In the second of a special, two-part series, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice talks with Black family farmers in Georgia to better understand life, work, the idea of community and U.S. history.
When Tim Robinson II retired from a 30-year Army career in 2013, he moved home to the family farm in Baconton, Georgia.
The land was defined as heirs’ property – an ambiguous and unprotected form of ownership that stems from land being passed down to family members in the absence of a will. Historically, land owned by Black families – many of them the descendants of freed slaves – often ended up as heirs’ property, a problem creating uncertainty for those who want to farm the land today.
When Robinson was a child, the community of Baconton largely sustained itself.
“You had everybody – certified brick masons, electricians, accountants, business folks, blacksmiths, welders, nurses,” he says, “That’s who took care of you. That’s who built your house, took care of your plumbing.”
Farmers grew community gardens so that everyone could have access to food, and Robinson’s grandfather – one of the only farmers with a well – laid waterlines for his neighbors.
“Everybody else was poor and couldn’t afford a well,” says Robinson. “So he ran lines from his well all the way down the road, with a spout at each house so they could come outside and have water. It was that type of community.”
Though Robinson grew up working on the family farm, the younger generation was unwilling to take the reins, and the operation ceased in the 1980s after his grandfather passed away.
Robinson’s great-grandfather purchased the first of the family’s acreage in 1914, approximately 50 years after the abolition of slavery and the U.S. government’s broken promise of “40 acres and a mule.”
In January 1865, General William T. Sherman ordered that land in the South be redistributed in 40-acre plots to freed slaves – the first attempt at government reparations for the unpaid labor and horrors of slavery.
But just months later, President Andrew Johnson overturned the order, displacing an estimated 40,000 former slaves from 400,000 acres.
The reversal of “40 acres and a mule” constituted a betrayal, exposing the continued exploitation and deception of Black Americans by the U.S. government.
Throughout the early 1900s, many Black families sharecropped, farming small plots of land as tenant farmers. In exchange for the use of land, sharecroppers paid a portion of the harvest to the (primarily white) landowners.
But the sharecropping system was often built on exploitative contracts, which forced Black farmers into debt. As such, land ownership was seen as the true path toward independence.
In an article for The Nation, journalist Leah Douglas writes that “by one estimate, 81 percent of these early Black landowners didn’t make wills, largely due to a lack of access to legal resources. Their descendants then inherited the land without a clear title, and it thereby became declared as heirs’ property.”
Douglas writes that thousands of acres of land defined as heirs’ property has been “forcibly bought out from under Black rural families – often second-, third-, or fourth-generation landowners whose ancestors were enslaved – by real-estate developers and speculators.”
Making matters worse, heirs’ property is ineligible for a host of resources, including mortgages, improvement loans, or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs.
As property passes through the generations without a formal deed or will, “eventually, it goes from being owned by six or seven siblings to being owned by 60 or 70 grandchildren,” says Karen Lawrence, an agriculture specialist with the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, who lost part of her family’s land due to the lack of legal protections for heirs’ property.
Land becomes vulnerable with so many “co-owners,” many of whom no longer live in the community or have an emotional tie to the property.
Fellow Southwest Georgia Project agriculture specialist Deckton Hilton agrees that heirs’ property is one of the most threatening situations facing Black-owned land, and he estimates that 90 percent of the Black farmers he works with are affected.
In his job, Hilton has attended emotionally fraught meetings with extended family members who barely know one another but co-own land.
The goal of those gatherings is to designate a single executor to make decisions for the property. Without an executor, any of the dozens of co-owners could force a partition sale.
While the problem of heirs’ property needs to be addressed on a policy level, and by providing legal and mediation resources to families, Lawrence says solving the problem also involves a specific kind of relationship building.
“The future of farming in the South is to reconnect our young people with the land,” she says.
The younger generation grew up seeing their parents or grandparents struggle to overcome poverty and to access resources from white-controlled banks and agencies, says Lawrence.
“All they saw was struggle. So when their parents passed, the children said, ‘Hey, I’m not coming back down there, so let’s sell it.’”
But Robinson’s story is proof that sometimes the younger generation does return home. Today, he leases 10.5 acres of family-owned land – an uncle is the executor – and has begun farming produce, with plans to expand to poultry, laying hens, sheep and cattle. He also wants to restore an old pecan orchard.
In the past five years, with the support of the Southwest Georgia Project and various USDA programs, Robinson put in a well, a hoophouse and irrigation. He’s also working on various conservation efforts that are eligible for government reimbursement, including cover cropping and establishing a wildlife habitat.
Deckton Hilton works with Robinson and dozens of other farmers to provide technical assistance and business planning support. Originally from Jamaica, he says the organic farming methods he grew up with seem to resonate with the Georgia farmers.
“This is what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were doing, but they’ve lost some of these skills,” he says.
Hilton is encouraging them to diversify, grow for niche markets, plant leguminous cover crops that replace nitrogen in the soil and practice traditional dryland farming methods to withstand drought – techniques that Hilton believes will support these small-scale, Black-owned operations into the future.
Robinson is thinking about the future, too. While no one in his family currently wants to sell the land, Robinson worries that the land is vulnerable if subsequent generations become more detached.
“Land is wealth, and it’s generational,” says Robinson. “But if you don’t understand that you have wealth, and if your mind sees the land as a negative because of our history with slavery, then you don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
He says he’s trying to “reprogram” his family’s thinking.
“To show them this land is not negative. That this is so positive,” he says. “This land will sustain your family for generations, even long after you’re gone.”
Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona and a 2019 finalist for the James Beard Award for Investigative Reporting. Follow her on Twitter at @cactuswrenwrite. Mike Kane is a Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. His photojournalism and video work from 2018 won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Society for Features Journalism and Society of Professional Journalists. On Instagram, he is @kaneinane. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.