Could collective ownership of a “Black commons” help advance economic justice?

Black Americans have been systematically deprived of land ownership and the economic power that it brings. As we work to unravel that legacy, there’s an opportunity to create a community and economy that goes beyond just ownership of land for wealth’s sake.

Could collective ownership of a “Black commons” help advance economic justice?
Former slaves harvesting for their own profit. [Photo: Corbis/Getty Images]
in wealth, land, and power that has circumscribed Black lives since the end of slavery in the U.S.


沙巴体育手机登录the “” promised to formerly enslaved africans never came to pass. there was no redistribution of land, no reparations for the wealth extracted from stolen land by stolen labor.

june 19 is celebrated by black americans as , marking the date in 1865 that former slaves were informed of their freedom, albeit two years after the . coming this year at a time of protest over the continued police killing of black people, it provides an opportunity to look back at how black americans were deprived of land ownership and the economic power that it brings. an expanded concept of the “black commons”—based on shared economic, cultural, and digital resources as well as land—could act as one means of redress. as professors in and , our research suggests that such a concept could be a part of undoing the racist legacy of chattel slavery by encouraging economic development and creating communal wealth.

Land grab

the proportion of the united states under black ownership has actually shrunk over .

沙巴体育手机登录at their peak in 1910, made up around 14% of all u.s. farmers, owning . by 2012, black americans represented just 1.6% of the farming community, owning 3.6 million acres of land. another study shows a in black farmers between 1920 and 1997. this contrasts sharply with an over the same period.

in , the u.s. department of agriculture ascribed this decline to a long and “well-documented” history of discrimination against black farmers, ranging from new deal and usda dating from the 1930s to 1950s-era exclusion from legal, title, and loan resources.

沙巴体育手机登录discriminatory practices have also affected who owns property as well as land. in 2017, the racial homeownership gap was , with 79.1% of white americans owning a home compared to 41.8% of black americans. this gap is even larger than it was when , which denied black residents mortgages to buy, or loans to renovate, property were legal.


沙巴体育手机登录the lack of ownership is crucial to understanding the crippling economic disparity that has and continues to plague black america—making it harder to accrue wealth and pass it on to future generations.

a 2017 found that the median net worth for non-immigrant black american households in the greater boston region was just $8, but for whites it was $247,500. this was due to “general housing and lending discrimination through restrictive covenants, redlining, and other lending practices.”

nationally, between 1983 and 2013, median by 75% to $1,700 while median white household wealth increased 14% to $116,800.

Freedom farms

land ownership today could look very different. the idea of collective ownership has a long history in the united states. even during slavery, a piece of ground was granted by slave masters for enslaved african subsistence farming. the called this land “the plot.”

沙巴体育手机登录 how that these parcels of land were transformed into communal areas where slaves could establish their own social order, sustain traditional african folklore and foodways—growing yams, cassava, and sweet potatoes. plots were often called “,” so important was this staple food.

the connection between food, land, power, and cultural survival was subversive in its nature. by appropriating physical space to support collective growing practices within the brutal constraints of slavery, black people also demonstrated the need for common, shared mental space to enable their survival and resistance. herbalism, medicine, and midwifery, and other african american were seen as acts of resistance that were “intimately tied to religion and community,” according to historian sharla m. fett.


with the end of slavery, these plots disappeared.

Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964. [Photo: GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images]
The principles of collective land ownership evolved in post-slavery Black America. It was central to civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer’s , a designed to deliver economic justice to the poorest Black farmers in the American South.

沙巴体育手机登录in hamer’s view, the fight for justice in the face of oppression required a measure of independence that could be achieved through owning land and providing resources for the community.

this idea of a black commons as a means of economic empowerment formed a focus of w.e.b. dubois’s 1907 “.” dubois believed that the extreme segregation of the jim crow era made it necessary to in the cultural bonds between black people and that this could be achieved through cooperative ownership.

Credit unions and co-ops

沙巴体育手机登录the accumulation of wealth was not the only desired consequence of a black commons.

in 1967, argued for a “” that would create a “new dynamic synthesis of politics, economics, and culture.” in his view, economic ventures needed to be grounded in the greater aspirations of black communities—politically, culturally, and economically. this could be achieved through a black commons.


沙巴体育手机登录as the political economist in reference to black , “african americans, as well as other people of color and low-income people, have benefited greatly from cooperative ownership and democratic economic participation throughout the nation’s history.”

the nonprofit is working to rejuvenate the idea of black commons. in a 2018 statement, the “to serve as a national vehicle to amass purchased and gifted lands in a black commons with the specific purpose of facilitating low-cost access for black americans hitherto without such access.”

meanwhile, shared equity housing schemes and , helping black families own property, , and mitigate displacement resulting from gentrification.

Digital commons

the disproportionate effects of the and unrest over have highlighted deeply embedded structural racism. organizations such as black lives matter and the are demonstrating a renewed vigor around collective action and a blueprint for how this can be achieved in a digital age. at the same time, black americans are also forging a cultural commons through events such as dj d-nice’s —a online dance party. club quarantine’s success indicates the potential for using online platforms to facilitate community building, pointing toward future economic cooperation.

沙巴体育手机登录that’s what organizations like are trying to do. the nonprofit group uses crowdsourced funding to build community spaces in inner city areas of indianapolis and encourage collective economic development that echoes the black commons of years past.

the long history of racism in the united states has held back black americans for generations. but the current soul searching over this legacy is also an unrivaled opportunity to look again at the idea of collective black action and ownership, using it to create a community and economy that goes beyond just ownership of land for wealth’s sake.


is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at , and is a professor of landscape architecture, College of Design at

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