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A New Frontier

Professor Thomas Mitchell launches powerful initiative at BC Law to study and reform Black land loss, heirs' rights, and property law.

Thomas W. Mitchell, Professor of Law and Robert F. Drinan Chair  Photograph by Caitlin Cunningham

Last year was a remarkable one for Thomas W. Mitchell. In May, two months before coming to Boston College Law School as the Robert F. Drinan, SJ, Chair, he co-authored Black Land Loss: 1920-1997, a first-of-its-kind quantitative examination of the decline of Black agricultural ownership in America. The cost to that community during the period? $326 billion. The findings made national news.

The article, published by the American Economic Association, is what Mitchell now describes as an “an introductory paper,” soon to be fleshed out to provide background history and collateral negative impacts, including the hindrance of upward economic ability. It stands beside Heirs’ Property and the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act: Challenges, Solutions, and Historic Reform (2022), a book for which Mitchell served as the lead co-editor and a contributing author and which was designed to increase awareness of current problems and present solutions regarding heirs’ property.

This year, Mitchell is turning those messages into action at BC Law, starting with the Land Loss, Reparations & Housing Policy Conference on March 23 and 24. Co-sponsored with a Harvard Law School clinic and a prominent institute at the New School in New York City, the event will bring together eminent scholars in the field. George Fatheree III will serve as the keynote speaker. He recently secured for a Black family the return of the Bruce’s Beach property in California that was wrongfully taken by the city of Manhattan Beach from his clients’ ancestors nearly a century ago, the first return of its kind in US history.

Concurrently, Mitchell is launching the Initiative on Land, Housing, and Property Rights at BC Law and will serve as its director. Focused on scholarship, community engagement, and policy reform, the new program is designed “to improve the conditions for disadvantaged people with respect to property rights.” Alumnus David Price ’91, a long-time community development and real estate expert, has been named associate director.

Mitchell is a 2020 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” (the only lawyer in his twenty-one-member MacArthur class). In 2021, he was awarded the Howard University Award for Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement, an award that Thurgood Marshall and Vice-President Kamala Harris, among other Howard luminaries, also have received. In 2022, he won the American Bar Association’s Jefferson B. Fordham Award for Advocacy. He also is the principal drafter of the widely adopted Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), one of the most successful that the Uniform Law Commission has promulgated in recent times. So far, twenty-two states have adopted the model statute and five others, including Massachusetts, are considering it at this time.

BC Law Magazine interviewed Professor Mitchell to learn more about his research and his plans going forward at BC Law.


With all of the media coverage generated by Black Land Loss, and that eye-popping number in lost generational wealth, what chord do you think your research has struck in the American people?

Though the reparations discussion had been percolating in the background for some time, the George Floyd event and its aftermath helped to bring it front and center. The cultural upheavals have stimulated greater interest in the structural and systemic racism that African Americans have experienced over many generations.

In the scholarship on reparations overall, very few of the claims of past harm have been quantified for understandable reasons; it’s likely the majority of them never will be. Still, our research team [Nathan Rosenberg, Darrick Hamilton, Dania Francis, Bryce Wilson Stucki, and Mitchell] is one of the few that has been able to deliver an estimate of the costs to one sector: Black farmers between 1920 and 1997, a seventy-seven-year period. That figure, $326 billion, while conservative, nonetheless underscores the massive amount of generational wealth that African Americans have been deprived of.

When did you begin to generate an academic and legal interest in reparations and Black land loss?

I went to Howard University School of Law, where I was encouraged to become a law professor. When I was working as an attorney in Washington, DC, a couple of my Howard professors convinced me to apply for the William Henry Hastie Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin Law School, the longest standing pipeline program designed to enhance faculty diversity at law schools across the country. A major part of the application was a five-page research statement. I drew on my background to write it.

I grew up in San Francisco, and my childhood years were the high-water mark of African Americans in the city. In 1970, 13.5 percent of the population of San Francisco was Black. But San Francisco has had the largest decline in a Black population of any major city in the US; it’s about 4 percent now. Even in the 70’s and early 80’s you started seeing a drop in the population.

I knew people who were essentially forced out. I didn’t know what was causing that—the kinds of laws and policies and business interests that were involved. I just experienced it as deeply sad. And even though I never took a class on urban policy as an undergrad at Amherst College or a seminar on housing or urban policy in law school, I always thought about it a lot.

When I was at Amherst, my grandfather in Newark, New Jersey, passed. My father, who was estranged from him, asked me to go to the funeral. I stayed with distant family relatives in Newark who were deeply poor in the inner city of Newark. They showed me their photo albums, which went back to southwest Georgia in a small town called Americus, the locus of my family’s heritage in the rural south.

Seeing those photos sparked my interest in learning more about my family and, more generally, about the African American experience in the rural south. So, as I prepared to write the Hastie Fellowship proposal, I thought, “Is there a way to combine these two themes of displacement and wanting to know much more about the African American experience in the rural south?”

