The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) screened “Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land” last Sunday afternoon at the Performing Arts Center. The film highlights the significant decline of Black land ownership and Black farmers since emancipation, focusing on land loss via the Heirs’ Property process.
The film, directed by Eternal Polk, produced by Al Roker Entertainment, and underwritten by Deere & Co., featured profiles of Black farmers, including Karen Washington, co-founder of Black Urban Growers, Shirley Sherrod of New Communities at Cypress Pond, and fifth-generation Virginia row crop farmer P.J. Haynie.
Speaking on historical Black relationships with farming in the U.S. after emancipation, civil rights historian Danita Mason-Hogans says in the film, “Land was not something that was oppressive because of enslavement. Land was something that freed us and offered opportunity for us and our children to have something of our very own.”
Land ownership’s role in intergenerational wealth is key in the film. Showing struggles for that land, “Gaining Ground” highlights legal cases such as class action Pigford v. Glickman, which addressed racial discrimination in USDA farm loans in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as personal and historical accounts of threats and violence against Southern Black farmers.
Much of the film’s modern focus covers John Deere’s Legislation, Education, Advocacy, and Production Systems (LEAP) Coalition. LEAP works to reduce the harms of Heirs’ Property — land owned in shares by multiple people with a common ancestor who did not establish a legal will. LEAP cites Heirs’ Property as the leading cause of involuntary land loss among Black farmers, adding, “With upwards of 60 percent of Black farmers operating on Heirs’ Property, it’s a critical issue nationally.”
The film covers LEAP Coalition’s programs to financially assist and educate Black farmers on land use issues, as well as LEAP’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to train Black lawyers for related legal work and outreach.
Families addressing their Heirs’ Property may be confronted with a lengthy and complex legal process, involving deliberation with shareholding relatives, and in some cases, nonrelatives who purchase shares and file a petition to force sale of the entire property.
Dr. Debra Ely, speaking in the film about her Heirs’ Property experience, says, “When you have people that are not connected to the land, and their heirs as well, then you have contention, and it creates chaos.”
The film also highlights the efforts of Boston College law professor Thomas Mitchell, principal drafter of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA). UPHPA provides protections for Heirs’ Property owners, and in the case of property sale, requires a court-supervised process to ensure all parties receive a fair share of the proceeds. In the film, Mitchell comments on the bill becoming law in 21 states or jurisdictions: “We’ve had [success] just well beyond what anybody thought was possible.”
After the film, Al Roker moderated a panel with Polk, Mitchell, and LEAP manager Tharlyn Fox. In the discussion, Fox shared the impacts of LEAP since its 2020 founding: “We, to date, have helped 20 families clear title … in June we had a number of 137 families that are now in process, but right now it’s over 150. We have over 400 families that we’ve helped to clear wills and estate planning.”
Ben Upshaw, an attendee of the film and panel, is himself experiencing an Heirs’ Property process for over 22 acres of vacant Alabama land that his family has owned for 100 years. “The land actually goes back to slavery, where there was one white family that bore five Black clans,” said Upshaw. After the film, Upshaw was curious about monetization options for his family. “I didn’t know how lucrative vacant land production was. I know they said [in the film] they were leasing out land for $40,000 an acre, and we have 20 acres, so that’s $800,000 a year of income that nobody’s collecting. So it’s making me re-envision what can happen on that land for us.”
Says Polk of his work and the film’s topics: “The biggest thing that I want is for people to feel that this is a viable opportunity for them, a viable life for them.”
In addition to the significant economic benefits of intergenerational landowning, Polk is also interested in emotional and personal relationships: “We talk about connection to the land, and I really advocate for healing. To be torn away from a house or a home or a piece of property is very traumatic, and part of the healing to me is to be reconnected to that.”
To Roker, “Gaining Ground” was an opportunity for his company to link with a partner focused on making a difference. “Many times when we’ve done things like this, we’ve done it and the corporation wants all of their products front and center, and this was not that. [Deere & Co.] just wanted the story told.”
Roker also says that in addition to farmers, the film resonates with people from urban areas, and even Vineyarders. “You look at Martha’s Vineyard, and the tradition of Black areas like Oak Bluffs and other areas. This is an issue here. So I think it has a universality, and it resonates with people all across the country.”
As for future plans for “Gaining Ground,” Roker says, “We’re hoping it’s going to be on a streaming service and/or a broadcast network shortly, and we’re in negotiations right now for that.”
The MVAAFF will continue Thursday with a series of short films, as well as episodes from television shows “Swagger” (loosely based on the career of Kevin Durant), and “The Other Black Girl.” Upcoming films include “Back on the Strip,” which stars Tiffany Haddish, screening August 10, as well as documentary “The Hustle of @617MikeBiv!” on August 10. The documentary “Grandpa Was an Emperor,” which follows Yeshi Kassa, great-granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, screens August 11. The festival will also host events including the New Orleans on the Vineyard experience, with live jazz, on August 11, and the CROWN Lounge Powered by Dove, with complimentary hair refresh services with a stylist on August 12, and will conclude with a closing party and “A Celebration of Hip-Hop” in the genre’s 50th year (at Deon’s, 14 Towanticut St., Oak Bluffs; August 12). For more information on any of the MVAAFF events, visit mvaaff.com.
Our news reporter Adarsh Bhat captured the vibe outside the venue as he interviewed a few people post the screening of the film, “Swagger.”