I am a public historian at the University of West Georgia, where, in addition to teaching undergraduates and graduates, I co-direct (with Ann McCleary) the Center for Public History. The Center was founded by Ann in 2000, and is a regional history institution that, broadly speaking, works in partnership with local communities and state and national agencies to preserve and interpret the past. Situated in western Georgia, a region still defined by agriculture and rural life, the Center has, in its past and present, worked on projects that document the history of agricultural practice and lives of farmers. My case statement for our working group charts a project on land tenure in the U.S. South that I’m only just beginning, but one that challenges public historians to take an intervening role in the documentation, creation, and implementation of agricultural and land use policy in the regions in which they work. I am not formally trained as a historian of agriculture or the environment, though certainly these themes are part of my work in the history of the post-Civil War South. This group, then, is critical in helping me solidify my own questions and approaches here.

I discovered  the issue of African American rural land loss while writing my dissertation on elite hunting colonies in Georgia, which included oral histories with black and white residents in the southwest part of the state. I received a phone call in 2010 from a local woman who knew of my interest in the history of race relations in the small town of Thomasville. She asked if I might join her on the steps of the county courthouse the next morning, where she wished me to meet someone. I arrived to find an auction underway–land burdened by taxes in arrears would be sold to the highest bidder. Angeline Scott, the woman to which my contact introduced me, was attempting to save her 240-acre ancestral homestead, which included not only her residence and that of siblings but a historic black school and church. The property that once served as haven for African Americans in the rural Jim Crow South sold that day to a white developer, who easily outbid the elderly African American woman. Scott lost her claim to what I would come to understand as “heirs property,” hallowed ground to many generations of black southern farmers.[1]

Scott’s vulnerability lay not simply in lack of legal advice to fight the sale, or resources with which to outbid the developer, but in structural inequity that laces the South’s (and other region’s) property laws. Her acreage of heirs property represented a type of land tenure most often passed down intestate (without probated will) to heirs, and thereafter owned as tenants-in-common by those descendants. As the pool of heirs grows with each generation, the property becomes increasingly vulnerable: the onus for tax payment becomes unclear, for example, or heirs in distant places with no ties to the land may sell individual interests, which often leads to a court-ordered partition sale. Complications associated with common ownership in a capitalist society shred the historic fabric of African American landholding, and the political power inherent therein. Heirs property divestments account for an important cause of black land loss (including, of course, farmers) since the pinnacle of ownership in 1910 (some 16 million acres reduced to 2.4 million by the late twentieth century).[2]

Recently, a coalition of activist landowners, nonprofit agencies, and agricultural extension services has formed to fight for clarification and justice in southern heirs property law. To do so, they relied on stories about the land that are situated in the unweaving of historical and cultural fabric that’s caused by dispossession. In Georgia, farmers joined forces with the University of Georgia and Georgia Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit, to collect data on land loss and to powerfully animate the data through storytelling.  The voices of those marginalized has helped to arrest a century of displacement–to comprehend and communicate just how they did so may, I hope, offer a roadmap for public history practitioners who study and work in these contexts, and for reformers and activists across the South, and beyond.

These efforts have been successful, inasmuch as the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (2010), legislation that makes court-ordered partition sales more difficult and therefore protects tenants-in-common, has passed in five southern states in the past five years (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, and, mostly recently, Texas).[3] But, even with new legislation, the Georgia Extension Service and other advocacy groups must “get the word out,” so to speak, to identify heirs property owners and help them document ownership of land in chains of title and genealogical banks. Public historians have an obvious role to play here, by joining forces with advocacy groups to render service through our expertise in historical resources.

Public historians are well prepared to document and disseminate changes in land use and agricultural policy that affect the communities in which they live and work. We can employ the methodologies in which we are trained and the ethics in shared authority that inform our praxis. In the case of heirs property owners, collecting, preserving, and stewarding the stories of those affected continues the significant fight against historical forgetting and land loss. Digital tools, too, might be an open, ungated means to disseminate information. A digital site could serve as a dedicated and enduring, flexible archive for landowners–to share stories, offer resources, and to map heirs property in the state (the latter something I’m keenly interested in). The site might prove a resource for reform efforts elsewhere, and would substantiate recent changes in state policy. Documentary and preservation work in these areas can contribute to the historical record of landholding patterns in the South; as service to future scholarship; and as way to support land tenure reform in the Georgia and beyond.

[1] Note that the term “heirs property” or “heirs land” is colloquial and has not been formally used in U.S. law until recent reform legislation. Heirs property is considered a subset of legal codes that cover tenants-in-common. It is a phenomenon that affects landowners of all ethnicities and in every region of the country; in the context of the U.S. South, it disproportionately affects African Americans. Thomas W. Mitchell, “Restoring Hope for Heirs Property Owners: The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act,” Texas A&M Law School, Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Research Paper No. 17-04 (Fall 2016), 6.