I quickly discovered that there wasn’t much in legal or academic literature on the topic, but I found newspaper articles that talked about Black families losing their land due to some property laws. It represented loss like I experienced in San Francisco, but also it was an opportunity to learn much more about the African American experience in the rural south. The little that was written was shocking, but the articles didn’t get a lot of attention. To me, the deep injustice was just palpable. I felt that more people needed to know about it.

“I quickly discovered that there wasn’t much in legal or academic literature on the topic of … Black families losing their land due to some property laws. To me, the deep injustice was just palpable. I felt that more people needed to know about it.”

Thomas W. Mitchell

I decided to devote a lot of my scholarship to the subject while also thinking: ‘Things can be done about this; we don’t just have to sit back passively and accept this.’ I took seriously the idea of developing a vision of how we could make inroads in stabilizing the situation so more people didn’t lose their property, and maybe even in reversing some of their losses.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Initiative on Land, Housing, and Property Rights, your new program at BC Law?

One of the major reasons I came to BC Law is because I was told: ‘We really value the breadth of what you do and part of that will be to put you in a position to do your work in a sustainable way so that it has greater impact.’ The Initiative on Land, Housing, and Property Rights is the manifestation of that promise.

Essentially, it will be built on four pillars: student curricular and experiential learning opportunities; academic events (including many that will be open to the public); a so-called legal reform and policy laboratory; and community and continuing legal education offerings.

For students, we plan to develop curricular and hands-on learning opportunities to raise their awareness of difficult land and housing issues and provide them with the skills to help disadvantaged communities preserve, build, and leverage real property assets. Teaching aspiring lawyers to look at disadvantaged communities through a social justice community development prism—including in courses such as corporations, real estate, tax, and estate planning, often associated only with serving the wealthiest in society—makes those subjects and courses more relevant to their field work. It may also encourage them to pursue careers serving a diverse set of clients, including disadvantaged clients with various land and housing issues.

Our events kickoff is the Land Loss, Reparations & Housing Policy Conference in March, to be followed regularly by symposia, workshops, and panels of locally and nationally recognized experts, scholars, advocates, and policymakers.

The third pillar is what I’m calling the legal reform and policy laboratory. It’s always good to get really smart scholars together who are working at the cutting edge. The initiative will have resources to do that. There are many different aspects of property law and land use law, for example, that have disserved disadvantaged communities but that have been understudied and undertheorized. If we could get teams of people to start looking at some of those issues in a proactive and sustainable way, the work could generate a much bigger impact. We could not only generate research and scholarship, but also use it to develop things like legal reform ideas and policy proposals. Then we could disseminate white papers to important stakeholders, including elected officials and other policymakers who are in a position to actually change the law or implement policies.

“There are many different aspects of property law and land use law … that have disserved disadvantaged communities but that have been understudied and undertheorized. If we can get teams of people to start looking at … those issues in a proactive and sustainable way, the work could generate a much bigger impact.”

Thomas W. Mitchell

Finally, we will be proactive in reaching out to and educating lawyers and impacted communities about property-related legal issues that disadvantaged communities face and legal and other strategies to address those issues.

What other areas of scholarship and research are you contemplating?

I’m interested in looking at the history of discriminatory use of eminent domain and doing a deep dive to help folks understand that the primary victims of eminent domain abuse have been and are Black and brown people, though that is not widely known. For example, I recently found out that Dodger Stadium, where the Los Angeles Dodgers play, was on property owned by 300 Mexican-American families who essentially were forcibly removed. They were told that the City of Los Angeles was going to build a low-income housing development and that they would get the first choice in selecting apartments. But then, the city did a bait and switch and gave the property to Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers. These were people who were forcibly evicted from their homes and didn’t get paid a dollar. That will be a stream of scholarship I hope to pursue.

I also hope to resume working on an interdisciplinary book project that examines how certain New Deal farming programs designed to enable landless, poor farm families to become farm owners discriminated against poor farm families of color. That happened even though the New Deal agency that administered the program was considered one of the most progressive of all of the New Deal government agencies, including on matters of race.

As one of the newest faculty members at BC Law, what makes BC a good fit for you?

One of the things that’s incredibly important to me is the mission, the tradition of various people associated with Boston College doing service to society. The Jesuit mission is really universal in terms of its application here at BC. Being at a university where service to your fellow human beings is truly valued in a way that’s much more tangible, much more robust than at many other universities, was a great fit for me. Another draw is that BC both values rigorous research and experiential learning.

Throughout my career I’ve been trying to do this range of work and service. Some of it was recognized as being part of my job, like teaching and research, but a lot of my broader impact work was not. To be part of a community that values the breadth of what I do is simply wonderful.

Register here for the Land Loss, Reparations & Housing Policy Conference on March 23 and 24.

Sam Bader contributed to this report.