Until recently, black people who acquired land after the Civil War had been losing their properties at an alarming rate. They were preyed upon by swindlers who pitted family members against one another to force sales. Properties were sold on courthouse steps because of unpaid taxes. And confusion over deeds multiplied as land passed down through families.
But, thankfully, over the past few years several state laws have been passed to help protect heirs’ properties, among them the Clementa Pinckney Uniform Heirs Property Act, which went into effect last year.
Signed into law by former Gov. Nikki Haley, the legislation makes it easier for part-owners to buy out relatives and harder for individuals to force land sales without a fair-market appraisal to ensure heirs receive a fair price.
Though some nonprofits have sprung up to provide families with free legal aid in gaining titles to land, securing heirs’ properties can still be complicated and costly, and time can be an enemy. State lawmakers should consider further protections, perhaps even a legal “timeout” to enable extended families to build consensus and raise money when faced with an unwanted sale.
At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott is co-sponsoring legislation to make it easier for farmers of heirs’ properties to get farm loans, crop insurance and disaster aid, as well as resolve ownership issues. Such a law would provide crucial assistance to heirs property owners who have been at the mercy of unfair laws and market forces beyond their control.
Traditionally, landowners bequeathed property only to their first-born sons to prevent estates from being divided. But just the opposite started happening across the American South during Reconstruction. Some early landowners mistakenly believed the land would be harder to sell if it were jointly owned. Property was passed informally generation to generation, wills and deeds were lost or never recorded and ownership of the land became more and more diffuse. For instance, a 40-acre property acquired in the 1870s could have 100 or more partial owners today.
By the 1920s or so, confusion over property taxes and other legal entanglements opened land to lien sales and, through a number of legal maneuvers, blacks started losing much of what their forefathers had worked so hard to buy. Sadly, those same trends have persisted for much of the past century, with the amount of land owned by African-Americans falling from around 15 million acres to about 2 million acres.
Through “partition sales,” speculators were able to buy out partial owners, then force the sale of entire tracts, often at rock-bottom prices. That shameful practice enabled straw men for real estate companies to assemble properties for resorts or housing developments. Consider that before about 1950, much of Hilton Head Island was owned by blacks, few of whom shared in the riches that flowed from its development as coastal properties skyrocketed in value.
As reported by The Post and Courier’s David Slade and Angie Jackson, the Charleston-based Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation estimates that more than 108,000 acres of heirs’ property remain in the 15 counties served by the nonprofit. The group helps families get free help in gaining clear titles and, in some cases, establish trusts or limited liability companies to control properties and keep them intact.
Extended families have to pull together to preserve their land. But lawmakers should give them the breathing room to make that happen. History has shown only outsiders profit from infighting and court-ordered sales.