updated on 19 February 2024

Welcome to kinkofa’s guide on tracing and preserving African American family history through land ownership.

We joined cultural preservationist and oral historian Raja'Nee Redmond on a journey to explore her Mississippi roots and research a story of land ownership passed down to her from her great-grandmother.

Inspired by her quest, we present a roadmap for researching and understanding your own family's history through land ownership. As we navigate this journey, we draw inspiration from stories like that of the late Josephine Wright, the 94-year-old Hilton Head Island woman who made headlines with her legal battle to keep her family’s ancestral land, and the legacy of Bruce's Beach in California. These narratives serve as powerful reminders of the enduring connection between African Americans and land.

In the guide that follows, we're exploring the history of Black land ownership, the significance of preserving family land legacies, and providing practical steps for researching your family's land history.

Raja'Nee Redmond, Oral Historian and Memory Worker, researching in Holmes County, Mississippi
Raja'Nee Redmond, Oral Historian and Memory Worker, researching in Holmes County, Mississippi

In 1920, there were 1 million Black farmers, making up 14% of all U.S. farmers. Today, data shows that Black land ownership has dropped significantly to 45,508, representing just 1.3%. In terms of farmland ownership, Black families only own 0.52% of U.S. farmland. The average size of a Black-owned farm is 100 acres, while the national average is 440 acres.

Now, you may be wondering how we got to less than 2% Black land ownership today. The answer can be found in understanding a few historical moments that have shaped Black land ownership and land loss.


After Emancipation, newly freed people had big dreams of taking control of their own lives and being able to provide for themselves. Many believed that owning land was a pathway to making this happen. With their own land, they could grow food, build homes, create sustainable livelihoods, and ultimately make their own choices about their futures.

FORTY ACRES & A MULE: You might have heard about something called "40 acres and a mule." It's the name of Spike Lee’s production company and a promise made to newly emancipated people after the Civil War. Before this promise, there was a tragic event known as the Ebenezer Creek Massacre that planted the seed for what would become known as forty acres and a mule.

Here’s what went down: just before the U.S. Civil War ended, General William T. Sherman led Union soldiers from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia in what was called the March to the Sea. As they marched, thousands of newly freed African American people joined in the efforts and followed them toward Savannah.

On December 9, 1864, near Ebenezer Creek in Effingham County, Georgia about 6,000 Freedpeople - mostly women, children, and the elderly - joined Sherman's army as refugees, seeking safety and assistance. When the Union troops reached and crossed Ebenezer Creek, Commander Jefferson C. Davis ordered the bridge to be dismantled, leaving the refugees stranded. Tragically, many of the refugees were attacked and killed by the Confederate Army. Davis never faced punishment for his actions and the surviving refugees were captured and forced back into slavery.

Union soldiers who witnessed the massacre reported what happened and their accounts were leaked to the press causing public outrage. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton then met with General Sherman to discuss the incident. Together, they organized a meeting with local Black leaders in Savannah, Georgia on January 12, 1865, to get their advice on how to best support the newly freed people. When asked what they needed, Rev. Garrison Frazier, spokesperson for the Freedpeople, told Sherman:

"The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land." He emphasized that true freedom meant being able to benefit from their own hard work, saying, "Freedom is placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor."

- Rev. Garrison Frazier

As a result of that meeting, President Lincoln approved Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 on January 16, 1865. The order redistributed 400,000 abandoned acres of land, dividing it into 40-acre plots, which were given to newly freed Black families. Additionally, Sherman agreed to lend army mules to Black settlers to help them work the land. This initiative led to the famous phrase "40 acres and a mule”. It was the first and ONLY time the U.S. government gave reparations to African Americans.

Johnson, W. H. (ca. 1940) Sowing / Wm. H. Johnson. , ca. 1940. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Johnson, W. H. (ca. 1940) Sowing / Wm. H. Johnson. , ca. 1940. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Within months, 40000 formerly enslaved people settled on 400,000 acres of coastal land from Charleston, South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. Using their ingenuity, skills, and hard work, they transformed the lands into productive farms and created their own communities.

🫠 Spoiler alert: the order was short-lived and the promise was never fully realized. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson reneged, returning the confiscated lands to their previous white landowners. In Georgia and South Carolina, Black landowners resisted this injustice and bravely took up arms to protect themselves from former owners trying to take back the lands. As a result, federal troops were sent in to forcefully remove Black landowners from their property. This dispossession of land led to the widespread system of sharecropping and peonage.


