Black Land Loss: The Plight of Black Ownership

Black and white photo of two Black men, one younger and one older, both wearing trucker hats and standing next to a piece of agricultural equipment

Pat Goudvis

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 2/3, "Our Promised Land." Find more from that issue here.

This report on black land loss was prepared under the direction of Robert Browne, executive director of the Black Economic Research Center. It was a part of a larger study which presented the original thinking and findings of the Emergency Land Fund, and is available from ELF, 799 Fair Street, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia.



The prospect of owning a piece of land, of living on it and of raising one's children on it, is one of the oldest dreams in America's history. The striving for private homesteads constituted the driving force behind the development of America, and indeed this object flavored much of the early fashioning of the American national political structure. Jeffersonians conceived of America as a nation of landowners who, by their attachment to and love for the national territory, would be led to defend and to develop it in the most beneficial ways and to govern themselves accordingly. A certain mutuality of interest was assumed in this Jeffersonian formulation, and it was the attachment to the land which provided the basis for this common interest.

The swift growth of the population, the urbanization of living patterns, the effects of modern technology, have all served to transform our society in ways which have rendered the Jeffersonian dream impractical if not irrelevant for most Americans, and for many persons today an attachment to the land is not even viewed as an attractive objective. To be sure, there are some signs that a degree of value reversal is taking place in recent years as the cities, and even the inner suburbs, become mired in unsolvable problems of pollution, transportation, crime and other deterrents to pleasant living. We are, however, far from being faced with a massive return to the land psychology despite a current boom in rural real estate investment for leisure and recreational residences. The basic pattern of living is still best described by the fact that 75 per cent of the U.S. population resides on 2 per cent of the nation's land area. This pattern is further clarified by census figures which reveal that agricultural employment constitutes a swiftly declining percentage of our labor force, and rural population a dwindling portion of our total population.


Rural Population as % of                     Agricultural

Total Population of U.S.                      Employment

54.3% — 1910                                     1920 — 13,400,000

30.1% — 1960                                     1929 — 12,763,000

26.5% — 1970                                     1939 — 11,338,000

1949 — 9,964,000

1959 — 7,324,000

1961 — 6,919,000

1970* — 4,523,000

Source: Rural Poverty in the U.S., A Report by the President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1968.

* Statistical Abstract of the U.S., 1971.


Within American society, perhaps the most urbanized group is the black community, a fact which is especially startling when one realizes that the black community was almost entirely rural less than a century ago. The figures here are quite dramatic: 


Percentage of Blacks in Metropolitan Areas

1910 - 27%                                          1950 - 58%

1920 - 34%                                          1960 - 67%

1930 - 44%                                          1970 - 74%

Source: 1950-1970, Social and Economic Status of Negroes in the U.S., 1970, U.S. Department of Commerce.

1910-1930, Negroes in the U.S., 1920-1932, U.S. Department of Commerce.


This massive migration of blacks from the rural to the urban areas was in large part also a migration from the South to the North and the West, a pattern of movement which has witnessed the South's percentage of black population decline from 89.7 (1900) to 53 (1970). Although this movement forms a consistent trend throughout the entire twentieth century, it accelerated at the time of World War I and its aftermath, notably decelerated during the depression years, and reached flood tide proportions in the World War II period. Economics generally provided the force behind the migration throughout the entire century, but a note-worthy shift occurred in the "mix” of the economic pressure exerted during the fifties and sixties compared with the earlier period. Whereas the migrations of the periods of the two great wars had been stimulated by a "pull" exerted on the southern blacks by the employment opportunities offered by the factories, service establishments, and homes of the North, the great black trek to the cities and to the North during the fifties and sixties was greatly encouraged by a "push" which the mechanization of agriculture and the acreage set-aside programs exerted on the southern black farm worker. Indeed, there was virtually no northern "pull" during most of this period, for expanding automation in manufacturing and the services was creating its own unskilled labor surplus in the North.

