An upcoming conference co-hosted by Boston College Law School will spotlight the only case in American legal history in which a Black family whose property was wrongfully dispossessed by government seizure had their land returned to them, albeit nearly a century later.

The two-day “Land Loss, Reparations, and Housing Policy” event will take place March 23 at Harvard Law School and March 24 at BC Law. Speakers will discuss the history and impact of Black land loss in areas such as housing inequality and unaffordability, as well as possible strategies and solutions to address the problem.

Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell (Caitlin Cunningham)

The conference is coordinated by BC Law Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Endowed Chair Thomas Mitchell, who serves as director of the recently launched Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights.

Highlighting the opening-night roundtable discussion will be an appearance by Sidley Austin LLP partner George C. Fatheree III, the Los Angeles-based lead attorney for the Bruce family, onetime owners of Manhattan Beach oceanfront property whose land—seized by eminent domain in 1924 by the city—was restored to them last year.

Characterized by The New York Times as a “model for how attempts might work to compensate Black Americans for centuries of economic oppression and enslavement,” the Bruce case has inspired social justice leaders and reparations activists to fight for other Black families whose ancestors were also victims of land theft. The other participants in the roundtable include members—among them Mitchell—of the Land Loss and Reparations Project, a multi-university research team that also includes two freelance investigative reporters.

The conference’s second day begins with a panel centering on the work of the Land Loss and Reparations Project, and in particular its conservatively estimated, $326-billion damage appraisal of the loss of Black-owned farmland between 1920 and 1997. The team’s economic harm estimate has generated substantial national media attention since it was published last spring.

Another panel, moderated by BC Law Professor Lisa T. Alexander, will focus on the “History of Boston’s Housing Inequality and Unaffordability,” and feature local practitioners with extensive knowledge of Boston neighborhood history that produced today’s disinvestment crisis, unaffordability, homelessness, and a lack of home ownership opportunities. Among others, Karilyn Crockett, assistant professor of urban history, public policy and planning at MIT, and author of the award-winning People Before Highways, will serve as a panelist.

The afternoon’s first panel, “Complementary Law & Policy Strategies to Redress Black Land Loss,” will explore ways to address systemic racial injustice with respect to Black property owners. Mitchell will address legislative reform initiatives designed to enhance property rights for Black and other disadvantaged Americans; Fatheree—also the day’s luncheon keynote speaker—will address various litigation strategies to address Black property loss; and Bryce Stucki, a member of the Land Loss and Reparations Project, will address administrative and regulatory reform proposals to improve civil rights oversight at the United States Department of Agriculture to decrease the discrimination many minority farmers still experience.

In the closing panel, “Priced Out: Housing Affordability Solutions,” also moderated by Alexander, Boston-area policy experts and advocates will discuss housing solutions, such as inclusionary zoning requirements, Community Preservation Act local enactment, rent control, tenants’ right to purchase, just-cause eviction, and MBTA zoning reform. In addition to the housing policy experts and advocates, Boston City Councilor Kendra Lara, representing Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and West Roxbury, will serve as a panelist.

Open to the public, the event is co-sponsored by BC Law’s Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights; the Harvard Law School Food Law & Policy Clinic; the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy at New York City’s New School; and BC’s Institute for the Liberal Arts.

Register to attend the event here.


Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | March 2023