You Hold Onto Your Land’: Helping Black Families Fight Involuntary Land Loss

Land was everything for Henry Robbins, Gwendolyn Robbins-Pratt, Florine Robbins-Stewart and their 17 siblings, who were born and grew up on their family’s property in Winston County east central Mississippi. Despite the sheer volume of mouths to feed, Robbins-Pratt says the children all got three square meals a day because food never ran out on a farm.

“I had friends that were sharecroppers and that taught me the importance of having your own because they were working for someone else’s land and not owning any land,” her sister,  Robbins-Stewart, said during a video presented at a World Wildlife Fund virtual press conference on Oct. 14, 2021.

Their father, Henry Clay Robbins, even donated land for St. James Presbyterian Church, where  Robbins-Stewart would get married. Robbins-Pratt also married on the family’s land.

After their parents died, the 14 remaining siblings became third-generation owners of 350 acres of land that their grandfather and father bought and worked. The siblings jointly own the land in what is known as heirs’ property, which is land passed down informally from generation to generation, mostly because landowners died without a will.

The USDA has funds available for landowners who want to rehabilitate their farms. The Robbins’ land produced timber, which the siblings wanted to sell, but they ran into a problem. A man who claims to be an heir has placed his name on an acre of the Robbins’ land. Heirship has not been established, and the siblings said they do not know him, Mississippi Center for Justice confirmed.

That claim on one acre means that the Robbins descendants cannot claim their family’s land.

“We found out that there was one acre that this young man had put his name on as an heir to the property. I don’t understand how someone can come in and go to the tax assessor’s office and put their name on somebody’s property. It has caused problems for families such as ours,” Robbins-Stewart said.

Heirs’ property can leave owners susceptible to developers and timber harvesters, tax sales and forced partition sales. Owners then must either give up their land or go through the costly legal process of resolving title issues. It is a common problem for Black families.

The siblings have no plans to sell their family land. They have grandchildren they want to inherit the property, and the stranger’s claim threatens their plans to build generational wealth for their grandchildren, they say.

“If you got land, you had it made. You could make everything else, but you couldn’t make any more land. You can go out and buy a car, tear it up. They can make another car,” Henry Robbins remarked in the video. “But if you got land, you hold onto it. You don’t get rid of it because that’s something they can’t make no more.”

‘Property Matters’

Underserved groups, mostly Black families, have involuntarily lost hundreds and thousands of acres of land in Mississippi due to discriminatory legal and extra-legal policies over the years, Mississippi Center for Justice CEO and President Vangela Wade said during a virtual press conference on Oct. 14.

In 2005, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation CEO Jennie Stephens started the nonprofit, which provides families with legal services and education about heirs’ property in South Carolina. Families across the country have asked the nonprofit for assistance, but they could not help them because their homes were not located in South Carolina.

“We felt we must figure out a way to help these families, so our idea was to replicate our successful service delivery model by partnering with trusted community-based organizations in other states that could provide direct legal services in addition to education and outreach,” Stephens explained at the press conference.

This led to The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation and the Mississippi Center for Justice collaborating to establish the Mobile Basin Heirs’ Property, a two-year program that helps historically underserved families in Mississippi protect and keep their land, build generational wealth and promote sustainable forests.

Jennie L. Stephens is the CEO of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation, which works to help educate South Carolina landowners about their heirs’ property and provide them with legal services to resolve issues tied to maintaining ownership of their land. Courtesy Jennie L. Stephens

The Mississippi Probate Attorney website defines heir property as “land that is jointly owned by descendants of a deceased person whose estate was never handled in probate.” The heirs have a right to use the property, but don’t have a clear title to the land since estate issues remain unsolved.

This is where the Center for Heirs Property Preservation can step in and help.

“The center’s service-delivery model consists of preventing the loss in growth of heirs’ property, resolving title issues to the land and helping families begin forestry enterprises from which they can build generational wealth while benefiting the environment,” Stephens said.

Without a court proceeding, buyers or lenders don’t know who is entitled to the property, which means heirs cannot sell, mortgage or deal with the real estate.

“This is an unstable and risky way to own land. Heirs’ property is cited as one of the major reasons African Americans have lost land,” Stephens explained.

Mississippi Center for Justice CEO and President Vangela M. Wade has been doing work in the area of heirs property since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006. Courtesy Justin Hardiman

Owners of unresolved heirs’ property cannot obtain a mortgage; have limited access to USDA cost-share programs for conservation practices on their land; have limited access to state and federal housing rehabilitation funds; and have difficulty accessing FEMA funds after natural disasters. Landowners often will see heirs’ property as a liability rather than an asset, Stephens explained.

“Property matters to people. It’s far more than just a parcel of land. It can be a window to the past that tells the story of a family, a community or a way of life. The loss of heirs’ property has an impact on the community, not just one family,” Stephens said.

When Jennie Stephens approached the Mississippi Center for Justice about a collaboration, Wade said she was interested given the potential benefits for Black and low-income landowners in Mississippi.

The center’s role in this project is to help dismantle barriers that historically underserved groups and socially disadvantaged farmers face when trying to acquire resources for their land.

“The project aims to increase public understanding by Mississippi landowners in the Mobile Basin about what heirs’ property is, how to prevent it and how to resolve title issues once heirs’ property is in place. Direct legal assistance in resolving title issues will be provided to qualifying families,” the center told the Mississippi Free Press.