It’s been nine years since Michael Robinson of Columbus, Ohio, nearly lost a major part of his family’s legacy. He’s still fighting to regain full control of it.
In 2012, the 57-year-old married father of four, who is Black, found out someone he’d never met named James E. Deshler II was suing his family members to force them to sell their portion of the 127 acres of Barlow Bend, Alabama, farmland that they’d inherited from Robinson’s late grandfather, Joe Ely.
The local county auditor’s website determined last year that the land is worth more than $212,000. The Deshler family and its Thomasville, Alabama, attorney J. Glen Padgett did not respond to a request for comment.
“I couldn’t understand it,” Robinson told CNN Business. “How can someone force us to sell land that’s not for sale?”
The issue was one of heirs’ property, a legal term for land owned by two or more people, typically after they inherit it from a relative who didn’t have a will.
Robinson said his grandfather spent $2,500 to acquire his farmland in 1941 through a US Department of Agriculture program. Joe Ely didn’t have a will when he died in 1959, so control of his land was automatically divided between his 15 children.
What Robinson didn’t know nine years ago was that the Deshler family had already purchased 1/15 of Ely’s land from Robinson’s distant cousins, Maxie Ely Jr. and Sharita Faye Ely, who Robinson said sold their share of the land for a fraction of its value without knowing how their actions could affect the rest of the family.
Deshler then attempted to force Robinson’s family to sell the remaining shares of their land through a now-defunct Alabama law that existed in several southern states. That law allowed anyone who acquired one or more shares of land owned by multiple heirs to sue to force the sale of the entire property.
“The law was put in place to stop land from becoming so fractionalized each time a generation passed,” Robinson said. “I didn’t understand that was even an option, that someone could sneakily buy land and then force you to sell all of the land.”
The problem with heirs’ property
Heirs’ property disputes are a common problem for southern Black farmers who often inherit only a fraction of their ancestors’ land for a variety of reasons. Many Black farmers just didn’t write wills. Some were uneducated. Others died sooner than they expected. Some didn’t trust White attorneys or bankers.
There’s also a long history of Black farmers and their families being tricked or intimidated into selling their land, or even being chased off it, by violent mobs of southern White farmers looking to seize it and reap the benefits.
Heirs’ property disputes and other systemically racist practices have caused Black farmers and their descendants to lose about 12 million acres of farmland since the early 20th century, according to Denver Caldwell, region four aftermarket and customer support director at John Deere.
“You’re talking about $24 billion of economic power lost over the course of the last 110 years,” Caldwell told CNN Business. “You’re talking about generational wealth development and accumulation.”
Black farmers and their families who inherit land via heirs’ property often can’t use it as collateral for bank loans to buy farming equipment, putting them at a disadvantage with their White farming peers.
Heirs’ property owners usually aren’t eligible for potentially lucrative federal farm assistance programs, which typically require applicants to own 100% of their land, also known as “clear title.”
“Without clear title, you can’t do many of the things we think of when you own the land free and clear,” said Andrez Carberry, head of human resources for the global agriculture and turf division of John Deere. “If you don’t have that clear title … you, in most cases, can’t take advantage of those USDA programs.”
Last year, John Deere partnered with the National Black Growers Council and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to create the Legislation, Education, Advocacy and Production Systems, or LEAP, coalition. Since its September launch, the group has been working to help Black farmers and their families overcome legal obstacles stemming from heirs’ property disputes.
Beginning this week, LEAP is paying three Black law school interns from Southern University, an HBCU, to work on heirs’ property cases like Robinson’s. Interns Michael S. Adams Jr., Toria Rotibi and Khyla Morgan are being trained to help Black farmers and their descendants unlock the true value of the land they rightfully own by getting courts to grant them clear-title privileges.
“We have been learning the past few days the correlation between lynching and the stealing of black land, how they go hand and hand,” Morgan told CNN Business on Wednesday. “That comes forward to today where they’re trying to continue taking land from our people. It’s only day three and I’ve learned so much.”
After doing some research nine years ago, Robinson eventually reached out to the Federation Of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit group of Black farmers and landowners in southeastern states that has been providing legal and technical assistance for decades to those who need it.
The group’s attorneys helped Robinson get Deshler’s lawsuit thrown out of court.
“That immediately took away the threat of this guy forcing a sale,” Robinson said.
But the Deshler family still owns 1/15 of Joe Ely’s land. LEAP is helping Robinson recover that last share of his family’s birthright.
“I want to make sure the land stays in the family forever,” Robinson said, “to honor our grandfather’s legacy.”