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A Childhood Home, Stolen

A former program director shares her own personal connection to America’s history of Black land theft

Authors: Olayinka Credle

Common Future network leader and Bridge Fellow, Jillian Hishaw is one of the many community leaders who are highlighting the importance of BIPOC land ownership and restoration. She recently published Systematic Land Theft, which documents the history of land theft in Black and Indigenous communities. In particular, she highlights the ways in which laws and broken treaty agreements have led to a state in which U.S. farmland is 95% white-owned. “The most tangible asset in the world is land, and with land comes the building of subdivisions, windmills, and extraction of minerals,” she explains. With every stolen parcel of land, the initial value is only the start of the loss, growing larger with every generation who is not made whole.

For me, the mission of restoring stolen lands and properties to their rightful Black owners is one that is deeply personal. This is legacy work — and there is no shortage of work to be done. Even when homes are not outright stolen, Black wealth is stolen over and over through devaluation. A recent 2018 study found that homes in Black and Latino neighborhoods are much more likely than homes in white neighborhoods to be valued below what a buyer has offered to pay. What’s more, owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by an average $48,000, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses.

My fondest childhood memory is of spring, sitting in my late grandmother’s yard, stoop, or garden. I remember the smells and feelings of warm and yet crisp air as I walked past each row of collard greens, green beans, radishes, and countless fruits and vegetables. My grandmother’s home was a place of refuge and safety.I don’t believe I would’ve become who I am today, had it not been for my upbringing in her home.

That all changed in the summer of 2012, when my grandmother was suddenly forced to move from the only home she had known for decades. The house had originally been purchased by her son and was meant to forever be her home or one for her and her future children. Unfortunately, when her son unexpectedly died of cancer, the home was taken from her, and to this day we do not know the specific details of how this happened, or even was able to happen.

Here’s what I do know:

  1. The Brooklyn neighborhood where we lived was one of the first neighborhoods in the borough to experience major gentrification forces. This happened both legally, through (policy and private investment, coupled with homeowners not understanding that they were being manipulated into selling their homes, and through illegal methods such as deed theft.
  2. To this day, I cannot recall another time where I saw such deep despair, sorrow, and confusion from my grandmother — who I always thought to be unbreakable.

This past summer, I revisited that old neighborhood and the property that was once my home. In 1986, my grandmother’s brownstone was purchased by her son for $40K and remained in her ownership until it was ‘sold’ in 2011 for $130K. The stolen property now has a value of over $2 million. As I stood at the stoop and gazed on the steps, I was overwhelmed by an initial swell of anger, knowing that my family should be the one sitting on $2 million worth of inherited property — instead of belonging to someone who purchased and redeveloped it right under our noses.

As time passes, however, grief is the overwhelming feeling I’m left with. My grandmother recently passed in autumn of 2020, and that childhood home was where I held our deepest and dearest memories together. This is one cost that policy makers, developers, and gentrifiers fail to honor — or choose to ignore — when they force themselves into people’s neighborhoods and homes. It’s not just wealth — they are stealing something utterly priceless from families: memories, and a deeply personal history of love, joy, pain, tears, laughter, and more.

My dearest hope is that one day I can buy back my grandmother’s home, and to preserve that legacy for my family. Until then, I will keep advocating for the restoration and reclamation of stolen property, wealth, and land in this country through my work at Common Future, where we fight against the legacy of systemic land theft and oppression, through our greater mission of shifting capital and power.

In Loving Memory of Louise Parham Lucas

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