This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Heir Property in the South: A Case Study of a Resettlement Community




Patterson, James III

Type of Degree

Master's Thesis


Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology


The purpose of this study is to determine if the resettlement program had an impact on the prevalence of heir property and the impact of heir property on asset building and community development. Given the prevalence of heir property, we can safely conclude that it is a common cultural practice for African Americans in the rural South. Heir property is a continuation of the elite using the law to control vulnerable populations because it constrains wealth; it is the leading cause of land loss for African Americans, therefore, it was associated with persistent poverty. By 1920, African Americans owned 16 million acres of land; over 14 million acres of the land was seized by 1997 due to the vulnerabilities of heir property (Dyer and Bailey 2008). The USDA (1999) reported that white Americans own 98 percent of U.S. land; African Americans own less than one percent of rural land, which is poverty and power. The economic instability of heir property has resulted in poor political representation and lack of community development for African Americans, especially in the rural South. Traditionally African American landowners have not written wills, which creates complex issues once the owner dies. In the absence of a probated will, the state determines how property is to be divided among surviving heirs, hence the term “heir property.” As one generation gives way to the next, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify heirs and make management decision like clearing the title. The research design allows the issue of heir property to be examined in a resettlement community. Resettlement communities were established as part of an agrarian “New Deal” program implemented to address poverty and landlessness. In 1937 former slaves and sharecroppers became landowners when the federal government converted the Alabama community of Gee’s Bend into a resettlement community by deeding 10,188 acres of land to 99 African Americans. I collected property tax data from the Wilcox County Tax Assessor’s Office; a key informant identified the name of parcel’s registered to a deceased person in Gee’s Bend. I determined that these parcel were heir property; the data was quantified and analyzed to determine the characteristics of owners of land who had clear title and those who held land as heir property in order to determine the scale and economic value of heir property in Gee’s Bend and Wilcox County, Alabama. I used the systematic data collection method to identify 404 parcels of land in Gee’s Bend. In my study, heir property was prevalent in Gee’s Bend. I found that a third of the landowners held heir property, which was 46 percent of the heir property in Wilcox County. As of early 2018, 260 parcels were owned with clear title, 144 parcels were heir property. There were 107 owners with clear title that resided in Wilcox County (41 percent), 77 owners with clear title (30 percent) who resided in other counties in Alabama, and 76 owners with clear title (29 percent) who resided in other states. I conclude with suggestion for solutions to heir property. The case of heir property in Gee’s Bend demonstrates how a repressive social system undermined African American landowners that were involved in the resettlement program by constraining the capital and generational wealth embodied in their land.