Heirs’ Property

It has been widely reported that African Americans own less land today than in the beginning of the 20th century. Two recent articles that do an excellent job of highlighting issues that have contributed to the decline of black-owned land are: “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery,” written by journalist Lizzie Presser, which appeared in the July 15th edition of ProPublica; and the other is “The Great Land Robbery,” written by journalist Vann R Newkirk II, published in the September 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Presser documents the Reel brother’s efforts to prevent developers from taking ownership of a section of family land purchased by their great-grandfather and passed down without a legal will. NewKirk’s article highlights a range of obstacles, including government policy, that have led to a drastic decline of black land ownership in the Deep South.

As highlighted in Presser’s story, a leading cause of black land loss is inherited land that is recognized as heirs’ property. This term refers to land informally passed down by a landowner to descendants without a written will. In this case, the descendants become co-owners and cannot apply for USDA loans to support farming endeavors or for disaster relief funding. According to estimates, roughly 30% of land owned by African Americans in the South is heirs’ property. However, this fall, both the House and Senate passed the FY 2020 Agriculture Appropriations Amendment #1067, which was introduced by Alabama Senator Doug Jones and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

The following article about the bill and an explanation of Heirs’ Property is posted at scott.senate.gov:

Monday | October 28, 2019

Scott Applauds Passage of Heirs’ Property Amendment

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture. This amendment would appropriate funds for the Secretary to implement the pilot project for USDA to provide loans to help resolve heirs’ property issues. The amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 91-1.

Heirs’ property overwhelmingly impacts African-American land ownership, and in turn, prevents many farmers and ranchers from obtaining farm numbers and subsequent access to a multitude of USDA programs,” said Senator Scott. “I want to thank my colleague Senator Jones for working with me on this issue and this legislation. I am excited that our legislation took a step forward today and am hopeful that this will positively impact heirs’ property owners across South Carolina and the nation.”


Heirs’ property refers to land that has been informally passed down within families, oftentimes for several generations, which often leads to legal complications and prevents landowners from qualifying for federal assistance. Sens. Scott and Jones introduced the Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act (S.3117) last year, and it was included in the 2018 Farm Bill. Details on the bill can be found here.

In the coming months, I will post what I learn about how and when the funds will be made available.


“Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery” (features.propublica.org)

“The Great Land Robbery” (theatlantic.com)

Three organizations that assist with heirs’ property issues:

Land Loss Prevention Project (landloss.org)

Center for Heirs Property (heirsproperty.org)

Georgia Heirs’ Property Law Center (www.gahersproperty.org)

Published by will atwater

I'm a documentarian and my latest project is focused on the history of African Americans in agriculture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: