Topic: Pobreza e Inequidade

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President Lincoln’s policy of awarding “40 acres and a mule” to the formerly enslaved was rescinded by successor Andrew Johnson.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

Oportunidades de bolsas

Premio Lincoln al periodismo sobre políticas urbanas, desarrollo sostenible y cambio climático 2024

Submission Deadline: August 9, 2024 at 11:59 PM

El Lincoln Institute of Land Policy convoca a periodistas de toda América Latina a participar del concurso “Premio Lincoln al periodismo sobre políticas urbanas, desarrollo sostenible y cambio climático”, dirigido a estimular trabajos periodísticos de investigación y divulgación que cubran temas relacionados con políticas de suelo y desarrollo urbano sostenible. El premio está dedicado a la memoria de Tim Lopes, periodista brasileño asesinado mientras hacía investigación para un reportaje sobre las favelas de Rio de Janeiro.  

Convocamos a periodistas de toda América Latina a participar de este concurso. Recibimos postulaciones para el premio hasta el 9 de agosto de 2024. Para ver detalles sobre la convocatoria vea el botón “Guía/Guidelines” o el archivo a continuación titulado “Guía/Guidelines“. 


Submission Deadline
August 9, 2024 at 11:59 PM
Related Links


Mitigação Climática, Habitação, Planejamento, Pobreza, Água

Colorful buildings in Iztapalapa, Mexico

Exploring Sustainable Development in Latin America

By Carina Arvizu Machado, Maio 14, 2024

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is the most urbanized region in the developing world, with 81 percent of its population—539 million people—living in cities, according to UN-Habitat. While there are differences in urbanization patterns across the region—for example, countries in Central America are less urbanized, but experiencing one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world, while South America is already home to major cities—poverty and inequality have characterized this growth regionwide, leading to the creation of precarious settlements whose populations face multiple vulnerabilities. These settlements are the result of insufficient access to adequate housing and unjust distribution of wealth and opportunities. The resulting vulnerabilities get reinforced and magnified by external factors such as migration and climate change.

To reflect on and tackle these related challenges, the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) co-organized a one-day workshop in early 2024. This event was part of an emerging initiative led by the Lincoln Institute and MIT that seeks to foster a call to action and build a regional vision that addresses critical challenges and advocates for systemic change.

Rooted in the experiences of team members from both institutions who have worked on these issues in their respective countries—Lincoln Institute LAC Program Director Anaclaudia Rossbach (Brazil), SPURS fellow Agustina Rodriguez Biasone (Argentina), and SPURS fellow Carina Arvizu Machado (México)—the workshop was designed to bridge the gap between academia and practical experience. It was an opportunity, said SPURS program director Bish Sanyal, to “theorize from practice.”

The workshop explored the multifaceted challenges facing vulnerable territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. One in five individuals in the region (110 million people) live in informal settlements. These areas face conditions of poverty and social exclusion, marked by inadequate housing, poor public services, and limited access to urban infrastructure and green spaces. In addition, the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change and has experienced significant migration flows in the past decades. LAC hosts approximately 3 million migrants from other areas and about 11 million internal migrants. Drawing inspiration from four case studies, the workshop explored innovative and integrated approaches that are paving the way for sustainable development and systemic change.

The workshop brought together over 50 individuals from diverse backgrounds, spanning academia, government, nonprofit organizations, and more, with a slate of speakers that included over 20 experts from Latin America and the Caribbean. Among them were former government ministers, executive directors, and professors from institutions such as Oxfam Mexico, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Yale University, The New School, Columbia University, and more.

The real-world cases showcased innovative approaches to addressing urban challenges. From the Neighborhood Integration program in Buenos Aires led by María Migliore (former Buenos Aires minister of Human and Housing Development), to México’s Urban Improvement Program spearheaded by Martha Peña Ordóñez (current head of the planning unit of the Secretariat of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development, SEDATU), passing by the Utopias project for rehabilitation of public spaces in Iztapalapa, Mexico City, implemented by Raúl Basulto (current head of Urban Development of Iztapalapa), and the Manzanas del Cuidado, or care blocks, championed by Maria-Mercedes Jaramillo (former Bogotá secretary of Planning). After participating in discussions about the challenges in the region and exploring the four case studies, attendees imagined and discussed integrated strategies for effective solutions. Participants engaged in lively debates, shared best practices, and explored ways to leverage interdisciplinary approaches for positive impact.

Basketball court at Utopía Aculco, a fitness facility, cultural venue, and social services center in Iztapalapa, Mexico. Credit: Government of Mexico City.

Participants also explored the relationships among interventions in informal settlements, city planning, and the broader urban system, reimagining the relationship between nature and cities. Rethinking planning scales and alternative territorial governance, such as through elements like water supply and management, was at the forefront of the discussions, especially on the panel about climate change, moderated by Amy Cotter, director of climate strategies at the Lincoln Institute. Looking back to move forward, the panelists and participants drew inspiration from the historical constitution of cities through migration, and past interventions in informal settlements.

The resounding commitment echoed among participants was a determination to forge a more equitable and sustainable future for urban communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Enrique Silva, chief program officer at the Lincoln Institute, mentioned, this workshop was a great opportunity to build upon similar events in the past, such as the 2018 symposium “Slums: New Visions for an Enduring Global Phenomenon,” held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and consolidate a more robust community of practice. The group agreed to continue this journey together, building bridges and creating lasting impact for the vulnerable territories of the region, forging new paths toward systemic change.

Key themes for future discussion based on the reflections at the workshop include:

  1. Exploring further the links and interdependencies of informality and informal settlements with migration, climate change and inequality, and the implications and complication of political polarization in the region.
  2. Connecting interventions in informal settlements to city planning, and the broader urban system.
  3. Reimagining the relationship between nature and cities, considering and integrating indigenous communities and their concepts and practices.
  4. Rethinking the scales of planning and alternative territorialities of governances, through alternative elements such as water.
  5. Looking back to better move forward, including looking at indigenous knowledge, how migration has affected the growth and development of cities, and previous interventions around informal settlements.

This initiative was made possible thanks in part to a grant from MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning.

Carina Arvizu Machado is a 2024 SPURS fellow at MIT and former Cities Director for Mexico and Colombia at the World Resources Institute, Mexico. She is the former national deputy secretary of Urban Development and Housing for Mexico, sustainable urban mobility consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, and chief of urban projects for Mexico City.

Lead image: Utopía Aculco, part of the Utopía series of 12 parks and public cultural and sports facilities in Mexico City’s Iztapalapa neighborhood. The name doubles as an acronym for Unidades de Transformación y Organización Para la Inclusión y la Armonía Social (Units of Transformation and Organization for Inclusion and Social Harmony). Credit: Government of Mexico City.