The fight for Black land
“Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land,” a new documentary film executive produced by Al Roker Entertainment and which features Boston College Law Professor Thomas W. Mitchell, privately debuted at the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on June 12. Mitchell and BC Law Dean Odette Lienau were among the attendees.
Written, directed and co-produced by Eternal Polk, a two-time Emmy nominated director, writer, and segment producer, the 90-minute documentary film explores the legacy of Black farming in America, land use and loss, challenges and solutions to so-called heir’s property, and how landowners are reclaiming their agricultural rights and creating paths to generational wealth.
According to attendees, the audience erupted with applause when the film revealed that more than 20 states have enacted into law a model statute, principally drafted by Mitchell, that helps Black farmers and landowners, and other disadvantaged property owners, to maintain their property.
“Black land loss has had devastating multigenerational impacts across the country, and this extraordinary documentary sheds light on how seemingly technical legal matters can have reverberating consequences,” said Odette Lienau, the Marianne D. Short, Esq., dean and professor of Law at Boston College Law School. “I was deeply moved when watching the stories of family land shared in “Gaining Ground,” and I am so proud of Professor Mitchell's essential scholarship and advocacy in the area. It offers a sober reminder of the ways that law can oppress and subvert opportunity and community—but also can be used to redress those wrongs in some way—and BC Law is deeply committed to supporting this important work.”
“Post slavery, Black Americans owned at least 16 million acres of farmland, but today, approximately just four million acres is owned by African Americans. Various tactics were employed to seize Black-owned land, ranging from violence and eminent domain to government discrimination, however, it’s a little-known property rule—the partition law governing many disputes involving heir’s property—which has had a devastating impact on Black land ownership.”
Mitchell, director of the recently launched Initiative on Land, Housing and Property Rights at BC Law, served as a member of the Land Loss and Reparations Project that published a 2022 report which conservatively estimated a $326-billion damage appraisal of the loss of Black-owned farmland between 1920-1997. He also coordinated a highly successful two-day conference co-hosted by BC Law and Harvard titled “Land Loss, Reparations, and Housing Policy” in March.
“Post slavery, Black Americans owned at least 16 million acres of farmland, but today, approximately just four million acres is owned by African Americans,” said Mitchell, the Robert F. Drinan, S.J. Endowed Chair, and a 2020 MacArthur fellow. “Various tactics were employed to seize Black-owned land, ranging from violence and eminent domain to government discrimination, however, it’s a little-known property rule—the partition law governing many disputes involving heir’s property—which has had a devastating impact on Black land ownership.”
Heir’s property consists of land that’s usually passed from one generation to the next without a will, estate plan, or some other legal document proving ownership. Beyond the inability to build on or develop the land, landowners must obtain the approval of all relatives before selling, mortgaging, using, or managing it in some substantial way. They’re also prevented from loan access, disaster relief, access to property rehabilitation, repair loans and grants, and other benefits at the federal, state and local level. Furthermore, developers can seize the land through court-ordered sales.
"Gaining Ground: The Fight For Black Land" has already won two prestigious awards: Best Documentary at the recent Filmteenth International Film Festival in Bethesda, Maryland; and the Jury Prize for Feature Documentary at Essence Film Festival in New Orleans.
The film, which is slated for public showings at numerous film festivals throughout the summer and fall—including at the recent American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach in June and the Essence Film Festival in New Orleans in July—is underwritten by Deere & Company.
Mitchell also appears in the CBS Reports documentary titled “40 Acres and a Mule,” released on June 22. The film’s title symbolizes the broken promise that Reconstruction policies would offer economic justice for African Americans.
As the Civil War wound down, Union leaders gathered Black ministers in Savannah, Ga., with the goal of helping the thousands of newly freed slaves; Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 resulted, which allocated land along the Southeast coast so that “each family shall have a plot of not more than 40 acres of tillable ground.” Although not included in the command, some families also received leftover Army mules, hence the signature phrase: “40 acres and a mule.” After President Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s order, returning the land to its former Confederate owners, leaving many African-Americans with few options but to become sharecroppers, often working for former slaveholders.
Find information about screenings of "Gaining Ground" at the film's website.