In late 2019, Gainesville resident Dale Harris received a phone call from a distant relative who said that she and her 98-year-old father are part-owners of a 120-acre plot of land an hour’s drive outside Tallahassee.
She was excited by the news.
“It was really unbelievable,” Harris said.
But she also learned that using the land — even retaining it — would be a challenge because, under the law, it was considered “heirs’ property.”
Heirs’ property commonly occurs when a deceased relative dies without leaving a will or leaves land to multiple heirs.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, heirs’ property is “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” African Americans, who once owned 15 million acres, lost up to 90 % of their land from 1910-2007.
In Florida, a growing number of individuals and groups — including lawyers, state legislators, county commissioners and community organizers — have been working to help families affected by heirs’ property.
Many have dealt with heirs’ property personally.
Harris, 70, who grew up in the Gainesville’s Pleasant Street neighborhood, said property ownership by African Americans is important to her.
Harris currently lives in a home built in 1947 by her grandmother and her husband, a dentist who practiced out of an office above their garage. During segregation, their home was a place for social gatherings, such as weddings. Their house is also located two blocks from her childhood home, where her father still lives.
Harris said that her family went to a lawyer and took steps to ensure that ownership of their Gainesville home would be legally passed to her and her sister.
But over the years, she has seen a decrease in the number of Black-owned homes in her neighborhood.
“Many of my friends who had families and had property here, most of them had lost the property or sold the property and moved on because very few came back to Gainesville after they finished high school.”
Harris also has concerns about lost farmland throughout the American South.
“Historically, of all the land that African Americans used to own — back, you know, when they were farmers and all — I think now there’s maybe only 5% ownership left.”
As a result of that phone call in 2019, Harris now has personal experience with heirs’ property herself.
Although documents show that the 120 acres that Harris and her father co-own with dozens of relatives near Tallahassee had been acquired by her relatives in the late 1800s, a prior owner had died without leaving a will or left the land to multiple heirs in their will.
As “tenants in common,” Harris and members of her extended family all own a portion of undivided land. In legal terms, they have a “cloudy title,” meaning they can’t show clear proof of ownership.
Owners of heirs’ property experience a host of related problems because banks, businesses and government assistance programs need to have evidence of ownership, including a “clear title.”
“Clear title is the nucleus of this whole issue,” said LaTonya Smith, staff attorney with Three Rivers Legal Services in Jacksonville, Florida. She, along with attorney Rachel Rall, work primarily with low-income families who have heirs’ property issues through the Home Sweet Home project, which covers 17 counties in North Florida, including Alachua.
Smith said that without a clear title, owners cannot use land held as heirs’ property as collateral to access bank loans, receive federal assistance from FEMA after a hurricane, take advantage of USDA farming programs or claim homestead exemptions.
Land held as heirs’ property is also vulnerable to real-estate speculators and predatory developers who have used ambiguous laws and tax deed sales to acquire land at cut-rate prices.
On top of these challenges, the expenses related to clearing title can be insurmountable for many families, Smith said.
Harris said that the process to clear the title on their heirs’ property has been costly and time-consuming.
Several members of her extended family have contacted over 100 descendants, each of whom hold an ownership stake of the land.
“It gets so involved that you have to document and go to vital statistics and get death records and everything,” Harris said. “And they’re not cheap. Each document’s cost is — it’s so expensive.”
A Legacy Of Violence And Discrimination
For more than a century, heirs’ property has devastated the African American community’s ability to build generational wealth due to a lack of access to affordable legal services and distrust of legal systems that often worked against them.
Recent estimates suggest that from one-third- to two-thirds of land owned by African Americans is held as heirs’ property, comprising somewhere between 1.6 million acres valued at $6.6 billion to 3.5 million acres valued at $28 billion.
Patrick Mason, professor of economics and director of the African American Studies program at Florida State University, said African Americans living in Florida knew the importance of land ownership as soon as slavery ended, but they faced a number of problems.
“Think about what it’s like in 1865,” Mason said. “You have nothing to eat. No place to stay. The only clothes you have, you’re wearing. And you, of course, don’t have any savings. No wealth. You can’t read or write. And you are at the mercy of people who never liked you, never saw you as human beings, and now they’re mad because you’re free and celebrating.”
In the years following slavery and the end of Reconstruction, whites used violence to intimidate African Americans and force them off their land. Among all former Confederate and border states, Florida had the highest number of lynchings per capita from 1880 to 1930. Incidents of ethnic cleansing took place across the state in places such as Rosewood, Perry, Newberry, Ocoee and Groveland.
Despite facing violence and discrimination during a low point in civil rights following Reconstruction, African Americans managed to acquire millions of acres of land. But they lost much of this land due to state and local institutions arrayed against them, said Mason.
