EP 4: Black Land Loss

What Happened in Alabama Podcast

EP 4: Black Land Loss

Around 1910, Black farmers collectively owned over 16 million acres of farmland. A century later, over 90% of that land is no longer owned by Black farmers. In Lee’s own family, the acquisition and loss of land has been a contentious issue for nearly every generation, sometimes leading to tragic circumstances. In this episode, Lee heads back to Alabama to meet his cousin Zollie, a longtime steward of the family land, to learn more.

Lee is later joined by Jillian Hishaw, an agricultural lawyer and author, who has devoted her life to helping Black families keep their land. They discuss the tumultuous history of Black land ownership and what Black families should do to keep land in the family.


Lee Hawkins (host): We wanted to give a heads up that this episode includes talk of abuse and acts of violence. You can find resources on our website whathappenedinalabama.org. Listener discretion is advised.

Hi, this is Lee Hawkins, and we’re about to dive into episode four of What Happened In Alabama. It’s an important conversation about the history of land in Black communities – how it was acquired, how it was taken, lost, and sometimes given away, over the past century – but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you go back and listen to the prologue first. That’ll give you some context for putting the whole series in perspective. Do that, and then join us back here. Thank you so much.

[music starts]

Around 1910, Black farmers collectively owned over 16 million acres of farmland. A century later, 90% of that land is no longer in the hands of Black farmers. Economists estimate that the value of land lost is upwards of 300 billion dollars.

This is an issue that’s personal for me. There were large successful farms on both sides of my family that we no longer own, or only own a fraction of now. How we became separated from our land is part of the trauma and fear that influenced how my parents raised me. I want to get to the heart of what happened and why. That’s the goal of this episode.

I’m Lee Hawkins, and this is conversation number four, What Happened In Alabama: The Land.

Zollie: I may not have money in my pocket. But if I have that land, that is of value. That is my – my kids can fall back on this land, they'll have something.

That’s Zollie Owens. He’s my cousin on my dad’s side, and Uncle Ike’s great-grandson. Zollie lives in Georgiana, Alabama, not far from Uncle Ike’s farm.

Uncle Ike is a legend in my family. He was my Grandma Opie’s brother, and very much the patriarch of the family until he passed in 1992. I only met him once, back in 1991 when my family drove down to Alabama. But his name and presence have held a larger-than-life place in my psyche ever since.

Zollie: And so that was instilled in me back then from watching Uncle Ike and my uncles, his sons, do all that work on that land.

For the first time since my visit with my family in 1991, we’re headed back there. Zollie’s lived his whole life in this town. It’s where he played and worked on the farm as a kid, where he got married, and where he raised his family. And because Uncle Ike had such an influence on him, he’s made working and farming the land his life. I would say that out of all my cousins, the land is the most important to him. And that was instilled in him through Uncle Ike.

Zollie: This man. I don't know if he was perfect, but he was perfect to me. I didn't see him do anything wrong from my understanding. And reason being, because whenever he said something, it generally come to pass.

He was extremely respected and well-liked. So much so that years after his death, his impact is still felt.

Zollie: I have favor off of his name now today. When they found out that I'm his grandson, I get favor off of his name because of who he was. And that’s not for me to just go out and tear his name down, but it’s to help keep up his name.

Lee: Oh, that was one thing that was mentioned about credit – that way back in the day he had incredible credit around the town. That even his kids, that they would say, “Oh, you're Ike's kids. You don't have to pay. Pay me tomorrow,” or whatever, [laughter] which was a big deal then, because Black people didn't get credit a lot of times. Black people were denied credit just based on the color of their skin. But he seems to have been a very legendary figure around this town.

Zollie: Being amenable, being polite, speaking to people, talking to ’em about my granddad and everything. And so once I do that, they get the joy back, remembering, reminiscing how good he was to them – Black and white.

[music starts]

Cousin Zollie spent a lot of time at Uncle Ike’s when he was a kid. Like all my cousins who knew Uncle Ike, he had fond memories of him.

