Lack of Documented Land Rights Continues to Constrain Descendants of Freed Slaves in U.S.

By Peter Giampaoli, Climate Change Specialist, Land Tenure and Property Rights Division, USAID.

Clear, secure rights to manage and use forests are an important aspect of sustaining traditions and economic opportunities. Although this web site often discusses property rights in the context of developing countries, insecure title and undocumented land rights can undermine smallholder ownership in the United States as well. In the American South, some African American owners of rural land and forests face challenges stemming from imprecise boundaries and a lack of clarity regarding their property rights–both of which are legacies of how land and property rights were allocated to freed slaves following the Civil War.

In an ongoing case near Olney, Maryland, a kinship community is in a dispute with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission over the whether a public road actually exists. Residents–descendants of freed slaves who settled in the area following the Civil war–argue that a public road previously existed but was removed from planning maps as the surrounding area was developed. A Commission official commented on the property deeds held by the residents, saying the descriptions of property boundaries are inadequate for determining “who actually is entitled to use a right-of-way.” He went on to note, “Ancient deeds make references to property descriptions in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s to a rock. Sometimes it’s to an apple tree.” An attorney representing one member of the community pointed out that if there is no recognized public road, then residents don’t have addresses, and “they can’t build on the land, they can’t get services, they can’t get emergency services, they can’t do anything with the property they’re paying taxes on.” He continued, “Obviously, the property is not worth much. … If you can’t build on it, it’s hard to sell it.”

In North and South Carolina, a pilot program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities is helping sustain the African American legacy of forest ownership in those states by helping clarify smallholder titles over forest lands and providing training on how to productively manage forest lands for economic benefit. Many of these family holdings date back to the period following the Civil War. Often deeded to multiple families, these forest lands are now held in common by numerous inheritors without clear titles. Economic distress has driven some smallholders to sell their forest land, and individual descendants are able to force the sale of these lands–terminating family ownership.

In both the Maryland and North and South Carolina cases, owners face challenges exercising their property rights due, in part, to modern requirements regarding the precision and detail of property records. Such conflicts may be resolved by programs similar to the USDA’s, which attempts to achieve greater precision regarding ownership and property boundaries. The pilot program has enabled African American forest owners to retain ownership of their forest holdings and has been cited as a model for expansion across the South. The USDA program and similar efforts reflect the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security by helping smallholder owners clarify their rights and by providing extension and other services that allow them to use their land for economic benefit.


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