UNC Center for Civil Rights Helps Preserve 100-Year-Old African-American Family Property

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The UNC Center for Civil Rights, whose mission includes working to protect the low-wealth and minority owners of heirs' property against land loss, recently helped the owners of century-old family property in Warren County, NC, preserve their rights to their land. Through detailed research and negotiation, the center was able to clear the title and re-establish family ownership of the property without litigation.


Eliza Carter and other members of her family, African-American landowners in Warren County, North Carolina, contacted the center in 2007 after they noticed in the Warrenton Record that family property in which they had a vested interested had been sold without their consent. Ms. Carter reported a possible wrongful conveyance, or selling, of property that had been in the family since at least 1907.


With investigative assistance from the center and UNC School of Law pro bono students, and in partnership with the Durham-based Land Loss Prevention Project, it was determined that a family member inadvertently conveyed more interest than he owned in his family's property to a white, non-family member who had previously purchased an adjacent portion of the family's estate land. The purchaser was using the land as a staging area and dumping pit for a contracting business.


In an effort to help the family reclaim and clarify its ownership of the land, the center contacted the purported owner and his attorney and provided them definitive evidence-gathered through extensive research of the family's genealogy, wills, and public records-that the land in question was never owned by the family member who made the initial conveyance. After a series of discussions with opposing counsel, the center was able to resolve the dispute without litigation and conclusively re-establish our clients' clear title and ownership of the family homestead, thereby preserving this invaluable historic, emotional and economic asset for the family.  


The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that African Americans are losing land two and a half times faster than white landowners. This rapid, disproportionate decline has occurred so rapidly that African Americans now own less than one percent of all privately-owned rural land in the United States, even though they owned over 15 million acres in 1910.


Among the various causes of land loss are those that stem from the vulnerabilities of owning land as tenants-in-common, which under current law enables any heir to sell their legal interest in the property to anyone they chose, without the other family members' permission or even knowledge. The law makes it extremely difficult for the family to reclaim ownership, even if the sale occurred under questionable or fraudulent circumstances.


The Center for Civil Rights is a member of a the Heirs Property Retention Coalition, a group of state and national organizations committed to developing and advancing new model legislation that will make it easier for families to preserve and protect heir land. The coalition hopes that new laws, in combination with education and legal representation of heirs property owners, will help shield historic family land and ensure stable ownerships structures that will help preserve family rights. Outreach to heirs property owners includes information about the importance of wills to designate who should receive interest in land, the need for family members to communicate openly about keeping the land in the family, and for families to ensure that all property taxes are paid.

-November 24, 2008

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