Zollie: He passed when I was like 12 or 13, but I remember him sitting me in my lap or sitting on the shoulder of the chair and he would say, “Man, the Lord gonna use you one day, the Lord gonna use you. You smart, you're gonna be a preacher one day.”

And like so many of the men in my family, Zollie is very active in the church. In fact, he became a preacher, and even started a gospel group. And he’s preached at Friendship Baptist, where the funeral services for my Grandma Opie were held.

We bonded over both growing up in the music ministry, listening to our elders singing those soul-stirring hymnals they’d sing every Sunday.

Lee: And now, of course, they didn't even, I realize that a lot of times they weren't even singing words. They were just humming –

Zollie: Just humming.

Lee: You know?

Zollie: Oh yes.

Lee: And then the church would do the call and response. And the way that that worked, somebody would just say [singing], "One of these days, it won't be long," you know, and then –

Zollie: [singing] “You're gonna look for me, and I'll be gone.”

Lee: Yup.


[Lee humming]

[Zollie singing]

Lee: Yeah.

[Zollie singing]

Lee: Yeah.

[Lee laughs]

Uncle Ike owned a 162-acre farm in Georgiana. Zollie and his wife took me back to visit it. The farm is no longer in the family, but the current owner, Brad Butler, stays in touch with Zollie, and he invited us to come and check out the property.

Zollie: There was a lot of pecan trees, which he planted himself.

Kyana: These are all pecans?

Brad: Yup, these are pecans. These are, the big ones are pecans. That’s a pear.

Zollie’s wife: And that’s a pear, okay.

Brad: Yeah.

Lee: Did he plant that too?

Zollie: Which one?

Lee: The pecans?

Zollie: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.

Brad: But now, come here. Let me, let me show you this pear tree. This pear tree will put out more pears than any tree you’ve ever seen in your life.

Lee: Oh, yeah?

Brad: Yup, there'll be a thousand pears on this tree.

These are all trees Uncle Ike planted decades ago. It was an active farm up to the 1980s – and a gathering place for family and so many other people in the region.

The property is split up in two sides by a small road. One one side is where all the pecan and peach trees are. The other side has a large pond about twice the length of a pro basketball court. Beyond that, it’s all woods.

[walking sounds]

As we walk, I look down at the ground beneath my feet at the red soil that many associate with Alabama and other parts of the deep south. It’s a bright red rust color, and it’s sticky. There’s no way to avoid getting it all over and staining your shoes.

Lee: Why is the dirt so red here?

Zollie: It's been moved in.

Lee: Okay.

Zollie: The red dirt has been moved in for the road purpose –

Lee: I see.

Zollie: It get hardened. And it is hard like a brick, where you can drive on it. The black dirt doesn't get hard. It's more ground for growing, and it won't be hard like a brick.

Zollie’s referring to what’s underneath this red clay that makes the land so valuable: the rich, fertile soil that makes up the Black Belt – a stretch of land across the state that was prime soil for cotton production. This land wasn’t just valuable for all the ways it offered sustenance to the family, but also for everything it cost them, including their blood.

When I was 19 years old, I found out that Uncle Ike’s father, my great-great-grandfather, Isaac Pugh Senior, was murdered.

Isaac Pugh Senior was born before emancipation in 1860, the son of an enslaved woman named Charity. His father remains a mystery, but since Isaac was very fair-skinned, we suspect he was a white man. And the genealogy experts I’ve worked with explained that the 18% of my DNA that’s from whites from Europe, mainly Wales, traces back to him and Grandma Charity.

The way it was told to me the one time I met Uncle Ike, is that Isaac Pugh Senior lived his life unapologetically. He thrived as a hunter and a trapper, and he owned his own farm, his own land, and his own destiny. And that pissed plenty of white folks off.

In 1914, when he was 54 years old, Isaac was riding his mule when a white man named Jack Taylor shot him in the back. The mule rode his bleeding body back to his home. His young children were the first to see him. I called my dad after one of my Alabama trips, to share some of the oral history I’d gotten from family members.