[2] Pete Daniel, Dispossesion: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 260. For recent scholarship on African American farmers, see Daniel’s work and Evan P. Bennett and Debra A. Reid, eds. Beyond Forty Acres and a Mule: African American Landowning Families Since Reconstruction (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2012).

[3] See “Partition of Heirs Property Act,” Uniform Law Commission, accessed January 3, 2018, http://www.uniformlaws.org/Act.aspx?title=Partition%20of%20Heirs%20Property%20Act.


  1. Cathy Stanton says:

    This is fascinating, Julia – I’m glad to have the chance to learn more about this great project of yours.

    One thing that strikes me is the parallel with the USDA Pigford cases, where farmers of color have joined together in class action suits against the federal government for discrimination in lending and other practices. My understanding is that in those cases, there’s similarly been an issue of how to “get the word out” as well as to overcome a well-founded suspicion about whether outcomes are likely to help or further hurt those who participate.

    It does seem that a digital portal in the heirs property case could be a fairly open resource that people could use or not, as they wished. But I’m also wondering about what specific partnerships might make it more likely that they would use it. Are you working on that aspect of the project as well?

    1. Julia Brock says:

      Thanks for your encouraging comments, Cathy, and sharing ideas! Good question about partnerships–the most likely that are the extension agency and the landowners and nonprofits who are working directly with property owners. It will be important, I think, to “seed” an initial site with content, even if it’s not as robust as I hope to be, to show what a such a site might offer. But as we’ve seen with cases elsewhere (and on History@Work!), unclear how helpful this will be in the face of digital divides.

  2. Al Hester says:

    Julia—I really like this proposal, and the digital archive you’re describing would be wonderful. I think heirs-property owners, as well as others, would be very interested. I looked quickly at the Center for Heirs Property Preservation (SC) website, and they just don’t have much in the way of historical content—I think you’d be providing something really new. I agree with Cathy, getting people to the site might be a challenge and there may be some level of distrust at first. But I think a pilot project demonstration and working in partnership with established groups, such as heirs property advocacy groups and community churches, could quickly win people over. Hopefully the clear usefulness of the archive will make that argument for you as the project proceeds.

    Pairing property history with genealogical research makes sense (mapping out the generations of heirs is similar in a way to mapping out the locations of the properties, right?). That at first glance sounds like a pretty staggering task, but it is also one that can draw in people since so many are interested in documenting family history—genealogy is key evidence (can some of it be crowd-sourced?) but it could also be a hook to engage people and get them to dip into the archive/website.

    And I liked how you used the phrase “hallowed ground,” which reminds me about the roots of heirs property in the struggles for land and time that began in slavery and continued through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and all the way to the present. I think that’s a very moving story, and preserving specific memories about these properties is really worthwhile!

    1. Julia Brock says:

      Thank you, Al, for your thoughtful comments. I had the same thought when I began to follow the work of nonprofits–that teams are made of skilled activists, sociologists, and lawyers, but not many historians have joined as partners (and there may myriad reasons for this). I like your idea of a pilot project–something manageable that can showcase the potentials of the digital for this issue.
      On mapping lineages and properties–I agree, this seems like a daunting task. I also fear I’ll need to learn how to aggregated and employ big data (!), particularly for mapping property.

  3. Debra Reid says:

    Julia – you have a well-conceptualized project useful to historians. As a person who inherited heir property, I must express caution at the idea of (as I understand it) creating a database of heir property in a region/state). Georgia became the second state to approve legislation drafted by Thomas W. Mitchell (the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act); 10 states have approved it since 2011 (most recently passed by the Texas legislature in 2017). A pilot project as Al suggests sounds like a wonderful idea. It could address ways to protect the interest of tenants in common from predatory developers. The law does not eliminate that threat, but just ensures market value. Mitchell believes in the need for proactive planning to identify best uses for heir property. Documenting the historic context at the time of acquisition, and the history of land use of land owned by heirs, can contribute to planning best uses.

  4. Leisl Carr Childers says:

    This sounds amazing! I recently read Lauret Savoy’s Trace and am wondering how deep the disconnection between a person’s genealogy, their ancestors, and their ancestors’ land goes in so many African American families. Dispossession and displacement make descendants tough to track down. Mapping stories in place in a digital environment and opening the conversation to include a public comment and/or crowd sourcing component could reach so many people. Michelle Norris’s Race Card project is a bold way of approaching that component.

  5. Amrys Williams says:

    Yes to land tenure! That was the first thing I wrote in the margins here. I have a few thoughts, other than general support. Your idea to reconstruct historical land tenure patterns brings to mind the work that Brian Donahue did in _The Great Meadow_ using GIS; I think, today, what I would want to see in a digital history project are some interactive maps or perhaps some animations that allow people to visualize how land ownership changed over time and why. Have you thought about StoryMaps or other tolls that ArcGIS Online makes available? My students worked with these quite successfully in a Digital History course.

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