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.”