Lee: When he ran home, her and Uncle Ike and the brothers and sisters that were home, they ran out. And they saw their father shot full of buckshot in his back.

Lee Sr.: Mm mm mm. Mm hm.

Lee: They pulled him off the horse and he was 80% dead, and he died, he died later that night.

Lee Sr.: With them? Wow.

Lee: Yeah.

Soon after Isaac died, the family was threatened by a mob of white people from around the area, and they left the land for their safety. Someone eventually seized it, and without their patriarch, the family never retrieved the land and just decided to start their lives over elsewhere.

Knowing his father paid a steep price for daring to be an entrepreneur and a landowner, Uncle Ike never took land ownership for granted. He worked hard and eventually he bought his own 162-acre plot, flanked by beautiful ponds and acres upon acres of timber.


Over four years of interviews, Dad and I talked a lot about the murder of Isaac Pugh Senior. Uncle Ike told us about it during that visit in 1991, but years passed before I saw anything in writing about the murder.

Before that, I’d just been interviewing family members about what they’d heard. And their accounts all matched up. For years, some family members interested in the story had even gone down to the courthouse in Greenville to find the records. On one visit, the clerk looked up at one of my cousins and said, “Y’all still lookin’ into that Ike Pugh thing? Y’all need to leave that alone.” But they never gave up.

Then, I found something in the newspaper archive that would infuse even more clarity into the circumstances surrounding the murder of my great-grandfather Ike Senior. It brought me deeper into What Happened In Alabama, and the headline was as devastating as it was liberating.

There it was, in big, block letters, in the Montgomery Advertiser: WHITE FARMER SHOOTS NEGRO IN THE BACK. The shooting happened in 1914, on the same day as my birthday.

It read: “Ike Pew, a negro farmer living on the plantation of D. Sirmon, was shot and killed last night by a white farmer named Jack Taylor. An Angora goat belonging to Mr. Taylor got into the field of Pew and was killed by a child of Pew. This is said to be the reason Taylor shot the Negro. The Negro was riding a mule when he received a load of buckshot in his back.”

My dad was surprised to hear all the new details. Grandma Opie herself only told Dad that he’d died in a hunting accident.

Lee: Do you realize that when your mom's father was killed, she was nine?

Lee Sr.: She was nine?

Lee: She was nine. And she never told you that her dad was killed?

Lee Sr.: Well, let me think about that. My sisters told me that. Not my mom. My mom didn't talk about anything bad to me.

I asked Zollie about Isaac, and if he ever remembers Uncle Ike talking about his father’s murder.

Zollie: No, I never heard that story. No, no, never. Not that I can remember him mentioning it. No sir.

I can't say that I'm surprised by this answer. By now, I’ve seen how so many of our elders kept secrets from the younger generations, because they really didn't want to burden us with their sorrow. But I couldn’t help but think, “If these trees could talk.”

Walking around the family property, I feel the weight of history in the air. To me, that history makes the land valuable beyond a deed or dollar amount.

Uncle Ike’s farm is no longer in the family. It wasn’t taken violently the way his father’s farm was, but it fell victim to something called Heir’s Property, which as I realized talking to Zollie, can be just as heartbreaking and economically damaging to generations of Black landowners.

Zollie: I may not have money in my pocket. But if I have that land that is of value, that is money.

[music starts]

When Zollie was younger, he lived on part of Uncle Ike’s land and he paid lot rent every month. When Uncle Ike passed in 1992, he had a will. In it, he left the land to his living children, but it wasn’t clear how it should be divided up. His son, Pip, was the only one living on the land, so that’s who Zollie paid rent to. But when he died, there was no documentation to prove that Zollie had been paying rent.

Zollie: And so when it came up in court, I did not have no documentation, no legal rights to it.

