The question of land (and its loss) has been prominent throughout African American history. After the US Civil War, many formerly enslaved Black people made tremendous efforts to acquire land. Even though the Union promise of “40 acres and a mule” was not honored, African Americans bought land where they could. By 1910, Black farmers owned somewhere around 14 percent of all US farmland—with estimates of land holdings exceeding 15 million acres.

These gains have since been largely reversed. Nearly 12 million acres of Black-owned land has been lost in the United States over the last century. In Mississippi alone, between 1950 and 1964, Black farmers lost nearly 800,000 acres, the equivalent of a $3.7 billion loss today.

How did this dispossession occur? Via the efforts of private and public actors, programs, and policies, including discriminatory loan programs, market forces, intimidation, and terrorism. Today, many Black farmers who retain land ownership face foreclosures or lawsuits from white farmers, among other challenges. In the face of so much loss and opposition, asset reallocation can be a powerful tool for achieving self-determination for Black farmers and Black agricultural communities.

It is too late to restore all the land from which Black farmers have been dispossessed. But if philanthropy focused on asset reallocation—ie, the direct transfer of real estate holdings—it could help reverse the decline of Black-owned land holdings, especially if such a new focus was backed by investment in new agroecological infrastructure to support Black communities.

Such land transfers would also enable Black farmers to engage in climate change mitigation practices and would enhance Black people’s food sovereignty. Food can act as medicine, especially when grown and maintained by community members. With control over food systems, Black communities would be able to better prevent and mitigate long-term health problems that impact our communities at disproportionate rates. In other words, landownership, food access, and healthcare are intertwined.

Working towards land rights and self-determination for Black communities also means working towards environmental justice and a just energy transition. A new asset reallocation model, paired with grassroots organizing, would facilitate such a transition at both the local and national levels. Such a model would also fundamentally shift economic and hence political power

Federal legislation and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have long blocked these goals. For this reason, we call upon funders to prioritize land transfers and invest in BIPOC-led food economies.

Read the full article about land justice for Black communities by Savi Horne and Dr. Jasmine Ratliff at Nonprofit Quarterly.