“This Land Was Our Land”

In The Atlantic’s September Issue, Vann R. Newkirk II reports the shameful story of how nearly 1 million black farmers were robbed of their livelihood.

In the decades since World War II, massive dispossession has destroyed black farming in America. An occupation that has defined the African American experience has nearly ceased to exist, as 98 percent of black agricultural landowners have lost their land since the 1950s, often under circumstances that amount to theft. Through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive—farmland owned by black people came into the hands of white people, who eventually sold to agribusiness, who eventually sold to Wall Street. Economists estimate that this robbery has resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps even trillions of dollars, of black wealth. For the September issue of The Atlantic, staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II investigates the shameful, as-yet-untold story—and its devastating, lasting consequences.

The cover story, “This Land Was Our Land,” is available now at The Atlantic, and will be available on newsstands next week.

Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic five years ago, Newkirk itemizes the racist policies and illegal pressures that resulted in black people owning almost nothing of the bounty beneath their feet. His deeply reported piece traces how much of the rich and productive Mississippi Delta soil came to be owned by one of the largest pension firms in the United States, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), and examines how black people living and working in the region have been completely uprooted. “For a people who were once considered chattel themselves, real property has carried an almost mystical importance. There’s a reason the fabled promise that spread among freedmen after the Civil War was not a check, a job, or a refundable tax credit, but 40 acres of farmland to call home,” Newkirk writes. “The history of the Delta suggests that any conversation about reparations might need to be more qualitative and intangible than it is. And it must consider the land.”

In more than a year of reporting, Newkirk found that much of the loss of black-owned farmland since the 1950s came through legal mechanisms—the tax sale, the partition sale, and the foreclosure. And yet, illegal pressures played a significant role, including discrimination in federal and state programs, swindles by lawyers and spectulators, unlawful denials of private loans, and even outright acts of violence or intimidation. “Mass dispossession did not require a central organizing force or a grand conspiracy,” Newkirk writes. “Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all pushed in one direction.”

As a result, much of the land that was once made up of small black-owned farms came to be owned by white farmers, who aggregated it into larger farms, and eventually sold it to corporations and funds, including TIAA. In just a few years, a single company has managed to accumulate a portfolio in the Delta almost equal to the remaining holdings of all the African Americans who have lived on and shaped the land for centuries. In Washington County, Mississippi, where in February TIAA reportedly bought 50,000 acres for more than $200 million, black people make up 72 percent of the population but own just 11 percent of the farmland. In Tunica County, where TIAA has acquired former plantations, black people are 77 percent of the population but own just 6 percent of farmland. Newkirk writes that 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,” but notes that “TIAA’s position is instrumental in understanding both how the crimes of Jim Crow have been laundered by time and how the legacy of ill-gotten gains have become a structural part of American life.”

Read “This Land Was Our Land” at The Atlantic. The September issue of the magazine appears on newsstands next week, with pieces continuing to publish across this week and next.


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Helen Tobin // The Atlantic