After the death of a property owner, and without proper estate plans, land often becomes “heirs property,” which means that the law directs that the land is divided among descendents of the original owners. The law requires “heirs” to reach a group consensus on what to do with the land. They inherit the responsibility of legal fees to establish ownership, property fees, and any past debt.

Zollie wanted to keep the land in the family. He was ready to continue farming on it as he had been for 17 years. But some other family members weren’t interested. Many had long left Georgiana and the country life for Birmingham or larger cities up north, like my father and his sisters. Some didn’t want to take on the responsibilities of maintaining the land.

Zollie: The part of the land that I was living on, on the Pugh family estate, it got sold out from up under me. I could have never dreamt of anything like that was gonna happen to me. Where I would have to move off the family land. The family didn't come together. They couldn't even draw me up a deed to take over the spot I was on.

In the South today, “heirs property” includes about 3.5 million acres of land – valued at 28 billion dollars. Heirs property laws have turned out to be one of the biggest factors contributing to the loss of Black family land in America. It’s devastating not just for the loss of acreage but the loss of wealth, because when the court orders a sale of the land, it’s not sold on the market, it’s sold at auction, usually for much less than it’s worth.

Brad: When this thing sold at auction, Hudson Hines bought it, and they cut the timber.

That’s Brad Butler again. He bought Uncle Ike’s farm at auction in 2015.

Brad: And we were just gonna buy it, kind of fix it up a little bit and then sell it and go do something else.

Towards the end of our tour, my cousin Zollie turns to Brad and makes him an offer.

Zollie: You know, some of the family, like myself and Mr. Lee, want to get together and make you an offer. Would you be willing to sell?

Brad shakes his head and points to his son, who's been hanging out with us on the tour of the land.

Brad: Not right now. Now right now. This is, this is his. And we've done so much trying to get it ready.

It’s his land, he says. His son’s. It’s heartbreaking to hear, but I didn’t expect any different. It makes me think about Uncle Ike and if he ever thought things would pan out this way. After the property tour with Brad, Zollie invited me over to his house, where I asked him how he thinks Uncle Ike would feel.

Zollie: He would be disappointed. That just the way, my memories of it and the way he, he did, I believe he would be disappointed. I really would.

Lee: And he did the right thing in his heart by leaving the land and putting everybody's name on it. But then that ended up making it harder –

Zollie: Yes.

Lee: Right, and I don't quite understand that, but, because everybody's name was on it, then everybody had to agree. If he would have left it to one person, then you could have all, that person could have worked it out. Is that how –

Zollie: Yes, that is correct.

Lee: The law works?

Zollie: And then when the daughters and the sons, when they all passed, it went down to their children. And that meant more people had a hand in it now and everybody wanted their share, their portion of it. Because they're not used to the country living it, it didn't mean anything to ’em. It was just land.

Lee: So it sounds like a generational thing.

Zollie: Yes.

Lee: And especially if you're, not only if you're not used to the country living, but if you didn't grow up there –

Zollie: If you didn't grow up there.

Lee: And you didn't really know Daddy Ike.

Zollie: Mm hm.

Lee: Is that also –

Zollie: Yep.

Lee: A factor?

Zollie: I can see that. Yes.

Lee: Okay.

Zollie: Oh yes.

Lee: Man, this is so interesting because it happens in so many families –

Zollie: It does.

Lee: Across the country. It really does. And this land out here more and more, it’s getting more and more valuable.

Zollie: Oh yes. It's just rich. Some parts of it is sand, but a lot of part – and it’s, the stories that I've been told, Bowling is up under a lake. There’s a lake flowing up under Bowling.

Lee: Oh.

Zollie: That's why it's so wet all the time in Bowling, and it is good for growing because the ground stays wet.

That wet ground is fueling an agricultural economy that so many Black farmers – like my cousin – have been shut out of. It’s enough to turn people away from farming altogether. I couldn’t imagine being a farmer, but Zollie wasn’t deterred. After leaving Uncle Ike’s land, he and his wife purchased a plot and built a house on it in 2021. It’s on the edge of Georgiana, six miles away from Uncle Ike’s old farm. It’s a four-bedroom, three-bath brick home which sits on three acres Zollie owns. He said it was important for him to own so that he could leave something behind – and he’s already talked with his children in detail about succession planning.