The deterioration of the quality of city life, the increasing financial straits of our larger urban communities, the burgeoning of our welfare rolls, are merely some of the more obvious results of this flight from the land at a time when the society was ill-equipped to absorb hordes of rural oriented and largely untrained and unskilled migrants. The social instability (to say nothing of the human suffering) created by having a large and growing population of uprooted and ill-trained persons living in poverty and idleness is greatly enhanced by the fact that the group in question is a readily identifiable racial minority with a long history of oppression by the majority and is currently plagued with a serious identity crisis and a search for a meaningful nationalism.



Historically, the black community in America has been a community closely attached to the land. The vast majority of the slaves were employed either directly in field production or within some domestic activity on a southern plantation or farm. With the advent of Emancipation, the freedmen necessarily remained largely in land-based pursuits, usually agreeing to some sort of tenancy or sharecropping arrangement with white land owners. By 1910, non-whites, principally blacks, were operating 890,000 farms, of which 218,000 were run by full and part owners and 670,000 by tenants. The black population of the U.S. at that time was 9.8 million. Without the benefit of a Homestead Act and oftentimes in the face of hostility and violence, blacks had managed to become the full or part owners of more than 15 million acres of land.

The year 1910, however, represented the peak year of black land ownership in the U.S., and the trend since that time has been steadily downward so that by 1969, with the national black population at 22.4 million, the agricultural census could find less than 6 million acres fully and partly owned by blacks — representing 79,000 owner-operated farms. About 17,000 farms were being operated by black tenant farmers. It is also worth noting that only about one acre in six of the wholly-owned black land was under cultivation (as compared with one in four and one half of white owned land). Realistically, then, the black community has largely cut its ties to the land, and a high percentage of the land which it does still retain is not being used for growing crops and in large measure probably constitutes a short run economic burden to the black community (a burden not only in terms of tax or mortgage payments, but in terms of the foregone opportunity to utilize this wealth in some immediately productive activity). The white community, of course, holds on to far more idle land than does the black, but it can more easily afford to immobilize its assets in that way. It is also worth noting that an inordinately high percentage of black land owners are older people. In 1960, more than one-third of the non-whites owning rural land in the Southeast were over 65, and they owned two-fifths of the land owned by non-whites.1

A strict economic calculus might suggest that the black community, beset as it is by endless needs for capital for its self-development, would be well advised to sell off its idle land and invest the proceeds in more productive activity. Such a calculation is made, however, without due attention being afforded to political, social, and psychological considerations which weigh heavily on the black conscience. Questions must be raised as to whether the stake which the black community feels it has in the U.S. as a nation is likely to be influenced by whether blacks own any significant portion of the national territory or not. How closely are roots in the land related to a feeling of "belonging" or of "security?" The nomadic experience of the Jewish people may have something to suggest on this topic. In any case, the U.S. is probably more of a "white man's country" now than ever before in its history, at least in terms of land ownership, (although recent recognition of certain historic Indian claims to land may invalidate that statement somewhat).

One response to the negative implications of the precipitous decline in the volume of black land ownership is to argue that the ownership of a home, or even of an apartment, is sufficient to provide one with a strong stake in the American system. In this view, the rapid rise in black home ownership is an adequate counter to the decline in rural black land holdings, so that acreage figures are largely irrelevant or at best misleading. Granted that home ownership in an urban area does indeed vest one

with a stake in the preservation and the improvement of the community and the state, the fact that we must shift our focus to urbanized areas brings us directly back to the problem of the irrational distribution of America's population over its land surface and simultaneously raises the even more basic issue of where do people want to live? Impersonal economic forces, operating in their inexorable manner, have moved half of the black popualtion out of the South and three-fourths of it out of rural areas. These peoples' wishes have not been consulted, nor have the full consequences of this dramatic migration been assessed. The obvious deterioration of America's cities, combined with the growing restlessness in suburban areas as both black and whites attempt to flee the cities as well as to flee from each other, suggest that steps need be taken to provide the one quarter of the black population which still resides in the rural South with a viable option to remain where it is if it so desires.

