Juneteenth reminds us of the lingering inequities surrounding ‘heirs’ property’

On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3 proclaiming freedom for all enslaved people in the state and effectively wiping out the last remnants of institutional slavery in the Confederacy. Today, we commemorate this watershed moment, officially known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, which the Biden administration recognized last year as a federal holiday — one of several welcome signs of progress.

And yet, a look at the actual text of General Order No. 3 underscores just how far we still have to go. Among other things, the general order declared “an absolute equality of … rights of property between former masters and slaves,” but over a century later, Black Americans still experience discrimination in the actual application of their property rights. One cause of this lingering inequity, a little-known quirk in the law called “heirs’ property,” has serious implications not only for social justice but also for economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. As American citizens, we all have a stake in righting this historical wrong.

Black landownership in the U.S. peaked at almost 16 million acres in 1910, but by the turn of the century, that number had fallen to less than 3 million acres. One of the main culprits behind this dramatic decline is heirs’ property, a term for land informally passed down from one generation to the next, usually because the owner died without a will. This practice was common during Reconstruction, when Black Americans had little to no access to the legal system. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the heirs’ property system remains “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”  

Problems with this system arise when there are multiple living heirs to a property, with each heir owning their individual fraction of the land. A single fractional owner can force a court-ordered sale of all the land, even if that goes against the wishes of the other owners. Land speculators often take advantage of this system by purchasing a fraction of land from an heir and then forcing a sale of the entire property, usually well beyond market price.

Even when heirs aren’t forced to sell, the heirs’ property system can undermine their efforts to build intergenerational wealth in numerous ways. Owners of unresolved heirs’ property can’t obtain a mortgage, farming loans, foreclosure protection or disaster relief. And many essential USDA programs designed to improve land management and increase a land’s value — securing fencing to keep cows out of the creek, planting seedlings to grow trees into timber, and more — are inaccessible to heirs’ property owners.

Property matters to people. It can be far more than just a parcel of land. It can be a window to the past that tells the story of a family, a community or even a way of life. Knowing about your family’s history and culture creates a sense of place and belonging. The loss of heirs’ property has impact on an entire community, not just one family.

The heirs’ property system also negatively impacts businesses that rely on healthy, intact forests for their products. By 2060, the American South could lose up to 23 million acres of forests as a result of rapid and unsustainable development. All that deforestation and forest degradation can alter the flow of rivers, shift rain patterns, increase soil erosion and unleash vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating the rate of climate change in the process.

Government has the resources and reach to help reconcile this legacy of disenfranchisement. So far, 19 states have passed a version of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which provides families with protections against the kind of abuses that the heirs’ property system has allowed for nearly two centuries. The USDA has implemented the Heirs’ Property Relending Program to help owners of heirs’ property secure their rights and retain ownership of their land.

We urge more states to pass versions of UPHPA and offer legal services to these landowners, just as we urge more business leaders to step up and support the communities where their employees and customers live, work and raise families. Land rights provide the foundation for resilient communities, resilient forests, and, ultimately, a resilient world we can all be proud to pass on to the next generation.

Jennie L. Stephens, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation.

Vangela M. Wade is the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice. In October 2021, the centers launched the Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property Support Initiative, with support from World Wildlife Fund and Kimberly-Clark.

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