Lee: What I love about you is that you are one of the people who stayed.

Zollie: Yes.

Lee: And you are our connection to the past, which we desperately need. Because I think a lot of people feel like, ‘Well, where would I work in Georgiana,’ ‘Where would I work in Greenville?’ And then they end up leaving and then they lose that connection. And I think a lot of us have lost the connection, but you're still here with a farm. What does it mean to have land and to have a farm? What does it mean to you? What's the significance to you?

Zollie: My kids can fall back on this land. They'll have something. Like when it comes to getting this house. My land helped me get my house built this way. And so I thank God for that.

[music starts]

I’m so glad that I was able to sit with my cousin Zollie and hear his story. Growing up in a suburb outside of a major city, the importance of land was never really impressed upon me. In some ways it felt regressive to make your living with your hands, but I understand so much clearer now how powerful it is to be connected to the land in that way. Imagine how independent you must feel to be so directly tied to the fruits of your labor – there’s no middleman, no big corporation, and no one lording over you. When you have land, you have freedom. What must that freedom have felt like for the newly emancipated in the late 1800s? And how did it become such a threat that in the past century, Black people would lose over 90% of the farmland they once owned?

Jillian: Land is power, because you not only own the soil, but, it's mineral rights, you know, which is what my family have, you know, is airspace. You know, you own everything when you, when you own acreage.

These are some of the questions that led me to Jillian Hishaw. She’s an agricultural lawyer with over 20 years of experience helping Black families retain their land. She previously worked in the civil rights enforcement office of the US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, and she founded a non-profit called FARMS that provides technical and legal assistance to small farmers. She’s also the author of four books including Systematic Land Theft which was released in 2021.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we talked about the history of Black farmland, how it was gained and how it was lost, and what people misunderstand about Black farmers in this country.

Lee: I mean, you've done so much. What drew you to this work?

Jillian: My family history. My grandfather was raised on a farm in Muskogee, Oklahoma. And when they relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, which is where I was born and raised, my great-grandmother moved up several years later, and they hired a lawyer to pay the property tax on our 160-acre farm. Our land was sold in a tax lien sale without notice being given to my grandfather or my great-grandmother. And so where my grandfather's house is, there's an oil pump going up and down because the land had known oil deposits. So that's why I do what I do.

Lee: Okay. And I mean, wow, that, that is just such a familiar narrative. It sounds like this is a pervasive issue across the Black community –

Jillian: Yes.

Lee: How did Black people come to acquire farmland in this country? And when was the peak of Black land ownership?

Jillian: Yes. So the peak was definitely in 1910. According to census data and USDA census data, we owned upwards to 16 to 19 million acres, and we acquired it through sharecropping. Some families that I've worked with were actually given land by their former slaveholders and some purchased land.

Lee: Wow. Okay. And that dovetails with an interview that I did with my uncle in 1991 who told me that in his area of Alabama, Black people owned 10 to 15,000 acres of land. And when he told us that, we thought, ‘Well, he's old, and he probably just got the number wrong.’ But it sounds that that's true. It sounds like Black people in various parts of the country could own tens of thousands of acres of land collectively.

Jillian: Yes, yes, I know that for a fact in Alabama because I finished up school at Tuskegee University. So yes that is accurate. Your uncle was correct.

Lee: Okay. And when and how did many of these families lose the land?

Jillian: So the majority of land was lost after 1950. So between 1950 and 1975, we lost about half a million Black farms during that time. The primary reason why it was lost in the past was due to census data and then also record keeping. With the census data, they would state, ‘Oh, well, this farmer stated in his census paperwork that he owned 100 acres.’ But then the recorder would drop a zero. Things of that nature. And so also courthouses would be burned. So let's take Texas, for example. There were over 106 courthouse fires. And a lot of those records, you know, were destroyed. Now, ironically, often during those courthouse burnings, the white landowners’ records were preserved and, you know, magically found. But the Black landowners' records were completely destroyed, and they have no record of them to this day. Now, the primary reasons for the present land loss is predatory lending practices by US Department of Agriculture. Also, lack of estate planning.