At the end of the first World War, during the Great Migration, many Black people living in North Florida left their farms — fleeing violence and seeking better opportunities in South Florida and in the nation’s industrial cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West.
But problems arose for African American families when land transitioned between generations. Local government offices, the zoning, property appraiser, tax collector, police and courts existed to serve the interests of whites in the community, said Mason.
“You have people interacting with local officials who aren’t there to help them and more powerful people who want their property,” said Mason.
If there was no will, if a land owner lived out of state and didn’t understand the value of their property or could not afford legal counsel, those offices did not help families hold on to their land.
Sandra Thompson, program leader focusing on heirs’ property and rural community resource development at Florida A&M University’s Cooperative Extension, said African Americans initially valued land as a safe place for food and shelter, rather than for its economic potential.
“For Black people, land was considered valuable for being a place that all family members could lay their heads in peace,” Thompson said.
“To this day, the primary form of wealth among African Americans is homeownership, ”Mason said. The recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009 had a disproportionate impact on African Americans who saw their home values decline.
Nationwide, Black homeownership has declined for much of the past 20 years. It remained at 42% from 2016-2018, a rate as low as it was in 1970. Meanwhile, the rate of white homeownership rose to a record high of 73% in 2019.
“When they lose this land,” Mason said, “they’re losing wealth. And that has multigenerational consequences.”
“I view this as a social justice issue,” said Joan Flocks, director of social policy for the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. She said heirs’ property “disproportionately affects low-income families and families of color.”
The families who are most in need of some form of wealth building are also most impacted by historical patterns of racism and discrimination, said Flocks.
In 2018, Flocks and two of her students published a study in the Florida Bar Journal that shows a pattern of heirs’ property in Alachua County.
“It did show that there’s more heirs’ properties in certain low income neighborhoods, working class neighborhoods, historically, black neighborhoods, and that those heirs’ properties existed more in those neighborhoods than in others.”
Smith, the attorney whose office provides free legal services to low-income families, said that in addition to the costs associated with resolving heirs’ property issues, many also owe unpaid property taxes and penalties that they may never have been aware of. For them, she said, “It’s just too much.”
Families who own heirs’ property are “caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Sandra Thompson, whose own family is working to resolve a cloudy title on an heirs’ property. “They own it, but they can’t really do anything with it. They want to clear the title, but the cost of clearing the title is too expensive.”
As a result, “they stay in a vulnerable position,” Thompson said.
Their vulnerability to predatory land buyers and developers is key to understanding how heirs’ property has caused Black people to lose so much land, said Thompson.
Prior to the passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act in Florida just last year, any heir could partition the land and sell their portion to a predatory buyer. Real estate speculators could file a lawsuit called a partition action. Courts would often side with buyers rather than families. Black-owned properties could be sold for pennies on the dollar on the courthouse steps, thereby quickly dissolving the family’s accumulated wealth.
Recent Public Policies
Gov. Ron Desantis signed Florida’s Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (SB 580) on June 20, 2020.
The law “gives due process to families,” said Thompson, who worked with a team of individuals to get it passed. The law stipulates that all family members need to be notified and given time to develop an estate plan prior to a sale.
The law also honors owners’ sentimental attachment to the property, including ancestral connections and other unique or special relationships.
Jami Coleman, an attorney with Williams & Coleman in Tallahassee, who also worked to get the heirs’ property law passed, said that three out of five new cases she sees per week deal with heirs’ property issues.
“It’s actually a very personal issue for me,” Coleman said, adding that her own family has unresolved heirs’ property in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Jeudi Coleman, Jami Coleman’s mother, said her family once owned “a lot of land,” that was first acquired by her grandparents.
Her family grew cotton, had horses and pigs and provided jobs in the community. “It was a lot of hard work,” she said.
The family bartered with others, but was left out of government assistance provided to farmers.
Over the decades, speculators used their positions to obtain portions of the property. The family has dealt with lengthy legal battles.
“We’ve had, twice in my memory, where we’ve had to prove ownership or prove that we were heirs or prove — to beat these people out,” Jeudi Coleman said.
Today, her family owns less than three acres, she said. “It’s a mess.”
Jeudi Coleman said many of her ancestors were Methodist ministers. They passed onto her the wish to build a church on the land.
“My grandfather used to say that God is not making any more land. And he would say, ‘If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.’”
Her daughter, Tallahassee lawyer, Jami Coleman said many in the Black community distrust government officials and lawyers, groups who may have worked against them.
“So the thought of having to potentially work with somebody over property — which is how most American families generate wealth, and potentially lose it — is scary,” she said.
Coleman has explained her worries and advised family members living on the property to take legal steps to ensure the remaining three acres are not lost.
“But at the end of the day, you know, I can only educate people.”
