American Land Reform: Reconsidering Land Ownership in the African American Experience

AHA Session 5
Agricultural History Society 1
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom East (Marriott Wardman Park)
Pete Daniel, independent scholar
Valerie Grim, Indiana University Bloomington
Adrienne Monteith Petty, City College of New York
Debra A. Reid, Eastern Illinois University
Mark Schultz, Lewis University

Session Abstract

The study of land reform figures prominently in global scholarship on the negotiation of race and class in post-emancipation histories, and the United States is no exception. Land has commanded a central place in the historical narrative of the African American experience. It served as the primary landscape of slavery. The failure to provide forty acres of it with emancipation defined the economic and social position of former slaves and subsequent generations of African Americans caught in the debt peonage of sharecropping. The migration away from it built the foundations of the urban African American experience.

While this generalized narrative continues to hold, its focus on the effects of landlessness has dismissed land-owning African Americans as not much more than an anomaly. In more recent decades, political attention to African American land loss has drawn historians to reconsider the extent and significance of land ownership among African Americans. Evidence suggests that nearly a quarter of African American farmers owned their own land by 1910. Historians have begun to explore the various meanings of land ownership for both the individuals who owned it and the communities of which they were a part, asking whether land ownership changed the status, security, economic conditions, and social and political autonomy of owners and those around them.  

The results of this research have reached a stage of development at which debate and discussion among some of the leading researchers in the field promises the possibility of new ways of integrating African American landownership into the more traditional historical narrative. This roundtable is proposed as an opportunity to open that discussion in a setting that can bring together an audience of scholars with expertise and interest not only in aspects of U.S. land reform and its place in the African American experience but also in the broader global experience of land reform.

The five participants represent work that spans geographical concentrations and historical periods, as well as the social, cultural, economic, and political underpinnings and implications of African American land ownership. Their research raises a range of questions for debate and discussion, including the role of the State in affecting African American success in acquiring and keeping land, the complicated meaning of land and land loss in the African American experience, the class implications of landownership in both rural communities and post-migration urban communities, the persistence of poverty among many African American landowners, and the role of landownership in the civil rights movement.

We expect the roundtable to appeal most to scholars, teachers, and interpreters of U.S. and African American history, for whom it should raise some challenging questions about the standard narrative.  But we propose the roundtable especially for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in hopes of attracting a broader audience with diverse historical knowledge and cross-national research interests related to land reform and race. We believe such an outcome would enhance the value of the roundtable for all, offering an opportunity to benefit from the sharing of ideas across different contexts.

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