Lee: So for our family in particular, I mean, I never really understood the heirs property and how that ended up causing our family to have to, you know, get rid of the land or sell the land. Can you tell me about heirs property? What is it and why has it disproportionately affected Black landowners?

Jillian: So over 60% of Black-owned land is heirs property, and the legal term is “tenants in common.” But, you know, most Black folk call it heirs property. And heirs property begins when a, traditionally a married couple will own the land outright in their names. And so it'll be Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. And if they don't have a will and they die, what's called intestate, and they die without a will, the state takes over your “estate distribution.” And when I say estate, that's all of your assets that make up your estate. So your property, your house, your car, your jewelry, your clothes, everything. And the state will basically say, ‘Okay, well, since you died without a will, then all of your living heirs will share equally,’ you know, ‘ownership in whatever you left’ in, you know, with Black farm families, that was the land, that was the homestead, that was the house.

And so say Mr. and Mrs. Wilson pass away without a will, and they have 10 kids, and then those 10 have 100 kids and so forth and so on. And so, you know, five generations later, there's 300, you know, people that own, you know, 100-acre, you know, or 200-acre farm outright. And if one of those 200 heirs sells to a third party, oftentimes it's some distant cousin in LA or Pennsylvania for whatever reason, and they just sell their rights, to a developer often, that developer basically takes the place of that, you know, third cousin in LA.

And they'll go around, like in the, you know, the Bessemer case in South Carolina, and they'll, you know, get another third cousin in San Francisco and in, you know, Arizona and in Houston and then they'll go to the court and they'll force the sale of the remaining, you know, 195 heirs because 200 were owners in what's called a court partition sale. And that's how we lose 30,000 acres each year so fast, so quick.

Lee: Wow. And this is exactly, very similar to what happened to my cousin Zollie. I mean he was just heartbroken, because he didn’t have the money to do it himself. And so he ended up getting some other land, but it was really hard for him. People talk about this in the context of saying, “We lost the land.” But there are others who might say, “Well, you didn't lose the land. You sold the land because you couldn't come to an agreement.” Is this a strategic way to wrestle land away from families?

Jillian: Yes. In, in part. But, you know, Black people also have to accept responsibility. You know, I, I've tried years to get families to agree. I mean, you know, you have to come to some agreement. You can’t just, you know, bicker about stuff that happened in 1979. I mean, you have to get past your own differences within your family. And that’s part of the problem. And the families need to come together to conserve their land. Because, you know, I'll tell you right now, if my family had it any other way, we would come together to get our land back.

I have taught workshops and written books. You know, I've written about four or five different books, and families have taken those books, you know, attended the workshops, and they've cleared their deed, you know, and it's heirs property. And so what I'm saying is that it can work. And I wish more families would, would do that because I've seen it work.

Lee: We definitely don't want to take a victim mentality, but the legacy of white supremacy in this country sort of positions us to have tense relationships, because there's a lot of unaddressed things that happen, and there are a lot of secrets that are kept.


Lee: Tell me about the clashes over land between whites and Blacks. What did they look like, especially in the period following the Civil War?

Jillian: So during Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction, we all know about the “40 acres and a mule” program and how, you know, within a year the land was given and then taken back. But there were landowners, particularly Black, of course, that got to keep the land, and some were located in South Carolina, primarily South Carolina, Georgia, and a few areas in Alabama.

Of course, there were clashes with, particularly when the patriarch passed away, similar to to your ancestors. Whites would go to the land and force the Black mother and wife off of the land, and they would set the house on fire and just force them to, to get off the land.

