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‘Gaining Ground’ with Thomas Mitchell

The Drinan Professor attended the June 12 premiere of Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land, a new documentary film from Al Roker Entertainment, Inc.

Thomas Mitchell, 2nd from right, at the documentary's premiere. 

Thomas W. Mitchell, BC Law Drinan Professor and director of the Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights (ILHPR), attended the June 12 premiere of Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land, a new documentary film from Al Roker Entertainment, Inc., and Emmy-nominated director Eternal Polk. The John Deere company provided the financing for the film. Mitchell is featured extensively in the documentary, which explores the causes, effects, and solutions to the concerningly low number of Black farmland owners in the United States. It has already won best documentary film at the Filmteenth International Film Festival in Bethesda, Maryland, and the jury prize for feature documentary at the Essence Film Festival (part of the annual Essence Festival of Culture) in New Orleans.

The premiere was held in the Oprah Winfrey Theatre at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (see photo gallery below).

Over the past century, approximately 90 percent of Black-owned land has been taken through violence and intimidation, eminent domain, government discrimination, and tax sales, among other legal and extralegal means. The documentary focuses particularly on a little-known law called partition law, which has played a significant role in the loss of so-called heirs’ property, a prevalent form of property ownership for Black and other disadvantaged families. In a 2022 groundbreaking report, Mitchell and a panel of researchers concluded that approximately $326 billion worth of properties have been taken from Black farmland owners since 1920. 

Mitchell, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient whose legal expertise includes property law, land use, estate planning, minority property ownership, and legal reform, was also recently featured in the CBS Reports documentary “40 Acres and a Mule” and in a recent New York Times article. He was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow in recognition of both his property scholarship and his legal reform work, and served as the principal drafter of the 2010 Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA). Designed to protect property inheritors from losing their urban or rural properties through forced sales, an issue that has historically affected middle- to low-income families, the act has been signed into law thus far in twenty-one states, the District of Columbia, and the US Virgin Islands. 

Mitchell is a previous recipient of the American Bar Association’s Jefferson B. Fordham Award, and the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award in honor of his mentorship to law students who have pursued legal careers in social justice. In 2021, The Journal of Black Innovation named Mitchell one of the 50 most important African Americans in infrastructure. He is also a 2021 recipient of the Howard University Award for Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement.

The ILHPR seeks to preserve and expand property rights for disadvantaged communities across the United States by producing research, devising legal reform and policy solutions, engaging in community outreach, training law students, and drawing on other complementary strategies. 

Read more about the event and Mitchell’s contributions to the documentary in the BC Chronicle.

The National Museum of African American History & Culture. Macfawlty, CC BY-SA 4.0
(L to R) Marc Howze, senior advisor, Office of the Chairman, John Deere & Company; Al Roker, CEO/owner, Al Roker Entertainment Company; John May, chairman of the board and CEO, John Deere & Company; Thomas Mitchell, professor, Boston College Law School; Eternal Polk, director & writer. Dan Videtich Photography
Dan Videtich Photography
Mitchell-Alexander family, with Dean Odette Lienau (center) and Eternal Polk