In Mississippi as elsewhere in the South, a few African Americans acquired significant antebellum holdings, but the bulk of black landholdings were acquired after 1865. During the postbellum period, the number of African American landholders in Mississippi grew rapidly, with the state soon ranking near the top in both numbers and acreage. For a variety of reasons, however, black landownership declined over the second half of the twentieth century before rebounding in the twenty-first.
African Americans in different regions of the South acquired land differently. In Mississippi and the Lower South, African Americans who obtained land during the antebellum period typically benefited from piecemeal and complicated manumission and were often related to white plantation owners. Across the region by 1860 nearly one-third of freed black heads of families owned land totaling $3,166,000 of real estate.
In 1860 Mississippi had only seventeen rural black landowners, the second-fewest among states in the Lower South. Their holdings had a total value of approximately $45,100. By comparison, Louisiana’s 567 rural black landowners had holdings valued at $2,669,800. Mississippi and many other states passed laws that obstructed black ownership of real estate. In an 1859 case, Heirn v. Bridault and Wife, Mississippi’s courts held that free nonresident African Americans were considered alien enemies and therefore were incapable of receiving property within the state. Mississippi permitted African Americans who acquired their freedom in the state to own property, but freed African Americans from other states lacked that right, a provision that closed one avenue to property ownership; additional laws that limited the ways that African Americans could be freed within the state closed the other. In 1870 Mississippi had 1,600 black farm owners; two decades later, that number had grown to 11,526. At the turn of the twentieth century, Mississippi’s 20,973 black farm owners were outstripped only by Virginia’s 26,527. By 1950 Mississippi African Americans were full owners of 23,293 farms and part-owners of another 5,647 farms, with a total of 2,120,539 acres. After 1950, however, black owner-operator farms and acreage consistently decreased as a result of a variety of factors, among them racism, discrimination in lending and operating the enterprises, difficulties in adequate estate planning, transformations in the economic viability of small-scale agriculture, and demographic changes.
Small to medium-sized farms declined precipitously during the second half of the twentieth century. Since most black farms are small, most of the owners have been unable to capitalize on efficiencies of scale common in contemporary agricultural practices. Further, discriminatory lending and general difficulty in securing access to operating capital made expansion extremely difficult. Consequently, most of Mississippi’s black landowners found themselves unable to secure an adequate living on the land. It is likely that much of the black-owned farmland across the South and in Mississippi specifically is being rented out to white farmers. Such arrangements can provide owners with a modicum of income.
There is widespread agreement that African Americans have disproportionately lost land because of intestate transfer of property across generations. The typical legal mechanism used to distribute property among legal heirs treats them as tenants in common, allowing any individual to transfer his or her interest in the property. These individual interests are often extremely small, especially after multiple generations of intestate transfers. Each of these fractions of the total property can be sold or transferred as the owner sees fit, including to nonfamily members. Problems arise when an individual interest holder asks for his or her proportion of the physical property. Subdividing the property into multiple small yet equal parcels tends to be impossible. To settle such fractionated heir claims, forced sales of property often occur, with the proceeds divided according to percentage interest among the heirs. Many observers believe that at least some black-owned land has been lost when individuals familiar with the legal process have intentionally manipulated this form of ownership. According to this argument, whites who desire black-owned farmland identify heirs who no longer live in the area and purchase their interest in the property, force a sale, and then purchase the entirety of the property. Though this process is widely acknowledged to have occurred, there is disagreement about how often it has happened.
Complicating these problems, African American farmers in Mississippi and across the South have been victims of systematic discrimination and racism both in terms of their farming operations and as a matter of course in their daily lives. Perhaps most damaging, the US Department of Agriculture long discriminated against African American farmers, and black farmers sued the department in 1997. Pigford v. Glickman (1999) became the largest class-action civil rights settlement in the country’s history. The department admitted a history of discriminatory practices, particularly with regard to operating loans, and provided fifty-thousand-dollar payments to farmers who had their claims approved. In many cases, these payments amounted to too little, too late. Nevertheless, the number of African American farmers nationwide grew by 9 percent between 2002 and 2007 and another 9 percent over the next five years. In 2002, 5,145 of Mississippi’s 42,186 farm operators were African American; ten years later, 6,627 of 54,778 farm operators were African American. However, black Mississippians’ farms on average remain far smaller than those of their white counterparts.
- Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (2013)
- W. E. B. Du Bois, in Special Reports: Supplementary Analysis and Derivative Tables, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census (1906)
- Loren Schweninger, Agricultural History (Summer 1989)
- Charles S. Sydnor, American Historical Review (July 1927)
- US Commission on Civil Rights, The Decline of Black Farming in America: A Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights (1982)
- US Department of Agriculture, Census of Agriculture (2002, 2007, 2012)
- Spencer D. Wood and Jess Gilbert, Review of Black Political Economy (Spring 2000)