The Homestead Act of 1862 was a law signed on May 20, 1862, during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln. It encouraged settlement and farming in the western United States by offering 160 acres of federal land to homesteaders for free. The catch was that they had to live on and improve the land for five years before gaining full ownership. This law paved the way for thousands of families to move westward and establish farms, but it's important to note that much of this land was taken from Native American tribes who had lived there for generations.

The Southern Homestead Act of 1866, signed on June 21, 1866, was similar to the original Homestead Act but focused on opening up land in the southern states. It made available 46 million acres of federal land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. African Americans were given priority access to this land until January 1, 1867. However, despite this opportunity, African Americans faced significant challenges in taking full advantage of the Act. Many lacked the necessary resources like seeds, tools, and farm animals, and much of the land available was of poor quality. Additionally, they faced persecution and discrimination from white settlers, making it difficult for them to succeed as homesteaders.

Both Acts played a role in the westward expansion of the United States and the settlement of new territories, but they also had profound consequences for Native American tribes and African American communities, highlighting the complex and often unjust history of land ownership in America.

Black settlements such as Tenth Street in Dallas, Mound Bayou in Mississippi, Nicodemus in Kansas, and the all-Black towns in Oklahoma, including Greenwood (aka Black Wall Street), played pivotal roles in African Americans' pursuit of self-determination through land ownership. Many utilized land grants from the Homestead Act to establish thriving communities, constructing homes, farms, churches, schools, cemeteries, and businesses.

Children playing on the South Side of Chicago, circa 1941 . Retrieved from Library of Congress.
Children playing on the South Side of Chicago, circa 1941 . Retrieved from Library of Congress.


Jim Crow laws, urban renewal, and interstate highway construction contributed to Black land loss in the United States. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation and limited opportunities for African Americans. Urban renewal projects often targeted Black settlements and neighborhoods for redevelopment, displacing families and disrupting communities. Interstate highways, built using eminent domain, often ran through these neighborhoods, leading to further displacement and loss of land.


Pigford v. Glickman is a landmark class action lawsuit filed by African American farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The lawsuit alleged racial discrimination in the USDA's administration of farm loans and assistance programs between 1981 and 1996. African American farmers claimed they were systematically denied loans, subsidies, and other benefits that were routinely provided to white farmers. In 1999, the USDA agreed to settle the case, providing compensation to eligible claimants and implementing reforms to address discrimination within its programs. The settlement resulted in the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history, seeking to rectify decades of systemic racism and injustice faced by African American farmers.

Many faced challenges with the Pigford settlement due to complicated paperwork, unclear deadlines, and errors from lawyers. This meant that tens of thousands of eligible farmers missed out on receiving the compensation they deserved. To address this, Congress allocated an extra $1.2 billion for a second round of payments in 2010. However, even with this additional funding, many farmers still didn't receive their compensation due to further denials of claims and ongoing issues with deadlines and processing.

Credit: Anson Eaglin/USDA
Credit: Anson Eaglin/USDA

 The history of Black landownership in the United States is a testament to the enduring spirit of resilience and determination of African Americans. Despite facing centuries of systemic oppression and land loss, Black folx continue to fight for justice and reclaim our rightful places as stewards of the land.

The historical moments described above have left behind records that descendants of formerly enslaved people CAN use to learn about our family histories today. They aren't just stories from the past — they're roadmaps for the future.

By understanding the challenges our ancestors faced and the ingenious ways they “got over ”, we can imagine what reparations could look like in our own lifetime and use these moments as a blueprint to dream up the future.
In the next part of this guide, we'll dive into practical steps on how you can start exploring your own family history of land ownership and be part of the conversation about reparations.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1939). Saturday afternoon, Lexington, Holmes County, Mississippi Delta, October 1939. Retrieved from 
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1939). Saturday afternoon, Lexington, Holmes County, Mississippi Delta, October 1939. Retrieved from 

For those seeking to uncover their family history, start here:

Talk to your folx! There might be a living memory of your family’s history with land, migration or pursuits of building generational wealth. The easiest way to determine if your family owned land might be the history that a relative already knows or has around their home.

Ask family members what they know about any of your ancestors who may have owned property or businesses. Whether they have an answer to that question or not, you still might want to know more about who your ancestors were and where they lived to inform your research. Is there a family tree that includes names, birth dates and locations? Did they migrate to the place you were born? What did they do for a living?

You can use kinkofa’s tool Rememory to record interviews with family members. Not sure what to ask? Our game Preserve The Culture features question prompt cards about growing up, land, and other topics to get the conversations flowing.


We see you and we got you! It's still absolutely possible to trace your family history. You can start by gathering information about yourself and your loved ones. Write down details like your name, birthdate, birthplace, and addresses where you've lived. Then, do the same for your parents, grandparents, and other kinfolks, going back as far as you can. This will give you a solid foundation to work from and help you identify gaps in your knowledge. From there, you can begin researching additional information to uncover your family's history of land ownership. Remember, every bit of information you gather is a step closer to uncovering your family's story.


