Season 1 / Episode 4
If your holiday traditions involve visiting relatives who live on land that has been in your family for generations, consider yourself lucky. Over the past century, Black families across the South have lost millions of acres of farmland as a result of heirs property laws. Arkansas-native Dr. Karama Neal worked to bring legislation to her state in 2015 to reform these laws and help families like hers protect their ancestral land.
After graduating from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Karama Neal moved to Pennsylvania to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology from Swarthmore College. She earned a master’s in bioethics and health policy from Loyola University Chicago and a doctorate in genetics from Emory University in Atlanta.
Dr. Neal said returning to the South after receiving her education was an easy decision; her parents did the same thing. Her mother and father both moved from Arkansas to Chicago during the Great Migration. They met each other for the first time while living in Chicago and ultimately returned to Arkansas, where Karama was born.
“The fact that they returned to the South was a real model for me, either intentionally or unintentionally,” she said. “They saw value in this place and in this region and moved back to Arkansas and the South at a time when a lot of other folks weren’t doing that.”
Like many Black families in the South, Dr. Neal’s family collectively owns several acres of land in south Arkansas. Her formerly enslaved great-great-grandfather purchased the land after emancipation, and her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother were all born on the land. Dr. Neal recalls her grandmother collecting money from family members to pay the property taxes.
After her grandmother died and following her mother’s death many years later, it occurred to Dr. Neal that she now was heir of the land.
“This is not just somebody else’s property to deal with; it’s actually mine. I have an ownership interest in this property.”
Dr. Neal continued the work of her mother and other relatives who had explored how to make the land a better asset for their family and the community. She realized the first thing she needed to do was to get a clear title for the land because it was considered heirs property.
“Heirs property is undivided property that has been passed down informally from generation to generation,” she explained. “Over time, what you have is a number of relatives owning the property jointly. This is nice in some ways, because it builds that family unity, and you definitely have to work together. But as you can imagine, it can also be challenging.”
Dr. Neal consulted her father, Judge Olly Neal Jr., who told her that dividing the land equally would be virtually impossible. With heirs property, every parcel of land is owned by every family member, making it difficult to determine who owns what. As a result, families often end up losing the property altogether and selling it at a price far less than it’s worth.
A September 2019 article in The Nation – in which Dr. Neal appears – states that roughly one-third of all Black-owned land in the South is heirs property. Heirs property laws have contributed to the loss of millions of acres of Black-owned farmland. Under these laws and without proper documentation, all it takes is one family member willing to sell their portion of the property for the ancestral land to be lost forever.
Protecting family land
In 2013, Dr. Neal started a statewide grassroots organization promoting passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. The act provides model legislation for states interested in reforming property law and protects family land by requiring an appraisal before land is sold and requiring a first right of refusal, meaning family members can buy out a co-owner who wants to sell their part of the property.
The Arkansas Heir Property Act passed with no opposition in February 2015, making Arkansas the fifth state in the nation to adopt the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act.
Dr. Neal said all family members – even those who don’t physically live on the land or even in the state where the land is – are bound to the place their ancestors called home. This is important for reasons both sentimental and economical.
“The fact that I can go and set foot on the place where my mother was born and my grandmother was born and my great-grandmother was born is not something most of my friends from college who are Black can do. The fact that I, and others who have family land, can do this is not trivial. Think about what that asset can mean not only for the current generation but for future generations.”
The story in Dr. Neal’s family is that her great-great-grandfather wanted his descendants to always have a place to call home. Thanks to his great-great-granddaughter’s efforts, they will.