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Gwendolyn Robbins-Pratty, Henry Robbins and Florine Robbins-Stewart have stewardship of their family’s heir property in Winston County, Miss. Photo courtesy Gwendolyn Robbins-Pratty

‘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.

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.

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

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.

Mississippi Center for Justice will provide legal assistance to resolve title issues for families whose income does not exceed three times the federal poverty level and who cannot afford private legal assistance. The help is limited to families who agree on how the property will be divided, the center said.

“By implementing the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation’s tried and tested model to address these heirs’ property issues in the Mobile Bay Basin area, encompassing about 49 counties, MCJ will increase our capacity to assist socially disadvantaged and underrepresented low-income families to protect their land and general legacies,” Wade vowed.

Mississippi Center for Justice will not only offer legal advice to landowners, but they will also educate communities in this area to explain the heirs’ property phenomenon and the possible problems  if property isn’t passed down through the correct measures, Wade said.

The center has worked in the area of heirs’ property since 2006, including with families following Hurricane Katrina, she said. “Mississippi landowners had to establish ownership of their land, even the homes they’d lived in for 20 or 30 years in order to gain access to the resources needed. MCJ stepped in to provide that service, that legal service,” she said.

In doing this work, Wade said, the organization realized they were filling a void in the state for low-income families who were not able to protect their ownership of their land. Following Katrina, MCJ has continued to advise families on options regarding their heirs’ property, she added.

“MCJ’s goal is simple: We want to help heirs’ property owners keep, protect and utilize their land for generations to come,” she said.

23 Million Acres At Risk

Three years ago, the World Wildlife Fund started researching how it can help keep forests standing in the Mobile Bay Basin, one of the most biodiverse wood-producing regions in the country that spans Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

World Wildlife Fund Senior VP for Forests Kerry Cesareo said that the Mobile Basin By region is projected to lose around 23 million acres of forests by 2060 due to rapid and unsustainable development. Photo courtesy JPG

The organization learned that the region is projected to lose around 23 million acres of forests by 2060 due to rapid and unsustainable development. “In that research, it became clear that the long-term resilience of local forests and communities could not be separated from the legacy of heirs’ property,” WWF Senior Vice President for Forests Kerry Cesareo said at the virtual event.

These circumstances have led the World Wildlife Fund to partner with the company Kimberly-Clark to offer support to the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation and the Mississippi Center for Justice for the Mobile Basin initiative.

“By supporting this issue, we hope to draw awareness to the prevalence and long history of heirs’-property ownership and its impact on the environment and human wellbeing,” Cesareo said.

The World Wildlife Fund needs to work toward ending the exploitation of families and their land as it works to prevent forest fragmentation and mitigate climate change, its vice president said.

“Forests are an important source of health and wealth, but the burdens and benefits of caring for forests have not been shared fairly, and heirs’ property owners are more likely to bear the brunt of nature loss and climate impacts,” Cesareo said.

Kimberly-Clark, which produces paper-based consumer products, has operations in Mobile, Ala., and in Corinth, Miss. Vice President of Safety, Sustainability and Occupational Health Lisa Morden said the company relies on forests that unsustainable development is destroying at a high rate, and heirs’ properties can be vulnerable to that development.

The unsustainable development can compromise the region’s freshwater habitats and drinking water supply as well.

“So helping these property owners secure clear titles to their ancestral land enables them to protect, care for and benefit from that land while also enabling the responsible forest management in climate goals of those who may source from them,” Morden said at the virtual press conference.

Lisa Morden is the vice president of safety, sustainability and occupational Health at Kimberly-Clark, a company that produces paper-based products. Morden said the company depends on forestry to produce their products, but unsustainable development is destroying those forests. Courtesy Lisa Morden

‘No Intention of Selling’

Jennie Stephens of the Center for Heirs’ Property said forestry is a way to stem land loss and increase individual and community wealth because many tracks of heirs’ property contain forested acreage.

“Resolving title issues, creating succession or estate plans, and educating owners on the benefits associated with sustainable forestry and cost-share programs can turn what once was a liability into a valuable resource,” Stephens said.

The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities created the Sustainable Forestry African American Land Retention Network to help landowners use sustainable forestry as the tool to maintain ownership of their land while generating income from it.

“One of the reports commissioned by the endowment proved that there was a difference of almost $1,000 between the value of land and timber without clear title for a pine plantation forest land versus value of land and timber with clear title,” Stephens said.

The Robbins family met and spoke with Vangela Wade with the Mississippi Center for Justice about resolving their case to get the one acre of heirs’ property, Gwendolyn Robbins-Pratt explained.

MCJ now is partnering with the Winston County Self-Help Cooperative, which helps individuals work through the heirs’ property issues, to assist the Robbins family. Frank Taylor, who works for the cooperative, said his uncle lost 100 acres of land to heirs’ property in 1974.

From left: Siblings Florine Robbins-Stewart, Henry Robbins and Gwendolyn Robbins-Pratt stand beside the graves of their parents in Winston County, Miss. Courtesy Robbins family

“When you own land, you have a placeholder here in the United States of America. Ownership means something. Ownership creates value, ownership creates great community and ownership creates stability,” Taylor said in the video package.

“We never had no intention of selling the land,” Henry Robbins said.

“Because it has value, and it will have value for my future generations,” Florine Robbins-Stewart added. “They can also harvest the timber off the land and then replant it for their next generation. So no, you don’t sell your land, you hold onto your land.”

To learn more, visit Mississippi Center for Justice here, Center For Heirs’ Property Preservation here, World Wildlife Fund here, and Kimberly-Clark here.

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