The benefits of adopting such a policy would include the following:

1) Expand the options of the target population; 2) relieve the pressure on the cities and the suburbs; 3) contribute to a more rational distribution of population across the land surface; and 4) ease the problem of preparing the unskilled and untrained to perform useful service in a modern and complex society.

This latter argument is disputed by some writers who apparently feel that the harsh urbanizing experience is the most efficient way to prepare people for an industrial society. The evidence for their position is not convincing, however, partly because no adequate techniques exist to measure the human or social loss deriving from the despair, dereliction, dope addiction, and other afflictions suffered by those who fail to "make it” when they are suddenly swept from the cotton field to the asphalt ghetto; nor can we fully measure the social costs which such persons impose on others. 

There are many approaches to the task of how to improve the quality of life for the rural poor. Industrialization of rural areas, the development of "growth centers," the encouragement of farmers' cooperatives, creation of new communities in which scattered rural folk might regroup themselves for collective improvement, and outright income maintenance, are only a few of the approaches currently being explored. A few of these programs require a substantial land base; some do not.

To evaluate the importance of owning land solely by economic criteria is to approach the topic with too narrow a perspective.2 Rather, land ownership should be viewed as a vehicle for human development, as well as an instrument for economic development. A 1947 study by Walter Goldschmidt is illustrative. Goldschmidt studied two farming communities in California's Central Valley. One was dominated by large farms, and the other was a community of small family farms. Where the family farm prevailed, Goldschmidt found a higher standard of living, superior physical facilities like streets and sidewalks, more parks, more stores with more retail trade, and twice the number of organizations for civic improvement and social recreation. In short, the small farm community was a better place to live.3

In the rural South, studies indicate that land ownership by blacks correlate with characteristics generally regarded as worthy of encouragement within the black community. Land owning blacks have proved to be more likely to register and to vote, more likely to participate in civil rights actions and more likely to run for office than are non-landowners. In effect, land ownership in the rural

South confers on blacks a measure of independence, of security and dignity and perhaps even of power, which is of crucial importance to the elevation of the status of the black community generally.4

It is in light of this fact that the precipitous decline in black land ownership must be viewed — even though millions of blacks have left the rural South permanently and additional hundreds of thousands are no longer supporting their families from farming operations. It is of vital importance that the 79,000 black owner-operators who continue to farm, be enabled to retain their land and to expand its profitability, for in the black belt counties many of these land-owning farmers constitute the major ingredient for building a black power base in these communities.5 Tenant farming leaves the individual so vulnerable and is generally so lacking in incentives that its demise will not be mourned. It is even less attractive than sharecropping, for under the latter arrangement the landlord usually provides the capital necessary for preparing the ground and harvesting the crop, and he assumes much of the inescapable risks of agriculture. The tenant farmer enjoys none of these advantages while at the same time remaining subject to eviction whenever the landlord decides he wishes to replace him.

If the plight of the tenant is precarious, that of the black farm owner is hardly much better. The remarkable advances in agricultural technology have steadily raised the optimum size acreage required for most of the types of farming in which blacks have traditionally engaged. (Tobacco is the major exception, but recent advances in mechanization suggest that small-scale tobacco farming will soon be as uneconomical as small-scale cotton acreages).

The mechanized harvesting of cotton in the nineteen fifties constituted one of the major "push” factors forcing blacks out of the rural South. Daniel Fusfeld describes it well:

The roots of today's crisis are to be found in a sudden transformation of Southern agriculture which culminated almost twenty years ago. For a number of years prior to 1950, a changing technology was in the process of eliminating hand labor from Southern agriculture. The old sharecropping system was on the way out as tractors and cultivators replaced men. By 1949, most hand labor had been eliminated from everything but summer weeding and fall harvesting. This development was the first stage of the process which pushed the bulk of black farm workers out of Southern agriculture. Needed only for temporary or seasonal labor, many black sharecroppers lost their homesteads and moved into Southern towns and cities, although some continued the northern migration which had been going on for decades. There in the towns the black worker was poor, but available for seasonal and harvest labor — he subsisted and stayed South.

