Historian Highlights The Struggles African-American Communities Hit By Florence Face

Sep 21, 2018
Originally published on September 24, 2018 1:59 pm
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The coastline of the Carolinas is dotted with African-American communities that formed after the Civil War when plantation owners moved out and former slaves moved in. Many of these communities have been hard-hit by Florence. But some of the residents could have an especially hard time getting help rebuilding. That's because their land was passed down through generations through a form of ownership called heirs property, H-E-I-R-S.

Andrew Kahrl teaches history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia. And he says in many cases, it's difficult for residents to prove they own the land.

ANDREW KAHRL: These were areas that African-Americans initially often acquired clear title to. The problem was - is that when the original owners died, they often died without leaving a legal will. And then it passed down to their descendants in the form of these undivided shares in which every descendant could have a claim on the land, but there was no clear title to the land.

SHAPIRO: And so how do the current owners demonstrate their ownership?

KAHRL: Well, that's a really difficult process. It takes time and costs money and also requires landowners to resolve family disputes over ownership and enter into a legal system that many rural black landowners have been taught to avoid and treat with a great degree of skepticism.

SHAPIRO: So if ownership of this land was basically understood, implied but not necessarily documented, what happens when a storm like Florence comes through and destroys structures on the land and people want to make a claim to rebuild?

KAHRL: Yeah, this has been a real problem following natural disasters. Without clear title, families are often ineligible for disaster assistance to rebuild homes or return. We saw this after Katrina where by one estimate there was over 25,000 residents in New Orleans whose property was in this legal condition.

SHAPIRO: And then what do those people do?

KAHRL: The options are, one, to clear title, but that's a very time-intensive and costly process. And there's a real short window for applying to receive relief funds.

SHAPIRO: So if these people don't get the help that they're seeking, what happens?

KAHRL: I mean, we saw in New Orleans in particular after Katrina that many families had to abandon their land, or it was lost to tax foreclosure. And this has been the case in other storms as well in recent years where you really see a sharp decrease in the number of heirs property owners following storms, that these properties slip out of their hands.

SHAPIRO: Have any changes been made to make it easier for people with this kind of property to make a claim after a storm like Florence?

KAHRL: Yeah. FEMA has relaxed some of the restrictions on receiving aid, but it still remains very much a challenge. And I should also mention that aside from storms, heirs properties have long remained highly vulnerable to loss from land speculators who are able to exploit some of the legal vulnerabilities that these properties have to acquire them via what are known as partition sales. And that still remains a real problem and has been instrumental in the loss of black-owned land over the last several decades throughout the South.

SHAPIRO: Do you expect that victims of Hurricane Florence who have heirs property are going to have any easier time than the victims of Hurricane Katrina did more than 10 years ago?

KAHRL: I'm encouraged by the number of organizations that have proliferated across the South that are working on behalf of heirs property owners and clearing title. There's a national network of organizations that have worked really to help draw attention to this issue and also to help assist families in these moments of need. And I'm sure right now that they are getting a lot of claims from homeowners who are concerned about both receiving assistance and being able to hold onto their land in the weeks and months after the storm.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Kahrl teaches history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia. He wrote the book "The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth In The Coastal South." Thanks for joining us.

KAHRL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.