For attorney Coleman, understanding her family’s history and experience of owning heirs’ property influences how she works with her clients in Florida.
“Where we come from, you know, owning property is a huge thing,” said Coleman. “It’s special to us, because it was very difficult for my grandparents to own property during a time period where Blacks were being lynched.”
Coleman asks her clients to share their personal stories. ”I need to understand these stories — I need to understand the background — so that I can, not only give, like, legal advice, but practical advice too.”
The Uniform Partition law touches on a lot of issues important to her clients, Coleman said. “It protects people’s property rights. It also keeps people in homes. It also helps with affordable housing.”
Sen. Randolph Bracy, the bill’s sponsor, has compared “a person’s life work of passing on properties” to a “family heirloom.”
“For someone to take it in a week’s time, a property that’s been a family’s possession for over a century, is wrong, it’s un-American, and I think we need to deal with it,” Bracy said.
Florida’s environmentalists played a role in getting the law passed. Senior Northwest Florida Representative for Defenders of Wildlife Kent Wimmer said his organization used its resources to form a working group and lobby the state legislature in support of Florida’s heirs’ property law.
But he said protecting wildlife and the environment was less important than helping Black families keep their lands.
“The tie to the environment is really very much a secondary priority. This is really about fairness and justice and trying to serve you know, a community that we haven’t served well in the past.”
Wimmer said helping families keep and manage their lands could lead to the conservation of habitats for species such as gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snakes. But that wasn’t their primary concern.
“We’re definitely not trying to force folks to do conservation easements or, you know, not sell their property,” he said. “It’s all about fairness.”
Thomas Mitchell, professor of law at Texas A&M University and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, wrote Florida’s bill. Mitchell’s work as a legal scholar has largely been to reform policies that have deprived Black and other disadvantaged American families from accumulating generational wealth. Similar uniform partition laws have been passed in eighteen states.
Mitchell has said that heirs’ property and the laws meant to address it impact a diverse group of owners. “We’re talking farmers and ranchers, folks who own single-family homes in cities, suburbs and rural areas, and in certain places, Indigenous groups,” he said.
The 2018 Federal Farm Bill provided incentives, including relending programs, for states who pass the law. But the Trump Administration did not implement those programs.
On July 29, 2021, the USDA announced that it will provide $67 million for loans through the Heirs’ Property Relending Program. The funds are intended to protect heirs’ property and allow owners to access USDA programs and services. The program also gives the Biden administration a chance to deliver on one of its campaign promises — to protect heirs’ property.
Providing Education And Legal Assistance
In addition to federal and state agencies, local governments and organizations are also taking creative steps to help families resolve heirs’ property issues in their communities.
In Gainesville, local officials approved a pilot program to provide free legal services for families in primarily historically Black neighborhoods dealing with heirs’ property issues.
On July 19, the Gainesville City Commission, through the Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area (GCRA), approved a $250,000 grant to a pair of law offices who will provide probate legal services, including Three Rivers Legal Services, where Smith practices.
“The city can’t offer legal advice,” said Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward, who proposed the project in the summer of 2020. “So rather than creating a city office, we created a $250,000 grant proposal.”
Ward and other city officials cited data from UF law school professor Joan Flocks’ 2018 article. She showed how most of Alachua County’s heirs’ property are in low income and African American neighborhoods. The pilot program will connect low-income families with free legal services to help understand and deal with their heirs’ property issues.
Ward said that the impact of heirs’ property on cities differs from rural areas where farming and conservation groups have worked hard to address the issue in those regions.
“For cities like ours, it creates these gaps in the community,” he said.
To illustrate the problems heirs’ property can create in urban areas, Ward described the predicament homeowners face when dealing with a costly repair. “If I didn’t have a clear title to my house — as most people with heirs’ property don’t — they can’t go to the bank and borrow money to put a new roof on.”
As a result of these patterns, whole neighborhoods can fall into decline, affecting the city’s tax base, said Ward.
“Everybody who lives in Gainesville has a stake in helping people with heirs’ property issues.” They have a stake both financially and as neighbors, he said. “We all want our neighbors to be able to benefit from property ownership.”
Ward also called heirs’ property a “Jim Crow issue,” referring to the state and local laws that enforced racial segregation.
“A segment of our community, and of communities across the South, has been unable to get good legal help,” he said. Historically African American neighborhoods in Gainesville have been “shut out of the legal process, even though they did everything right.”
Providing grants for legal counsel is a small act of assistance that local government officials say they can provide to address prior injustices, he said.
“Wrongs have been done by local government, in our community, and in every community across the South, institutionally,” Ward said. “We can’t go back and apologize to people that we’ve hurt and who have passed on, but we can help their grandchildren enjoy the house they built or that they bought.”