Then disaster struck. Machine harvesting of cotton and corn was introduced on a large scale in 1950 and substantial expansion of soybean acreage (which uses little labor) resulted in a huge decline in use of labor. For example, in the space of only three years from 1949 to 1952 the use of unskilled agricultural labor in twenty Mississippi delta counties fell by 72 percent, and five years later was down to only 10 per cent of the 1949 level.6

The effects of this mechanization were not restricted to the farm laborer who was no longer needed, nor to the farm tenant who was now dispossessed because the landlord needed the additional acreage in order to utilize the new equipment. The black farm owner, whose farm size averaged only 47 acres in 1950, was equally affected by the mechanization taking place around him. Using hand labor, or even small tractors, on modest-sized acreages, the small farmer found that he could not compete in cotton or soybeans, two of the major crops raised by southern blacks. In corn, the situation was not too dissimilar. But the black farmer was unable to move up into competitive farming because a) he lacked the capital to purchase the new equipment, and b) his plot was too small to warrant using the new techniques even if he could afford them. These difficulties merely added to those from which he already suffered, such as his inability to obtain credit on reasonable terms because of his race or his poverty, or both; the racial discrimination to which he was subjected by government agricultural agencies; the general bias against small farmers which permeates many of the Department of Agriculture programs; and the culture and tradition of the rural South, which handicapped the black man in acquiring education, prevented him from acquiring expertise in large-scale business, marketing and finance, and kept him from being privy to the inner workings of government and commerce.7

Dr. Ray Marshall of the University of Texas describes the situation as follows:

Because of their limited incomes, education, farm sizes, and access to credit, the Negro farmers' ability to adjust to technological and market changes has been markedly different from that of whites: the average size of farms operated by Negroes is one-fourth the average size of farms operated by whites; and Negroes have less livestock, crop yields per acre, and machinery per farm and are much more dependent on cotton and tobacco, which are hardest hit by technological changes and federal agricultural policies.8

The social problems created by modern agricultural technology are by no means limited to the black and the poor farmer. The combination of agricultural technology, the farm subsidy programs of the Department of Agriculture,9 and the special interest "loopholes” of the tax laws, is delivering an ever-increasing portion of the nation's farm land into the impersonal hands of agri-business establishments of various sorts. Properly situated investors find that they can undersell the small farmer, sometimes because of efficiencies but often because they can operate massive farms at a loss and recoup their investment plus a profit via tax write-offs and land speculation. Indeed, to just what extent large-scale farms are actually more efficient than moderate sized ones is a hotly debated subject. Obviously, a farm must be of a certain minimum size before it becomes feasible to employ modern technology, almost all of which has been of the capital intensive type. Technological improvements have pushed the minimum size for an economically viable farm steadily upward. However, this phenomenon should not be confused with economies of scale or lead one to the conclusion that efficiency is inevitably correlated with farm size. There is, in fact, considerable evidence that some of the agri-business establishments running into the tens of thousands of acres are in fact less efficient than more modest sized farms. A 1972 study by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture concluded that most of the economies of size in farming are achieved by fully mechanized one-man or two-man farms. Their costs per unit of product were found to be equal to those of large farms.10 Tragically, it is the black farmer who is suffering the greatest displacement from the modern trends in agriculture. A particularly thoughtful piece of research on this subject has been done by Virgil Christian and Adamantios Pepelasis, and its conclusions bear repeating here:

The foregoing argument can be reduced to several propositions relating to the displacement of farm family labor.

