Special to the Democrat by John Zippert, Co-Publisher
Over 200 interested participants attended the first National Heirs Property Conference in Atlanta, Georgia at the Airport Embassy Suites Hotel from December 4-6, 2019. The conference was co-sponsored by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, the nation’s foremost organization of Black farmers and landowners.
The two-day conference was divided into two tracks, one for landowners with heir property issues and one for community-based practioners working on land issues, government agency staff, lawyers and other professionals.
Heir property is land that is held in common by a number of family owners, when the original owners die without making a will and describing the way the land is to be passed down. More than half of the 3 million acres of farmland owned by Black families in the South is now owned in this way. Agricultural economists and other academic and professional experts suggest that this is a $2 billion problem facing the Black community in the South.
The greatest problems with heir property come when there are family disputes on the best use of the land. In some cases, a family member may sell their undivided interest to someone outside the family, allowing that person to petition the courts for a “partition sale.”
The courts will order a public sale on the courthouse steps, which often results in the sale and loss of the land to the family for less than its true value.
Heirs property and partition sales have contributed to the loss of Black land ownership in the South from 15 million acres in 1920 to 6 million in 1960 and now 3 million in 2019. Since the Civil Rights Movement, heirs property and partition sales have led to the loss of over 2 million acres of Black owned land in the South.
The owners of heir property also have problems accessing commercial bank loans and Federal USDA credit, conservation and other programs because they cannot show clear title for purposes of leveraging the land for loans and program services. The Federation working with other organizations was able to enact changes in the 2018 Farm Bill which provide a path and alternative forms of documentation to provide access to USDA programs and resources for families with land in heir property status.
The 2018 Farm Bill also includes authorization of a $10 million a year program of relending to community based organizations to provide loan assistance to families who need financial help to clear titles and use their land in the most suitable and productive ways.
Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation and Attorney Monica Rainge, Director of the Federation’s Land Retention Program convened the program and discussed the importance of the issue of heir property to the continuing community and cooperative development goals of the Federation. They also showed a video from Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, who championed getting the section providing assistance to heir property landholders into the Federal legislation.
Cornelius Blanding introduces the opening panel and had a dialogue with them on the context, history and implications of the heir property land issue on Black families.
Attorney Faya Rose Toure (Sanders) of Selma, who conducted a seminal heir property study for USDA in the 1980’s spoke on the significance of the loss of Black land coming out of slavery. She spoke on the need to curtail petition sales and deal with the root causes of the problem in racism and White Supremacy.
She said she hoped the conference would look at “land reparations” as one of the solutions to the broader problems of Black land loss and wealth inequality in the country.
Charles O. Prejean, first Executive Director of the Federation, who lives in Atlanta, spoke about the Federation’s long term view of the helping people to hold on to their land and develop cooperatives as a way of using it for beneficial progress and community betterment. He spoke to the history of the Federation’s merger with the Emergency Land Fund in 1985 to further these common agendas.Wendell H. Paris, who was the Federation’s first staff member to live and work on the land in Epes, Alabama, reminded everyone, “That land is the basis of all wealth.” He spoke about some of the Federation’s early history in dealing with land retention.
Jerry Pennick, who helped start the Emergency Land Fund and worked for many years after the 1985 merger as Director of Land Retention commented on his work with Rose on the heirs property land study. He observed that the USDA has been very slow to respond meaningfully to this problem and hoped that the government will move more swiftly to implement the new provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill.
John Zippert, who retired after fifty years of work with the Federation, highlighted the work of the Federation with the Panola Land Buying Association (PLBA) in saving 1300 acres of land in Sumter County, Alabama, where the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center is located.
The second day’s plenary session featured a talk by Gary Black, Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture, on the importance of land ownership and agricultural and forestry development to the state,
The remainder of the two-day meeting was spent in parallel tracks. The more than 100 landowners present were in Track 1, dealing with the problems and issues of heir property, how to develop a family tree to account for all of the heirs, the Uniform Heir Property Petition Act, a uniform piece of state legislation adopted by 13 states, which assists heir property owners clarify title and basics of a succession plan. On the second day, landowners heard various strategies to help utilize their land in the most productive and profitable ways.
In the estate planning section of the workshop, landowners were introduced to the idea of forming a family trust, corporation, LLC or other means to own the land in a legal structure that separates the ownership from the individuals but allows for collective and democratic decisions about its use and benefits for the family. The Federation is working with many families to institute these progressive solutions to the problems of heir property.
The community-based practioners examined many of these same issues in their parallel track and discussed ways to marshal resources too assist landowners with these problems.
At the evaluation session at the end of the program, many of the landowners expressed appreciation for the information and learning provided by the Conference. Several participants expressed that they were leaving with hope that they could work on and help to resolve their family heir property problems.
Attorney Monica Rainge, Conference Coordinator said, “This is the beginning, not the end of this process. This Conference was to give you some suggestions and a direction, for you to return home and work on your heir property issues. The Federation is ready to continue working with you and help you find options and solutions. We will be planning future conferences and events about this problem.
Special to the Democrat by John Zippert, Co-Publisher