Black landowners, developers

Legal Battles And Land Rights: The Ongoing Struggle Of Black Landowners Against Developers

Over the years, Black landowners have fallen victim to property developers seeking to flip land.

As Black Americans inherit land, they are overwhelmed with pressure from developers to sell so that it may be repurposed.

Historically, Black Americans have been systematically threatened and harassed in an effort to force them to forfeit land ownership to developers. Others have been priced out of their homes, citing rising property taxes, according to AP News. This reality has led several Black people to lose their land, a significant source of generational wealth among families, NBC News reported. 

Some families have managed to preserve their proprietorship and have no plans of ever selling outside of their family, such as the Smith family. “We’ve established that if anyone wants to sell their property, they will do so to a sibling and not an outsider,” said Evelyn S. Booker, who, alongside her seven siblings, inherited a 60-acre plot of land from their mother, Esther Smith Morse. 

Though the Smiths have covered all legal avenues to ensure that the land remains within their family, their avid refusal has not deterred developers with hopes of transforming the occupied mass of land into a viable real estate investment or other plans. And, as it turns out, this is a similar tale for other Black landowners. 

Last year, the late Josephine Wright, 93, resided in Hilton Head Island, SC on land that had been in her family for generations. In Feb. 2023, developer Bailey Point Investment Group filed a lawsuit attempting to coerce Wright into selling the land so that the company could erect a 147-unit residential subdivision. What ensued was a lengthy legal battle between the two parties, which gained traction across the country and garnered the attention of major celebrities such as Tyler Perry, Snoop Dogg, and more. “I don’t want to say anything that can be used against me, but I think they are unscrupulous and greedy, and they want all the property they can get their hands on,” Wright told WSAV in June 2023 about the development company.

According to NBC News, this is an all too common reality for many Black Americans who do not have access to resources to protect themselves against developers, partially due to informal ownership arrangements caused by a distrust of the government and legal systems. However, some programs are helping Black families preserve their property rights. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation is a South Carolina-based non-profit providing legal education and direct legal services for needy families. With guidance from assistant professor of agriculture, economics, and sociology at Auburn University in Alabama, Ryan Thomson, the Southern Rural Development Center also helps inheritors get their affairs to maintain legal ownership of their homes. 

Still, as many Black families struggle to navigate the legal expectations of proprietorship – unclear deeds and titles, inaccurate or poorly detailed family records, and no wills – development companies have continued their practices to ensnare vulnerable Black landowners.

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