• Technological changes in agriculture have increased the minimum size of an economically viable farm. Agricultural production has become more capital intensive, and low production costs require that the operator have sufficient land to justify use of the smallest indivisible units of technologically efficient capital. This has led to a great reduction in the number of small farms, regardless of the race of the operator. Small farms in the cotton states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia — were particularly vulnerable.

• If there are economies of scale in agriculture, long run pressures on small farmers will be greater than those imposed by technological change alone. But the shift to capital intensive methods is sufficient to account for much of what has happened, regardless of scale considerations.

• A higher percentage of black farmers were adversely affected by the increase in minimum farm size than white farmers. No matter where the minimum fell, it caught a larger share of blacks below it.

• On all farm sizes a larger proportion of black operators were tenants than were white operators; alternatively a smaller proportion of blacks were either full or part owners. They were therefore more susceptible to displacement by a decision of the owner to shift to more capital intensive methods.

• The data show that a high proportion of all farms, and a very high proportion of farms operated by blacks, are still smaller than 100 acres. Insofar as the argument of this paper has any validity, this suggests continuing displacement in crops affected by new methods, and relatively greater displacement among blacks.

• On farms of all sizes, blacks were disadvantaged in the transition to capital intensive methods. They had fewer assets, less access to credit, and as a consequence of poor educational background and less help from extension programs of the USDA, less adaptability to change. Consequently, they show more displacement on farms of all sizes, and much heavier displacement on large farms. In fact, the displacement of black operators on large farms, though less than on small farms, was high enough to make one suspect that inability to acquire capital was more important than concentration on small farms in determining the blacks' survival rate in agriculture.

• In conclusion, concentration on small farms is not the only — and possibly not the principal — cause of the Negro farmer's disproportionate displacement in southern agriculture. But the twin facts, one, a very much greater per cent of black farmers than white farmers operating farms of less than 100 acres, and, two, a much higher displacement of farms less than 100 acres than of farms larger than 100 acres accounts easily, albeit superficially, for much of the difference. A third, namely that well over half of southern Negro farm families in 1950 were involved in cotton, the crop hardest hit by technological change, conversion to capital intensive methods, increased minimum farm size, and, perhaps, economies of scale, and a fourth, the Negro's disadvantage in acquiring capital, combine with them to provide a plausible, if partial, explanation of what has happened. Finally, despite heavy displacement of small farms, more than four-fifths of southern Negro farmers operate on less than 100 acres, suggesting continued poverty and deprivation for those who remain and further sizeable movement of blacks out of agriculture.11


It is relatively easy to identify the problems of the black rural land owner but it has proved to be extremely difficult to mount an effective campaign to assist him. There are five ingredients which are essential that the aspiring black farmer has available to him:

• land

• experienced labor

• managerial expertise

• operating capital or equipment

• credit (at reasonable rates)

The first two items he often has had, but in lacking the latter three he too often loses his land. From this analysis one can conclude that the provision of items 3, 4 and 5 are the sine qua non for enabling the farmer to retain his land.

Geoffrey Faux, formerly the head of the Research and Development Division of OEO, brings an additional dimension to this discussion by pointing out that even access to credit on reasonable terms is probably insufficient for poor farmers because most lending agencies, including the government, will not lend to those who have very little resources of their own. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty, reviewing the Rural Loan Program authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act, he said:

The anti-poverty bill that was originally reported out of this committee in 1964 called for a comprehensive program of financial assistance (which included grants as well as loans) to poor farmers and cooperatives whose membership was predominantly made up of poor farmers. In his testimony on the original bill in 1964, then Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman was asked how poor people could be expected to repay loans with conventional terms when they had been judged as too high risks for the regular Farmer's Home Administration rural loan program. Freeman responded:

The grant is the thing that makes the difference. . . without the grant, you would not have the capital resources to repay any loan. . . .

But this little bit of capital, which makes it possible let us say, to get seed or fertilizer or a little bit of machinery, or some animals, makes the difference between getting somebody launched on a meaningful kind of operation, or else Just being mired in the poverty they are in now.

