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The Racist Structures That Prevented Black Home Ownership Are Finally Being Exposed

For Black people, land ownership isn’t just about equity — it’s about freedom

Photo illustration. Sources: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Thomas Barwick/H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

This piece is part of The Uprising Marches On, a package on what’s next for the movement for Black lives.

“If God be for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31, subheading of The Freedman’s Torchlight

In the early 1800s in New York, political enfranchisement for freed Black people was directly determined by whether or not they owned land. While white men could vote no matter if they had any land, free Black men were required to own $250 worth of taxable property. Even in those parts of the country where free Black people — Black men, really — could more easily acquire land, they still faced the constant threat of violence and property destruction.

In American schools we learn a simplified history, one that enforces a strict dichotomy between the altruistic, abolitionist North and the racist, secessionist South. But New York’s economy was inextricably tied to that of the Southern states, from which upstate mills would receive raw cotton to process into textiles. Before its occupation in the collective imagination as a bastion of gentrification and facile liberalism, Brooklyn was once the slaveholding capital of New York State. The Dutch farmers of Kings County relied so heavily on slave labor to cultivate such provisions as rye, wheat, and corn that, by the early 1800s, the area had the highest proportion of slaves and slave owners in the North.

In the wake of a financial crisis in 1837, known as the Panic of 1837, wealthy landowners in Brooklyn, fearful of a land bubble that was set to collapse, quickly sold off their properties. That created an opening for a number of entrepreneurial freed Black men to purchase the now-discarded land. Following a period of intense land speculation, Black abolitionist Henry C. Thompson bought most of the family estate of John Lefferts, who came from one of New York’s largest landowning families, in what is now Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant and sold these plots to other free Blacks. In 1838, James Weeks bought two plots from Thompson and created the community of Weeksville, which, by the 1850s, had over 500 members.

Weeksville belongs to a hallowed legacy of Black spaces that seem utopian by today’s standards. The community published a Black-owned newspaper, The Freedman’s Torchlight, “devoted to the temporal and spiritual interests of the Freedman, and adapted to their present need of instruction in regard to simple truths and principles relating to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Within Weeksville, there was also Colored School №2, eventually PS 68, the first integrated school in the country. Alongside granting its members political enfranchisement and education, Weeksville also served as a crucial retreat for Blacks during the 1863 New York draft riots, which displaced more than 3,000 Black residents following violent outrage from white working-class citizens over perceived job insecurity on newly-freed Black people in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation.

These days, we are still thinking about abolition, about liberation, about the practical considerations of revolution. Robust, fast-acting, and long-gestating political action on the streets. Demonstrations, teach-ins, bail funds, community pantries, affinity collectives. What we’re seeing today is the continuation of long ongoing actions, collective movements that endeavor to center Black causes, no matter the century nor the zeitgeist. One of the largest tenets of this decentralized Black movement for freedom involves Black ownership in general, material wealth like food and clothes and financial security to pay rent, but also specifically home ownership. Protests in cities like Seattle have grown to include criticism over stagnant civil projects meant to combat gentrification in the Black community. Meanwhile, there’s been renewed interest in the Black-white wealth gap and history of redlining reveals both the depth and age of the issue.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2020, 47% of Black people own their homes compared to 76% of white people. This gap is by design, perpetuated through decades of redlining, credit discrimination from banks, and a lack of inherited wealth. Nigel Chiwaya and Janell Ross, reporting for NBC News, illustrate that one of the reasons Black neighborhoods are deprived of the chance to take out loans, build good credit, or save for down payments is because Black neighborhoods are less likely to have a bank branch. “On-time rent payments aren’t tallied into credit scores, while late payments are, creating a system that punishes misfortune while ignoring positive behavior.”

Ownership is a peculiar word to use in this setting. It can trigger associations that conjure whiteness. Stocks, suits, towers, exploitation. It can also trigger associations of Blackness, images of hardship and squalor. Enslavement, poverty, ownership of another’s time and life, generational wealth, or lack thereof. It’s not that these facets of the Black American experience are false, they are simply severely narrow. And part of this year’s conversation, writ large, an ongoing conversation, is widening the scope of what can be easily considered part of Black life.

Across the U.S., we can see examples of the effort to create something new or preserve something stolen. Rodeo Skate Co., a collective for Black women and trans/non-gender-conforming people based in Dallas vying to build a skate community inclusive of those who have traditionally been excluded from the white, male-dominated scene. Lizy Bryant, a queer Black farmer in Minnesota, one of many Black land stewards around the U.S. seeking to buy land in the hopes of creating gathering spaces meant specifically for Black families. The activist group Moms 4 Housing, who occupied a vacant three-bedroom house in West Oakland in protest over the Bay Area’s long-standing housing crisis and eventually were offered the chance to purchase the property, plus right of first refusal on 50 of other homes owned by the holding company.

Ownership is a peculiar word to use in this setting. It can trigger associations that conjure whiteness. Stocks, suits, towers, exploitation. It can also trigger associations of Blackness, images of hardship and squalor.

Similar pushes for Black property ownership are happening all over the country. In the process, what’s being emphasized is both the predatory, racist, capitalist structure undergirding nearly every basic resource, and the privilege some people have of avoiding such trappings. Even the concept of wealth is being questioned. Currency, the free market, the metastasized myth of the American dream, from a picket fence, a house, and a car to private jets, billion-dollar valuations, and influence. These are machinations harnessed by corporations and enabled by laws that benefit those who are not best suited for the job, not the hardest working for the position, nor the most loyal to the company. When Black communities, bereft of inherited wealth, denied representation, and disenfranchised from the political establishment that legitimized their enslavement, call for material gains, what may sound to some like revolution is really a redistribution of the status quo.

Part of the duty of this moment lies in complicating our understanding of what belongs to us. Where Weeksville was situated, and the surrounding area of New York City, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, western Long Island, and the Lower Hudson Valley was Lenape territory for centuries before the Europeans colonized the area. Pushed out of their homeland like many other Indigenous groups, most of the Lenape people now reside in Oklahoma. While it is tempting to see successful Black legacies as narratives of restoration and celebration, they are also built atop the land and lives of Indigenous communities that are still alive and fighting for their history. How do we forge solidarity across generations and cultures, across colonial destruction and arbitrary borders? As New Yorker writer Vinson Cunnigham writes, “it’s possible to be Black and degraded in America while also profiting from wanton extraction of resources overseas, oppressing millions of non-Black others, and living on land stolen from Indigenous people. We are always joined in our sufferings, often by somebody we can’t see through the darkness.”

A frustration expressed throughout this year is that, although we are finally asking the right questions, no one is suggesting a suitable answer. The reality may be that the answers ask too much of people who aren’t actually interested in change, those who have something to lose if real equality were to come. Coming under fire during these protests are structural inequalities so entrenched, they seem untouchable. Remove one thing and many others collapse. Is it better to build from ruin or gradually work from what’s already there? According to some, the prevailing sentiment this summer has been to let it all burn, a scary notion given the countless unknowns that lie in its wake. But maybe gradualism doesn’t apply here. Whatever solution we find collectively must be approached with a rigor that can only come from addressing a concatenation of historical traumas and varying modes of violence. What many are likely to find is what Black and Indigenous activists have been saying for years: There’s no nice way to start a revolution.

I’m a writer from Las Vegas |