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John Deere helps black farmers and their descendants take back unfairly seized land


In 2012, the 57-year-old married father of four, who is black, discovered that someone he had never met named James E. Deshler II was suing his family members to force them to sell their share. of Barlow’s 127 acres. Bend, Alabama, farmland they inherited from Robinson’s late grandfather, Joe Ely.

The local county auditor’s website determined last year that the land was worth more than $ 212,000. The Deshler family and their lawyer in Thomasville, Alabama, J. Glen Padgett, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” Robinson told CNN Business. “How can someone force us to sell land that is not for sale? ”

The issue was with heir ownership, a legal term for land owned by two or more people, usually after inheriting from a relative who did not have a will.

Robinson said his grandfather spent $ 2,500 to acquire his farmland in 1941 as part of a US Department of Agriculture program. Joe Ely did not have a will when he died in 1959, so control of his land was automatically divided among 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, according to Robinson, had sold their share of the land for a fraction of its value without knowing how their actions might 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. This law allowed anyone who had acquired one or more shares of land belonging to several heirs to sue to force the sale of the entire property.

“The law was put in place to prevent the earth from splitting up every time a generation passes,” said Robinson. “I didn’t even understand that this was an option, that someone could sneakily buy a piece of land and then force you to sell the whole lot.

The problem of the property of heirs

Heir ownership disputes are a common problem for black farmers in the south who often inherit only a fraction of the land from their ancestors for a variety of reasons. Many black farmers simply did not write wills. Some were not educated. Others died earlier than expected. Some did not trust lawyers or white bankers.
There is also a long history of black farmers and their families tricked or intimidated into selling their land, or even being driven from it, by violent mobs of white farmers from the south who seek to take it over and reap the benefits. .

According to Denver Caldwell, John Deere’s Area 4 customer and service manager, heir land disputes and other systemic racist practices have cost black farmers and their descendants an estimated 12 million dollars. acres of farmland since the early 20th century.

“You’re talking about $ 24 billion in economic power lost over the past 110 years,” Caldwell told CNN Business. “You talk about the development and accumulation of generational wealth.”

Black farmers and their families who inherit land through heir ownership often cannot use it as collateral for bank loans to purchase farm equipment, putting them at a disadvantage compared to their white farming peers.

Landowners of heirs are generally not eligible for potentially lucrative federal farm assistance programs, which typically require applicants to own 100% of their land, also known as “clear title.”

“Without a clear title, you can’t do a lot of the things we think about when you have free and clear land,” said Andrez Carberry, human resources manager for John Deere’s global agriculture and turf division. “If you don’t have that clear title … you, in most cases, can’t take advantage of these USDA programs.”

John Deere helps black farmers and their descendants take back unfairly seized land

Reclaim land

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 launching in September, the group has been working to help black farmers and their families overcome legal obstacles related to heir land disputes.

Starting this week, LEAP is paying three black interns from Southern University Law School, an HBCU, to work on heir property cases like Robinson’s. Interns Michael S. Adams Jr., Toria Rotibi and Khyla Morgan are trained to help black farmers and their descendants unlock the true value of the land they rightfully own by asking the courts to grant them clear title privileges.

“We have learned in recent days about the correlation between lynching and black soil theft, how they go together,” Morgan told CNN Business on Wednesday. “This is happening today where they are trying to keep taking land from our people. It is only the third day and I have learned so much.”

After doing some research nine years ago, Robinson finally reached out to the Federation Of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit group of black farmers and landowners in the southeastern states that have been providing legal and technical assistance for many years. decades to those who need it.

Lawyers for the group helped Robinson get Deshler’s lawsuit thrown out of court.

“It immediately eliminated the threat of that guy forcing a sale,” Robinson said.

But the Deshler family still owns 1/15 of Joe Ely’s land. LEAP helps Robinson reclaim that last share of his family’s birthright.

“I want to make sure the land stays in the family forever,” said Robinson, “to honor our grandfather’s legacy”.

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