Thus the original design of the program provided poor farmers with an injection of capital into their business which would have enabled them to use a conventional loan effectively in helping themselves become self sufficient. Secretary Freeman estimated at that time that two-thirds of the poor farmers in this country had neither the will nor the ability to migrate to the cities, but with a small investment could have raised their income above the poverty level.

Despite the fact that the committees of both houses reported out the bill with provisions for both grants and loans, the authorization for grants was deleted on the Senate floor after former Senator Laushe objected that if a grant were given to poor farm families eventually every family in the country would have to be given one. The grants were deleted without argument and without a vote.

Thus the grant provision which the Secretary of Agriculture testified was essential for the effective implementation of the loan program was deleted while the loan program remained. Since then we have learned the hard way that Secretary Freeman was right. Poor farmers have found it very difficult to take advantage of loan programs designed for established middle and upper income farmers. Without the grant assistance the legislative requirement that there be reasonable assurance of repayment has made most poor farmers ineligible for assistance. As a result, the Farmers Home Administration has tended to make a high proportion of loans to farmers whose incomes are above the poverty level. A GAO report on the program showed that between January, 1965, and February, 1968, over forty per cent of the borrowers receiving financial assistance were not poor.

Mr. Faux goes on to comment on the need for more expertise for the black farmer:

By any reasonable measure the Farmer Home Administration has been woefully negligent in providing the technical assistance that is vital for success in farming. Despite the fact that poor and minority farmers have lacked access to such assistance, the FHA has not during the course of this program given poor farmers the kind of help they give to the wealthier ones. I quote from the GAO report:

Work measurement studies completed by FHA in 1967 showed that, on an overall basis. Economic Opportunity Loan borrowers were receiving less individual attention with respect to the making of their loans and subsequent supervision than borrowers receiving other types of FHA loans. 

How much of this shortchanging of the poor is a result of bureaucratic fumbling and how much a result of racial discrimination I cannot say. After the 1965 report of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on the Department of Agriculture programs, the Farmers Home Administration increased the number of black employees as well as the number of black members of county committees. Since 1966, however, there has not been much progress. In May, 1970, blacks made up only four per cent of the FHA staff and only six per cent of the membership of county committees.

Many of the problems of today's black farmer are similar to those faced by poor white farmers during the Depression and a few of the more innovative New Dealers of that era attempted to devise programs to address the problems. Ben Bagdikian describes what took place under one of these programs:

In rural Mississippi the sight of the unpainted leaning shack subconsciously brings to mind, "Negro” and of the painted clapboard farmhouse with awnings, "white." This is almost completely accurate — except in an area of Holmes County which has the best organized Negro rural community in the state. Its backbone is over 100 independent, land-owning Negro farm families who are the nucleus not only for civil rights and educational reform but of economic development. Their families for the most part are solid, their children well educated, their homes hopeful places for the young to grow in. Their outlook is as secure and full as a Negro can expect in the state of Mississippi. The cost to government? An average of $6,200 per farm, long since paid off. In 1944, former Representative Harold Cooley, not a wild Populist, studied the effect of such programs. He reported that in 1940 the Farm Security Administration, predecessor to Farmers Home Administration, bought up 9,350 acres of land in Mileston, Mississippi (Holmes County), divided it into 106 farms, 70 of them transferred to individuals and 36 to cooperatives, all for formerly landless tenant farmers. The land and farm equipment was paid for by a 40-year, 3 per cent loan. Cooley's conclusion 2 ½ years later was, As an example of the progress that families on this project are making, it will be noted that principal repayments exceed the amount due. Today, 23 years after that report, these former sharecroppers and their sons are independent, productive farmers who form the heart of the most vigorous rural community in their state.