Helping families resolve heirs’ property issues is also part of the city’s affordable housing plan, said Ward. For most people who own heirs’ property, their homes — which could be mortgage-free — are an inexpensive and preferable place to live.
“If we can keep them in their home and help them improve their home for a relatively minimal investment, that’s a win,”Ward said.
Letting families with heirs’ property know about the legal services available to them is an important next step, said Ward.
Chelsea Bakaitis, GCRA project manager, said her office plans to do outreach by visiting local churches and community watch and neighborhood association meetings.
“Hopefully, it’ll spread by word of mouth from there, people will start telling their neighbors,” she said.
One Gainesville group has already worked to help owners of heirs’ property. Beginning in the fall of 2019, Communities That Care Community Land Trust sponsored local workshops in the Pleasant Street neighborhood that provided education about heirs’ property and connected families with free legal assistance, said Gary Hankins, the organization’s president.
“We had breakout sessions where families who had a problem could sit down with the attorney at the workshop and sort of talk about what their situation is, get more information,” Hankins said. “If they chose, after the workshop, they contacted Three Rivers.”
Located north of University Avenue between the University of Florida and downtown, the Pleasant Street neighborhood is one of Gainesville’s earliest African American settlements established in the late nineteenth century.
To prepare for the workshops, Dotty Faibisy, president of the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Association, researched families in her neighborhood who most likely owned heirs’ property and might benefit from the workshops.
Faibisy, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years, said she sees helping people deal with heirs’ property as a tool for fighting gentrification.
“If people can hang on to their land and their houses, so that land doesn’t sit vacant, I think that would be helpful in preventing some gentrification,” she said.
Faibisy and Terri Bailey, a lifelong Pleasant Street resident and founder of Bailey Learning Arts Collective, knocked on their neighbors’ doors to invite them to the heirs’ property workshops.
Bailey, who also served as the workshops’ manager and facilitator, said she became passionate about the issue after both she and her husband’s families were impacted by heirs’ property.
Bailey is concerned about “the decay of our neighborhoods,” and the loss of Black families due to heirs’ property issues and gentrification. “This area used to be predominantly African American,” she said.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk about how it feels to experience the loss of Black families, said Bailey.
“To wake up Christmas morning and there are no kids out. And the few little kids that are out, they’re all white.”
“We’re not asking for exclusively Black neighborhoods,” said Bailey. “But we do not wish to be erased and excluded.”
The workshops Bailey managed provided families with information about how to make their wishes known and legally binding.
“That heirs’ property initiative gave us that opportunity to go out and start to talk to families about what heirs’ property actually is, the importance of will, importance of designating an heir,” said Bailey.
Bailey said she hopes that the workshops helped families “begin to take more interest in their legal responsibilities” and “maintain and promote their heritage.”
“But also” she added, “so that we can bring some families back to our neighborhoods.”
A Deep Attachment
“When you lose that property,” said Florida State University’s Patrick Mason, “you lose a piece of your history.”
“I live on property that has been in my family since 1875,” Mason said. It was acquired by his great great grandfather, who was born a slave in 1832. “He passed it onto his son, who was my great grandfather. He passed a share of it to my grandfather, who passed a share to my mother, who passed a share to me.”
His family has also owned another piece of property in Tallahassee since 1868.
Mason, who was born on the property, said his family has a deep attachment to their land.
“Sometimes people come out, family members come out just to walk around, take a look,” he said. “It’s your spot on the planet.”
While researching his family history, Mason found out about two of his great grandfather’s brothers who had moved to Boston. Mason connected with their descendants, and they have since visited his property.
“For me, it’s like a stunning thing to watch them,” Mason said. “[You] realize that, okay, here are my roots. Here’s where we started after slavery.”
In February 2020, not long after she and her father learned about the 120 acres of property they co-own with extended family members, and just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Dale Harris met with a group of descendants to tour their property together. Some lived nearby in Tallahassee. Others came from South Florida and Atlanta.
Harris discovered a cemetery, including the grave of her father’s uncle, whom she had met when she was younger.
“It’s just amazing to go back from being a kid and knowing these people to realize this was their final resting place,” she said. “We’re blessed to have an ongoing historical landmark.”
But Harris also expressed anxiety because her family’s land, as heirs’ property, remains vulnerable until they can clear the title.
“It’s expensive. And I guess that’s why sometimes families just give up because it is an expensive endeavor. And it’s not easily done, or it’s not going to get finished with very quickly.”
Harris doesn’t expect a resolution in her lifetime.
“It’s going to be those that are 50 and under who will benefit from this effort,” she said.
But she is committed to the process of clearing the title.
“If we never develop it and just hold onto it and eventually clear a piece and put a trail on it and someone in our bloodline lives there, then I will be happy,” Harris said.