Once you’ve decided who you’d like to learn more about, it's time to search your home and your loved ones' homes for records like obituaries, family reunion books, newspaper clippings, marriage records and old photos. These can be used to provide leads on additional family members to interview and inform what to search in genealogical records like the US Federal Census, land and estate records (wills, probate, etc).

For example, by learning from an obituary that a grandparent was born in McNab, Arkansas, we should ask “where is McNab located?”. A Google search shows that McNab is in the Southwest part of the state, in Hempstead County — land ownership is recorded at the county level.

Which records can tell me about my family’s land ownership?

Next, we can explore when and where our ancestors lived by searching for genealogical records. The US Census, taken every 10 years, contains a treasure trove of information about households, including names, ages, jobs, military service, and even land ownership.

The 1950 Federal Census is the most recent one we can access and it's super helpful because there might be living relatives who can share stories about their community and growing up. We can start by searching for these relatives to learn more about our family histories and then go further back in time. In census records from 1900 to 1940, we can see if families owned their homes (marked as "O") or if they were renting (marked as "R"). The 1870 and 1930 records also tell us about real estate values. Even if we don't have stories about family land, we can still discover our families legacies of property ownership.

Note: It's important to remember that census records might not always be accurate or include details about property ownership in other places. During the Great Migration, many families moved to cities, leaving behind land in the Jim Crow South. So, even if records suggest they didn't own land where they moved to, they might still have land elsewhere.

The Census indicates my family owned land, now what do I do?

If your family owned property, you may be able to learn more about where it’s located and how it was acquired by researching land records at the county courthouse or online. Land records include deeds, land patents and usually overlap with estate files (probate cases, wills). It's key to locate these records when seeking to understand where your family owned land because they contain descriptions of where the land is, how the land has been used and who has owned it. You can find property deeds at a county’s recorder of deeds or county tax assessor’s office. Many land records can also be accessed online by searching for the county, selecting Land and Property, and browsing for around the time your ancestor owned property. If an ancestor homesteaded or lived on and “improved” the land before receiving a land grant, there’s likely a land patent at the Bureau of Land Management.

Additionally, search for Agricultural Census records to learn how your ancestors improved the land. It records what crops were grown, what livestock was raised, and more.

I want to visit my family land. How should I prepare?

If possible, gather any relevant documents or information about the property beforehand such as deeds or legal descriptions.

To pinpoint the exact location of a property, the county's tax assessor can be a valuable resource. Tax assessors determine the value of real estate, relying on records like maps, deeds, and wills to do so. In smaller counties, you'll likely find the tax assessor at the county courthouse. Try searching "county name tax assessor" online to find their contact information. If you have a deed or believe your family owned land, you can reach out to the tax assessor with details about the land's location, ownership history, and timeframe.

Keep in mind that if the property is privately owned, you may only be able to view it from the street. The tax assessor or recorder of deeds can tell you the current property owner's name.

When visiting, consider documenting your experience. We suggest taking photos, recording videos and voice memos, and dropping a pin on a map to mark the property's location for future reference. This can be useful if you plan to revisit the property or share its location with family members.

By taking these steps to document and preserve your visit, you can honor your family's legacy and maintain the connection to your ancestral land for generations to come.

I discovered the land is still family owned. What should I do?

If you've found out that the land is still in your family's ownership, there are some important steps you can take:

1. Document the ownership history by gathering legal documents, archival records, and conducting family history research to create a paper trail for yourself and future generations.

2. Whether you're the property owner or not, consider creating an estate plan to keep the land in the family. Discuss this with loved ones and assist them in writing a will or preparing a transfer on death deed to ensure a smooth transfer of ownership to the next generation.

3. Ensure that property taxes are paid and kept up to date to avoid any complications or issues with ownership.

4. If the land has been inherited without a will or estate plan, establish ownership with an affidavit of heirship to clarify ownership rights.

5. If the land is considered "heirs property," organize a gathering of heirs to develop a plan for co-owning the land. Explore options like forming a land trust or another entity such as an LLC to manage ownership effectively.

By uncovering and preserving our families land legacies, we’re honoring the sacrifices of our ancestors and paving the way for a more equitable future.

Congratulations on making it through this comprehensive guide! You've taken an important step towards understanding and preserving your family's land legacy. By following the steps outlined here, you're actively contributing to the preservation of your family history and ensuring that future generations can continue to benefit from this knowledge. Keep up the great work!

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