Reclaiming Black-Owned Land

June 17, 2024

By Anthony Flint, June 17, 2024


As the nation marks Juneteenth—the now national holiday observed on June 19th, commemorating the day in 1865 that the last enslaved people were freed in the United States following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—the issue of land and property ownership in communities of color continues to be problematic.

President Lincoln’s policy of awarding “40 acres and a mule” to the formerly enslaved was rescinded by successor Andrew Johnson. Following that, in many instances what land African Americans were able to acquire and maintain became subject to improper seizures or lost in a muddle of legal failings in transfers and inheritances.

According to the American Bar Association, Black Americans owned around 14 million acres of land by 1910, considered the peak of Black land ownership in the United States. But by 2022, that number had dropped to 1.1 million acres—a 90 percent decline, with a cumulative loss of about $326 billion in value. The difficulties in maintaining land ownership, combined with exclusionary zoning, redlining, and discriminatory real estate practices, has deprived communities of color of the opportunity to build wealth for decades.

“Core to being an American is freedom, and the freedom to own property is part of that,” says Mavis Gragg, a self-described “death and dirt” attorney who helps individuals and families maintain real estate through inheritance, in this episode of the Land Matters podcast. “Everything that occurred with the ending of slavery wasn’t just about race and oppressing people of color. It was also a lot about money and growing wealth, but . . . mostly for white people.”


Heirs property attorney Mavis Gragg. Credit: Courtesy photo.


Gragg, who founded the organization HeirShares to leverage technology to clarify legal pathways to maintaining or reclaiming land, works with families who don’t have a legal determination of ownership—a major issue for not only preserving generational wealth but also getting access to financing, services, and eligibility for disaster relief or agricultural programs.

Reclaiming land has been equally challenging, though awareness is increasing with cases like Bruce’s Beach in California—a waterfront resort owned by the Bruce family until 1924, when the city of Manhattan Beach seized it using eminent domain. The city claimed it needed the land for a park, but the racist motivations behind the decision were ultimately revealed; the return of the land to the family in 2022 was seen as a landmark case for improperly seized property.


Officials in Manhattan Beach, California, seized Bruce’s Beach from its Black owners in the 1920s. Los Angeles County returned the land to the family in 2022 with an option to sell it back, which the family later chose to do. Credit: Los Angeles County.


As Gragg notes, “They even found documents from the local government in which actors were basically describing their own racist acts. They literally were speaking to end this couple’s ability to own that property, and it wasn’t because of a public good. It’s in writing. I think that case was wonderful in terms of bringing that visibility and seeing that, yes, governments do that. That was a while ago, but we still see that stuff happening today, unfortunately, where local government actors, whether they’re in the court system or the tax office, are still doing things that are pretty bad.”

The Bruce’s Beach case is also revealing in “understanding wealth in America, because the Bruces acquired that property around the same time that the Hiltons began the Hilton, the hotel of their empire. I’m using Hilton as a comparison, considering that the Bruces were in the hospitality industry with their land. They were using it to support recreation and gathering and so forth in Manhattan Beach. What if the Bruces had been successful in retaining ownership of their property, and their empire, so to speak, bloomed from the early 1900s to the present day? Could you imagine?”

Mavis Gragg has had two decades of experience in real estate, conflict resolution, estate planning, and probate. She has presented to a variety of audiences, from MIT to the Yale School of Forestry to the National Press Foundation, and contributed a chapter on preventing and resolving heirs property legal issues to the recently published book Heirs’ Property and the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act: Challenges, Solutions, and Historic Reform, coedited by McCarthur genius grant awardee Thomas W. Mitchell of Boston College. This summer she concluded a year as a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

You can listen to the show and subscribe to Land Matters on Apple Podcasts,  Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts.



Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, host of the Land Matters podcast, and a contributing editor of Land Lines.

Lead image: Mavis Gragg speaks at Stagville, a former plantation in North Carolina. Credit: Courtesy photo.



Further reading

The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’ | PBS

Heirs’ Property and Its Effects on Black Land Ownership in Cities | National League of Cities

Think Land Policy Is Unrelated to Racial Injustice? Think Again. | Land Lines

Advocates push nationwide movement for land return to Blacks after victory in California | The Washington Post

Five Ways Urban Planners Are Addressing a Legacy of Inequity | Land Lines

Gaining Ground | PBS