The Holmes County project was only one of many started by the New Deal. It began in 1935 with the Resettlement Administration which, under executive order from Franklin Roosevelt, bought up large plantations and parcels that were on the market or defaulting on taxes, and redistributed them. Ten thousand families were resettled in 152 projects, some with help to build community facilities.12 Farmer with plums, Mendenhall, Alabama. 

The story of the several attempts to fashion experiments which could demonstrate how the life of the rural poor could be meaningfully changed has been described by Sidney Baldwin and makes for fascinating reading. One of his conclusions is that:

The resettlement project program did offer a unique experimental opportunity whose lessons have not yet, a generation later, been fully evaluated, let alone applied.13

Unfortunately, few of these New Deal programs were administered in ways which benefited the black community, despite the fact that rural blacks were the poorest of the poor in America's rural areas, a fact easily traceable to earlier abuses. Gunnar Myrdal, in his famous study of the Negro in America, strongly emphasized the disastrous consequences for America's development which resulted from failure to provide emancipated slaves with some land and capital.

After the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of Negroes were concentrated in Southern agriculture. Consequently, the greatest problem was what to do with these great masses of Southern Negroes, most of whom were former slaves. Even the Negroes not in Southern agriculture were influenced by the patterns set, since the Northern Negro laborer was recruited, in later decades, from the rural South.

A rational economic reform of Southern plantation economy, which would preserve individual property rights to the maximum (always of greatest importance for a smooth readjustment) but also utilize the revolutionary situation for carrying into effect the aims of Reconstruction, could have included the following points besides freeing the slaves:

• remunerating fully the slave owners out of federal funds;

• expropriating the slave plantations or a larger part of them and remunerating fully their owners out of federal funds;

• distributing this land in small parcels to those cultivators who wished it, against mortgaged claims on their new property, and requiring them to pay for the land in yearly installments over a long period;

• creating for a transition period a rather close public supervision over the freedmen and also certain safeguards against their disposition of their property; also instituting an effective vocational education of Negro farmers, somewhat along the lines of the F.S.A. of the 1930's;

• instituting a scheme of taxation to pay off the former slave- and land-owners and, perhaps, to allow repayment for the land by the new owners to be kept down under the actual expropriation costs;

• as a partial alternative, in order to relieve the Negro population pressure in the South and in order to help keep down the scope of the reconstruction program; helping Negroes take part in the westward rural migration

The cheapness of land in America would have been a factor making a land reform easier to execute than in most other countries where it has been successfully carried out when abolishing serfdom. Even if the burden on the public finances were reckoned as economic costs — which, of course, is a totally wrong way of calculating costs in a national economy, as they are meant to be profitable investments in economic progress — those costs would have been trifling compared with what Reconstruction and Restoration, not to speak of the Civil War, actually cost the nation. What happened, however, was that the slaves were freed without any remuneration being paid their former owners; and that, with few exceptions, the freedmen were not given access to the land.14

The need for basic land reform in America, for both blacks and whites, hardly needs to be argued if any one of the following premises is accepted:

1) that people should be afforded an option to retain a rural life style if they so choose;

2) that the trend toward agri-business and oligopolistic corporate farming is an unhealthy path for the economy to follow; or

3) that it is desirable that the black minority maintain a share in the ownership of the national territory. If any or all of the above premises are adopted, it is then mandatory that steps be taken to

reverse the prevalent trends in American agriculture, trends which are not so much ''natural'' as they are "induced,” induced via the biases built into our USDA subsidy and research programs, our land grant college programs, our tax laws and our racial attitudes.

When one recalls the history in the perspective of the current political climate in the country where even the modest Rural Development Act of 1972 may be starved for funds, it does not appear likely that there will be any groundswell for seriously addressing the problems of rural poverty, and most especially those of black rural poverty. On the other hand, the call for land reform being currently raised by a tiny group of intellectual activists promises at least to get the topic of landownership patterns into the public arena for discussion and debate.