When she shared those details, I thought back to the family members who told me about Isaac Pugh’s wife and my great-grandmother, Ella Pugh, and the horrifying situation she found herself in, with more than a dozen kids, a murdered husband, and a mob of men on horses coming by every night, screaming for them to leave. That’s the part of this story that the newspaper article didn’t contain. Uncle Ike said, “They were jealous of him.” He talked about Taylor, too, but also about a band of whites that he believed were working with him. The news reports said the murder was about livestock, but according to Uncle Ike, it was about land. The assaults on my family and many others were orchestrated, and institutional. And the attacks on Black landowners wasn’t just about one white man resenting a Black man. The damage was often done by groups of people, and institutions, including government agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture.

Lee: What was the impact of Jim Crow on Black land loss?

Jillian: Well, it was definitely impactful. You know, again, going back to the, 1950 to 1975, half a million farms were lost during that time, and the equivalent now is 90%. We've lost 90% of the 19 million acres that we owned. You know, according to the 1910 census data. And, a lot of that is due to, you know, Jim Crow and, you know, various other factors. But, you know, this was predatory lending, particularly by USDA. And so you also need to look at USDA. And the reason why you need to look at USDA is because it's “the lender of last resort.”

And that's basically the hierarchy and the present foundation of the USDA regulations right now. And it's admitted guilt. They, they've admitted it, you know, from the 1965 civil rights report, you know, to the CRAT report to the, you know, the Jackson Lewis report, you know, 10 years ago, that they purposely discriminate, particularly against Black farmers. And it's due to predatory lending. You look at the fact that between 2006 and 2016, Black farmers made up 13%, the highest foreclosure rate out of all demographics. But we own the least amount of land. And so, you know, that right there is a problem.

Lee: What is the state of Black land ownership today and where is it really trending?

Jillian: To me it’s trending down. The ’22, ’22 USDA census just came out last month, and the demographic information will be out, I believe, June 26th. But, we own, you know, less than 2% according to the USDA census, but I believe it's like at 1%, because they include gardeners in that, in that number to inflate the numbers. But, but yeah. So it's, it's trending down, not up.

Lee: Okay. And what do people get wrong about Black land ownership in this specific history? I mean, I know that there are everyday folks who have opinions that they speak about freely, as if they're experts, but also educators and journalists and policy makers and lawmakers. I mean, what do they get wrong about this history?

Jillian: They portray the Black farmer as poor, illiterate, and basically don't know anything, but that's for, you know, that's far from the truth. I know families – five-generation, four-generation cotton farmers that own thousands of acres and are very, you know, lucrative. And so the, this portrayal of the, you know, the poor Black farmer, you know, dirt poor, land rich, cash poor is just a constant. And a lot of my clients don't even like talking to reporters because of that narrative. And it's, it's not true.

Lee: I feel like it's missing that the majority of this land in this country was acquired unfairly. And on the foundation of violence and on the foundation of trickery –

Jillian: Yes.

Lee: And legal maneuvering. And I don't see that really as something that is known in the masses.

Jillian: Correct.

Lee: Or acknowledged. Is that true or –

Jillian: That’s true.

Lee: Or am I off?

Jillian: Yes. That's true. But with Black folk it wasn't, it's not true. So Black people earned the land. They, they worked, they paid, you know, for it. It wasn't acquired through trickery and things like that compared to the majority. You know, the 2022 USDA census, you know, 95% of US farmland are owned by whites. You know, as you know, similar to the 2017, you know, USDA census. And so that is often, you know, the case in history. That it was acquired through violence.

Lee: Mm hm. And how would you like for the conversation around Black land ownership to grow and evolve? Where's the nuance needed?

Jillian: I believe the nuance is through – like you referenced – financial literacy. We need to retain what we already have, and that’s the mission of my work, is to retain it. And so we’ve saved about 10 million in Black farmland assets, you know, over the 11 years that I’ve been in operation through my non-profit. And it’s important that we focus on retention. You know a lot of people call me asking, ‘Oh, can you help me, you know, find land, buy land,’ but that’s not my job. My job is to retain what we have.

