The Great Rural Fighting to reclaim stolen land

Black heirs share their stories of land theft

When you are robbed of your land and legacy, what’s next?

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In 1910, rural African-American farm families held between 16 million and 19 million acres of farmland, but as of 2019, that number had spiraled to approximately 2.5 million. Source: PEW Trusts

In March 1967, Robert Vanderhorst, Sr., one of the most successful Black farmers and landowners in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, was on his deathbed. 

He signed a 30-day land option to sell a sizable swath of his acreage in his weakened capacity. That month-long agreement was the catalyst for what would become a 15-year-long court case. 

Ultimately, the Vanderhorst family lost the land they had owned for more than three decades. 

“He never intended to sell his property,” said Vanderhorst’s daughter, Pearl Vanderhorst Ascue. “He was approached by an individual familiar to our family. As my father was dying, he talked him into signing a contract. It’s unconscionable.” 

According to South Carolina state court records, Ascue’s parents signed a written 30-day option agreement on March 18, 1967. The buyer transferred his rights to a political figure who exercised the option on April 18, 1967 – a day after the contract’s expiration. 

The case, one of the longest land acquisition suits in the state’s history, reached the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1986. Despite the expired contract, the Vanderhorst family lost the case – and 40 acres of land. 

“We did not understand how the law worked when it came to property back then,” said Ascue, 76. “Knowledge is something else. When you don’t know, you can’t function because you don’t know what to do. Politicians and government officials know the 20-year plan – the future of rural areas and towns. Everyday Black folks aren’t privy to that information.”

But the Vanderhorst family is among a long line of Black landowners who have fallen prey to shady practices.

“Many rural landowners have been unable to access the knowledge and the services that would have helped them,” Jeff Winget, director of communications for the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation in Charleston. “We help by providing legal and for education services to protect heirs’ property.”

The nonprofit foundation helps families maintain land ownership, primarily in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Most of the land was acquired by African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that freed enslaved people in the Confederate states. 

In 1910, rural Black farm families held between 16 million and 19 million acres of farmland. The most recent Census of Agriculture shows that number has plummeted to approximately 2.5 million.  The Vanderhorst family had a will, but many families do not. Without one, the land is often deemed ancestral and therefore owned in common by all the owner’s lineage of descendants. Such a designation strips everyone of the rights and rewards of owning land. 

“With heirs’ property, if you need repairs, you cannot get a bank loan, FEMA assistance, or any other government help without your name on the title,” said Winget. “It also creates an unstable form of ownership and puts land at high risk for loss. Any heir can sell their share and force a sale of the entire property in the court.” 

“We once owned nearly 500 acres of land in Edisto Island, South Carolina,” says Gregory Estevez, author of “Edisto Island: The African-American Journey. The family now owns less than 50 acres.

Gregory Estevez knows this all too well. “We once owned nearly 500 acres of land in Edisto Island, South Carolina,” said the author of Edisto Island: The African-American Journey. Estevez’s 2019 book chronicles the history of Black residents of the coastal town. “Our family is down to less than 50 acres now.” 

Estevez, 56, is the great-great-grandson of Henry Hutchinson, an enslaved farmer and builder. Estevez is one of many in the Hutchinson lineage with heir rights to the property that his ancestor owned. It only takes one heir to push a partition sale. 

“Family members go off on their own, wanting some quick cash, selling the property for little or nothing,” Estevez said. “These developers apply pressure, and it’s tempting. When you dangle a carrot in front of a hungry person long enough, they will eventually snatch it.”

In 2012–2014, white people owned 98% and operated 94% of all farmland, according to The Journal of Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society. They generated 98% of all farm-related income from land ownership and 97% of income from farm owner-operatorship.

The property foundation exists because of the inequitable land ownership and the Black community’s distrust of government. Historically, Black families thought that there would be strength in numbers. They were wrong. 

“Black heirs thought: ‘If we all as a family lived on this piece of land, then maybe it would be more protected that way,’” Winget said. “That’s the exact opposite. Without a clear title, you can’t make the land work for you. 

“For instance, if you own land in South Carolina, most likely there are trees on it,” said Winget. “Forestry is a $21 billion a year industry here. We provide different ways for people to earn money from their land.” 

Estevez wants more Black heirs to understand the value of their land and their history. “When you talk about land and property, you are talking about economic empowerment and wealth,” he said. “With land comes generational wealth, but we are steadily losing land in Black America.

“It’s disheartening, personally, that my family has lost the majority of our land,” Estevez said. “However, we still hold on to our legacy and heritage.”

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Episode Fighting to reclaim stolen land