1. Ulmer, Al, "Cooperatives and Poor People in the South," Southern Regional Council, Atlanta, 1969.

2. The following comment by Randolph Blackwell, a southern black community leader is noteworthy: "Land is basically a more valuable property than money, since there is a fixed and limited supply of it, and its value enhances with population growth — particularly when it is located in the path of urbanization. Furthermore, it does not burn up or blow away and is not subject to simple forms of theft (although title to land can be, and ofttimes is, stolen)."

3. Perelman, Michael and Shea, Kevin P., "The Big Farm," Environment, Vol. 14, No. 10, pp. 14-15.

4. See Salamon, Lester, "Family Assistance — The Stakes in the Rural South," The New Republic, February 20, 1971.

5. This is not to suggest that black landowners constitute the sole potential for building a black power base in the rural South. Economist Ray Marshall has pointed out that although the rural black population has declined in each decade since 1920, the black rural non-farm population has increased in each decade. To the extent that secure industrial employment can be created for this growing non-farm black rural population, to that extent is this a promising potential for developing a non-land owning black population unbeholden to the white planter. Whether the white industrialist is likely to be any less oppressive than the white planter class is another question.

6. Fusfeld, Daniel, “The Basic Economics of the Urban and Racial Crises," Review of Black Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer/Spring, 1970, p. 63.

7. Ponder, Henry, “Prospects for Black Farmers in the Years Ahead," paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Detroit, Michigan, 1970.

8. Marshall, Ray, "Is the South Still Backward?," American Economic Review, Proceedings, May, 1972, p. 205.

9. In this connection the following comments by Marion Clawson are worth noting: The programs covering production control, price (or income) support, and surplus storage were designed to help the commercial farmers, especially the larger ones. The direct payments to farmers have shown a few very large payments and many small ones. Any approach to the farm problem that tried to work through market prices of farm commodities or through income support geared to volume of farm output would have shown a similar distribution of benefits. Only the larger farmers have a large enough volume of output to obtain much benefit from higher prices of farm commodities; for. many small farmers, no reasonable increase in the prices of commodities they sell would increase their income to a satisfactory level. The programs that were designed to help small farmers have been weak, poorly funded, subject to program revision at frequent intervals, and generally ineffective.

The income support to agriculture has had the further effect of stimulating increases in farm land price. Prices of land in farms, in growing suburban areas, and in recreation use have all moved up rapidly in the past 20 years. Rising prices of farmland are traditionally supposed to make it more difficult for young farmers to get started and to benefit established farmers, who can then retire in their old age out of the increased value of their farms. But, in recent years, even this supposed advantage to older farmers had been lacking.

The average farmer has doubled his land area in the past 20 to 30 years, but what he gained in increased market value of the land he owned, he lost in the price he had to pay for the land he bought. With a total farm real estate value of over $200 billion in the United States today, a reasonable interest return (no more than 6 per cent — surely low for 1970 money conditions) eats up nearly all the $13 billion — $16 billion realized net in  come from farming, leaving very little for labor earnings. Many farmers today have a competitive return for their labor only if they are willing to forego a competitive return for their capital, and vice versa. Farming has become a high-investment and low-wage industry. From: Clawson, Marion, America's Land and Its Uses, (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1972), p. 112-113.

10. Economies of Size in Farming, a report prepared for the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor by the Farm Production Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept, of Agriculture, August, 1972.

11. Christian, Virgil L., Jr., and Adamantios, Pepelasis, "Farm Size and the Displacement of Black Farm Families in Southern Agriculture," Human Resource Development in the Rural South, a report of the Center for the Study of Human Resources, The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 1971.

12. Bagdikian, Ben, “A Forgotten New Deal Experiment in Land Reform in Mississippi," I.F. Stone's Weekly, July 31, 1967, p. 3.

13. Baldwin, Sidney, Poverty and Politics, (University of North Carolina Press, 1968), p. 217.

14. Myrdal, Gunnar, An American Dilemma, (Harper Brothers, New York, 1944), p. 225.