wrestled with how to stem the erosion of black landownership.
"The loss of black land holdings in America is one of the great and hidden injustices of the 20th century," said Rep. Eva Clayton, D-N.C.
Thomas W. Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin law professor and expert in rural real estate issues, said more legal aid would help the poor make better financial decisions regarding their land, especially when it becomes part of a family estate upon the death of the owner.
In 1910, black Americans owned 15 million acres, according to the U.S. Agriculture Census. Today they hold only 1.1 million acres, Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., said.
That loss, Mitchell said, represents "a massive wealth transfer out of the black community."
In December, a series by The Associated Press documented 107 land takings in an 18-month investigation of black land loss in America. Of those land takings, 57 involved violence and sometimes even murder. In some cases, black landowners were attacked by whites who wanted to drive them from their property. In other cases, the attackers wanted the land for themselves.
Through violence, trickery and poor personal financial decisions, black Americans have lost titles to their land at more than twice the rate of whites, said Clayton.
Recent losses have come through partitioning, a court procedure that is intended to resolve land disputes but can be used to pry land from people who do not want to sell.
Under the procedure, a land trader can buy an interest in a family estate which is owned in common by heirs of the dead landowner. Anyone who owns a share, no matter how small, can go to a judge and request that the entire property be sold at auction.
Some traders seek out such estates and buy small shares with the intention of forcing auctions. Family members seldom have enough money to compete, even when the high bid is less than market value.
Government and university studies show that black landowners in the South are especially vulnerable because up to 83 percent of them do not leave wills. Without a will, land is inherited by the heirs usually a spouse and children who will hold the estate in common. If more family members die over the years without wills, dozens of relatives can end up owning a single property.
Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., said that while procedures like partition sales are color-neutral on their faces, they often have disproportionate impact on minorities and low-income communities.
Watt said that since state laws govern virtually all land transfers, it might be difficult for Congress to legislate any solution. "I'm trying to think of ways we can grab hold of this issue on a federal level," he said.