By: David L. Morrow II
On March 9, 1878, my 2nd Great Grandfather, David Morrow, purchased nearly a hundred acres of land south of Mebane, NC, near Chapel Hill, NC. The land was located in an area that was commonly referred to by local residents as the “Oaks Community” and “Bush Arbor.” David, like most African Americans of that era, was born enslaved in 1799 on a nearby plantation owned by a white family that shares the Morrow surname. Following the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, formerly enslaved people struggled to provide for their families and were stuck in a new form of enslavement called “sharecropping.” Sharecropping was a type of farming in which Black families would rent small plots of land from white landowners in return for a portion of their crop that would be given to the landowner each year. Unfortunately, high interest rates and dishonest landlords often kept hardworking Black families in debt, which would require the debt to be carried over year after year - keeping Black families tied to the land as if they were enslaved once again. The entire system of sharecropping significantly prevented Black land ownership across the American south and prevented the accumulation of Black wealth for generations. Fortunately, my ancestor somehow found the resources to purchase land only a few years after emancipation.
African Americans of that era understood that land ownership was essential to providing and protecting their families’ current and future economic well-being. The benefits of landownership in 1878 are the same as they are in 2021 – stability and wealth accumulation. My ancestor’s simple act of purchasing land in 1878 would forever alter the entire trajectory of my family – which allowed for subsequent generations to become financially independent. However, Black homeownership has been unattainable for a variety of reasons which has resulted in Black homeownership rates currently declining – preventing the accumulation of generational wealth in the African American community.
Economists agree that home ownership is an effective way to create and accumulate wealth. One study also demonstrated that a parent’s homeownership and the amount of wealth they possess would also affect their child’s likelihood of owning a home. This was evident when in 1970 (2 years after The Fair Housing Act passed) my wife’s grandmother was the first in her family to purchase land and her home in Augusta, Georgia. Since then, each subsequent generation of her family has been a homeowner.
Yet, for many African American families, this is not the reality. Currently, Black homeownership rates are at the lowest levels since the 1960s. In fact, the gap between white and Black homeownership today is actually larger than the gap that existed in 1960 when housing discrimination was legal.
There are a variety of factors that have contributed to the current decline in Black homeownership including the 2008 Financial Crisis and the impact of our Global Pandemic. However, there has never been a time in America’s history where a majority of Black Americans were homeowners or landowners. As mentioned earlier, the system of sharecropping prevented African Americans from acquiring land after the Civil War. After Reconstruction in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, federal and state governments enacted overt racist laws and policies that ushered in over 100 years of legalized discrimination against African Americans in this country that either prevented Black homeownership or made it nearly impossible. This period occurred after nearly 300+ years of the legalized enslavement of humans of African descent – where free labor was provided without compensation. It was only in 1968 did the Fair Housing Act make it illegal for anyone to be discriminated against when renting or buying a home – 53 years ago. And even though racist laws preventing African Americans from purchasing property are now technically illegal today, according to a study in 2020, mortgage lenders deny Black applicants at a rate 80% higher than that of a white applicant.
Where do we go from here?
For the last 50+ years, the struggle for civil rights has been primarily focused on our ability to vote in fair elections and the ability to move freely throughout society without racist laws that prevent where Black people eat, live, work, travel, attend school, and who we marry. Although these are truly critical, Black home and land ownership matters. The economic stability and generational wealth for African Americans is tied to our ability to own property in this country. It is imperative for the Black community to chart a new course that emphasizes the concept of “ownership” – ownership of where we live, ownership of where we bank, ownership of how we educate our children, and ownership of how and where we work. The reliance on our government to either intervene, solve, or reconcile these historic and significant financial harms that have impacted African American families for over 400 years is tenuous, feeble, and fleeting.
Our economic future will be defined by our own actions. Today, there are many examples of African Americans using readily available new technology to “crowd source” community funds to purchase property. Lynn Smith founded Buy The Block, a real estate crowdfunding portal and the first portal that is African American-owned, to provide additional options for African Americans seeking to purchase property. In September 2020, 19 Black families together purchased 96.71 acres of land in Wilkinson County, Georgia with the goal of incorporating a city named “Freedom” that is a “safe haven” for Black people to live, own, and thrive. These are just a few creative examples of an increased focused on Black ownership and wealth creation.
Ultimately, a new path must be created for the future economic stability of the African American community. Today, as my wife and I begin our quest for homeownership, the challenges are still present. It is our desire to overcome obstacles just as my Great-Grandfather David, to demonstrate to our son, David III, and our future children that homeownership, is possible, necessary, attainable, and matters immensely – continuing a legacy of seven generations of landowners in this country.
This article originally appeared in Pinnacle Newspaper, May 2021