In my family’s case, I wonder if the inability to reach an agreement on whether to keep Uncle Ike’s land in the family would have been different if the younger generations would have had a chance to talk with Uncle Ike about the hell he went through to acquire it. Or maybe if they’d all had the opportunity to learn about the history of Black land loss and theft even in more detail. I just don’t know. But what’s clear is, though I don’t hold any resentment about the decision, I do think it’s just another example of how important studying genealogy can be. Not just the birth dates and the death dates, but the dash in between. Learning about our ancestors, and what they believed in, what they went through, and what they wanted for us. I know that’s what a will was intended for; but in Uncle Ike’s will, he thought he was doing the right thing by leaving the land to his children equally. I don’t know if he knew about heirs property law. But even if he did, I suppose he never dreamed that the future generations would see any reason to let that land go. Not in a million years.

[music starts]

Lee: And what do you think about the debate around reparations, especially as it relates to land? I know that there was a really hyper visible case of a family in California that got significant land back. Do you think justice for Black farmers is achievable through reparations?

Jillian: I believe it is, but I don't know if it's realistic because it's based on the common law. It's based on European law and colonial law. And so how are we supposed to get reparations when, you know, we can't even get, you know, fair adjudication within, you know, US Department of Agriculture. And so we're basing it, and we're trying to maneuver through a system that is the foundation of colonial law. And, I think that that will be very hard. And I think that we should take the approach of purchasing land collectively. Where are the Black land back initiatives? When are we gonna come together, you know, collective purchasing agreements?

Lee: You're blowing me away.

Jillian: Thank you.

Lee: And I just really want to thank you for this work that you're doing. I believe that as a Christian, I'll say that I believe that what you're doing is God's work. And I just hope that you know that. And I just wanted to, to really just thank you. On behalf of my family, I thank you so much.

Jillian: Thank you.

Talking with Jillian Hishaw helped me clearly see that the racial terrorism and violence against my Black American family and countless others under Jim Crow was not solely physical but also economic. Hordes of white supremacists throughout America felt divinely and rightfully entitled to Black land, just as their forefathers did a century before with native land. They exploited unjust policies and the complacency of an American, Jim Crow government that often failed to hold them accountable for their murders and other crimes. Before Malcolm X yelled out for justice “by any means necessary,” Jim Crow epitomized injustice by any means necessary.

This conversation deepened my understanding of the deadly penalty Black Americans paid for our determination, for daring to burst out of slavery and take our piece of the American Dream through working hard and acquiring land. Since 1837, I’ve had a family member killed every generation, and this reporting helped me understand why so many of them were killed over land and the audacity to move ahead in the society. So to see the deadly price family members paid only to see it lost or sold off by subsequent generations that are split as to how important the land is to them is truly eye-opening, something I see more clearly now.

To understand part of the root of this violence, I have to travel back to uncover a part of my history I never thought about until I started researching my family. It’s time to meet the Pughs – my white ancestors from across the Atlantic. Next time on What Happened in Alabama.

What Happened In Alabama is a production of American Public Media. It’s written, produced, and hosted by me, Lee Hawkins.

Our executive producer is Erica Kraus.

Our senior producer is Kyana Moghadam.

Our story editor is Martina Abrahams Ilunga.

Our producers are Marcel Malekebu and Jessica Kariisa.

This episode was sound designed by Marcel Malekebu. Our technical director is Derek Ramirez. Our soundtrack was composed by Ronen Landa.

Our fact checker is Erika Janik.

And Nick Ryan is our director of operations.

Special thanks to the O’Brien Fellowship for Public Service Journalism at Marquette University; Dave Umhoefer, John Leuzzi, Andrew Amouzou, and Ziyang Fu; and also thank you to our producer in Alabama, Cody Short.

The executives in charge at APM are Joanne Griffith and Chandra Kavati.

You can follow us on our website, whathappenedinalabama.org or on Instagram at APM Studios.

Thank you for listening.