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So Much of Our National History Is Lost to Guilty Amnesia

Charles P. Pierce
Photo credit: Katherine Frey - Getty Images

From Esquire

Most times, the word "magisterial" gets tossed around as a loose synonym for, "that book I've been meaning to read but, at the moment, I'm using it to flatten out that old Moby Grape album." But Vann R. Newkirk's opus in The Atlantic about the decades of fraud and deceit perpetrated on African-American farmers in Mississippi is a job of work that more than qualifies.

Unlike their counterparts even two or three generations ago, black people living and working in the Delta today have been almost completely uprooted from the soil—as property owners, if not as laborers. In Washington County, Mississippi, where last February TIAA reportedly bought 50,000 acres for more than $200 million, black people make up 72 percent of the population but own only 11 percent of the farmland, in part or in full. In Tunica County, 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 nation, black people make up about 80 percent of the population but own only 19 percent of the farmland. TIAA owns plantations there, too. In just a few years, a single company has accumulated a portfolio in the Delta almost equal to the remaining holdings of the African Americans who have lived on and shaped this land for centuries.

This is not a story about TIAA—at least not primarily. The company’s newfound dominance in the region is merely the topsoil covering a history of loss and legally sanctioned theft in which TIAA played no part.

The historical statistics are staggering, and appalling.

Owners of small farms everywhere, black and white alike, have long been buffeted by larger economic forces. But what happened to black landowners in the South, and particularly in the Delta, is distinct, and was propelled not only by economic change but also by white racism and local white power. A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America. They have lost 12 million acres over the past century. But even that statement falsely consigns the losses to long-ago history. In fact, the losses mostly occurred within living memory, from the 1950s onward. Today, except for a handful of farmers like the Scotts who have been able to keep or get back some land, black people in this most productive corner of the Deep South own almost nothing of the bounty under their feet.

Photo credit: Katherine Frey - Getty Images

And, while the legacy of slavery played a role in this intergenerational theft, and while Jim Crow and institutional racism were as destructive to these lives as they were to so many others, as Newkirk writes, the major heist happened more recently—and, with a painful irony, during the height of the civil rights movement.

As the historian Pete Daniel recounts, half a million black-owned farms across the country failed in the 25 years after 1950. Joe Brooks, the former president of the Emergency Land Fund, a group founded in 1972 to fight the problem of dispossession, has estimated that something on the order of 6 million acres was lost by black farmers from 1950 to 1969. That’s an average of 820 acres a day—an area the size of New York’s Central Park erased with each sunset. Black-owned cotton farms in the South almost completely disappeared, diminishing from 87,000 to just over 3,000 in the 1960s alone. According to the Census of Agriculture, the racial disparity in farm acreage increased in Mississippi from 1950 to 1964, when black farmers lost almost 800,000 acres of land. An analysis for The Atlantic by a research team that included Dania Francis, at the University of Massachusetts, and Darrick Hamilton, at Ohio State, translates this land loss into a financial loss—including both property and income—of $3.7 billion to $6.6 billion in today’s dollars.

There are so many parts of our national history that are lost to guilty amnesia because we don't ever want to reckon with them. I happened on Newkirk's piece while scouring around for details on the "Red Summer" of 1919, which is an unjustly obscure event all on its own. But I knew nothing of the events described in this story. Eugene O'Neill was right—there is no present or future, only the past, over and over again.

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