Landownership Inequality in Georgia, Past and Present

From 1897 to 1910, the eminent American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was based at Atlanta University, where he worked to establish what is now considered the first real ‘school’ of sociology in the United States. During his early years in Atlanta, Du Bois and his students prepared a series of hand-drawn data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, demonstrating the achievements of Black Americans in the face of centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow segregation. Given his residence in Atlanta, Du Bois used Georgia as a focused case study for many of the issues he was examining across the country. While these visualizations, like the rest of Du Bois’ work, are incredibly compelling and were extraordinarily cutting-edge for their time, there’s always been one visualization that particularly irked me as a cartographer.

Plate 20 in Du Bois’ exhibition – “Land Owned by Negroes in Georgia, U.S.A. 1870-1900.” – is a bright and colorful map of Black landownership across the state during the period following emancipation, through Reconstruction, its end and the beginnings of Jim Crow segregation. Given that one of my primary areas of interest is the ownership of housing and land, this map has always stood out to me as an artifact capturing the importance of landownership to broader fights for equality.

But as a cartographer, this map is a bit of a disaster. Long story short, the map breaks a whole lot of the conventions that I try to teach my students about how data should be visualized in map form. But chief among these crimes against cartography is the fact that Du Bois’ beautiful color scheme isn’t actually used to show variation in the underlying data. Instead, colors are assigned more-or-less randomly to counties, which you can tell if you look closely at the labels on the map. Even if the colors were used to classify the data into a series of classes, they don’t follow the kind of sequential change in value we expect with choropleth maps in order to make their patterns comprehensible. On top of all of that, the values in Du Bois’ map are in total number of acres, making them inappropriate for mapping via a choropleth anyways.

Given all of these issues, I took it upon myself a few months back to remake DuBois’ map with a little more appropriate visualization style. Well, a few more appropriate visualization styles. Thanks to the Du Boisian Visualization Toolkit and the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, I was able to easily replicate both Georgia’s county geographies from 120 years ago and the particular colors and typography of Du Bois’ original maps and charts.

The first map in the series starts by normalizing the total number of acres owned by Black Georgians by the total land area of each county to show the percentage of Black land ownership, but still using something that approximates the richness of Du Bois’ color scheme. The second takes the same data but applies a more appropriate sequential color scheme, again replicating some of the same general hues that Du Bois used. Finally, the third map takes the most straightforward solution to the issues of Du Bois’ original map and represents the total number of acres as a proportional symbol map, which is more appropriate for mapping total count data. As opposed to Du Bois’ original, this trio of maps not only (mostly) follow cartographic convention, but they actually make it easy to identify the counties where Black Georgians had made the most headway in acquiring land in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of a given county’s total land area.

While remaking Du Bois’ original map of Black landownership at the turn of the 20th century should probably be sufficient enough material for one post, I couldn’t help but go an extra step further. Unfortunately, because the USDA doesn’t actually collect or share granular information on the race of America’s farmers or farm owners, we can’t just make a contemporary map showing the same patterns for the present day. But given that we know that 98% of US farmland is white-owned and that Black ownership of agricultural land is just 2% of what it was in 1910 – when it was at its peak – it isn’t hard to imagine how dire those county-level numbers might be today.

The USDA does, however, share data on the flip-side of agricultural land ownership in the form of the annual Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act Database, which tracks how much land is owned by foreign investors across the United States. So using the same visualization styles as before, I mapped this more insidious form of landownership that speaks to the reproduction – rather than amelioration – of social and economic inequality. It didn’t hurt that, like with Du Bois’ original map, the USDA’s own maps of this data don’t necessarily follow cartographic convention and are a bit of a disaster themselves.

Comparing the two sets of maps, one can see that there isn’t any real clear spatial clustering of either Black landownership in 1900 or foreign investor ownership in 2020, and neither do the two patterns seem to overlap in a meaningful way. That said, when looking at the outliers and the statewide geography of landownership across the last century-plus, one can see just how much broader racial injustices and capitalist exploitation are reflected in and reproduced through landownership.

In 1900, based on Du Bois’ figures, Black Georgians owned a total of 1,065,239 acres across the state, or just about 2.8% of the total land area. Liberty County just south of Savannah had the highest rates of Black landownership at just 7.5%, and only a dozen of Georgia’s then-137 counties had rates of Black landownership higher than 5%. Meanwhile, today, 23 of the state’s 159 counties have more than 5% of their total land area owned by foreign investors, with eight of these having foreign ownership rates over 10%, even reaching an astronomical high of nearly 42% in Monroe County.

Across the state today, 1,120,314 acres of agricultural land, or about 3% of the total land, are owned by foreign investors who own the land not as a way of sustaining life and livelihood, but as financial assets to be mined for profit. Given that our figures from 1900 are close approximations of the peak of Black landownership in the United States, we can say with a fair bit of certainty that foreign companies now own more land in Georgia than Black Georgians ever did.

Charles Sherrod – the recently passed co-founder of New Communities, Inc., the country’s first community land trust in Albany, Georgia, which was meant to ensure precisely that kind of livelihood-sustaining connection to land for Black communities – once said that “all power comes from the land”, speaking to its fundamental importance for all manner of other social structures and inequalities. If we take Sherrod at his word, rectifying these contemporary and historical imbalances in who owns land – agricultural or otherwise – is of the utmost importance if achieving any meaningful equality in this country is ever going to be a reality.

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