ProPublica reporter Lizzie Presser is the winner of the 2020 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism for her story, co-published with the New Yorker, on the taking of heirs’ property in the South. Sponsored by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the award recognizes work that illuminates the causes, consequences and remedies of problems in American society.
Presser came to the story after reading in a newspaper article that African Americans made up only 1% of the nation’s farmers, a stunningly low figure. After poring over academic articles on the vulnerability of African American landowners who had, for generations, passed down land without a will, she decided to investigate the legal loopholes and systemic abuses that permitted the seizure of these heirs’ properties — as well as the emotional toll of black land loss.
She zeroed in on the story of Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels of North Carolina. The brothers had spent years in jail for refusing to leave waterfront property that had been in their family for a century, land that had been bought by developers without their knowledge. Presser also examined all cases of families who were dispossessed of their land in the past decade in one hard-hit North Carolina county, sifting through shelves of files housed in the county courthouse to build a database out of the paper records. She found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of the county’s population is black.
After the story was published, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to immediately implement heirs’ property provisions that were secured in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Shortly after, the USDA announced two listening sessions on heirs’ property to assist with a relending program to clear titles and address obstacles to gaining access to certain government programs. The U.S. Senate and House also passed an amendment to help heirs’ property owners clear their titles. The amendment includes $5 million in funding for lending organizations to provide loans to landowners who are seeking to clear up or consolidate ownership, helping them pay for legal assistance or obtain necessary documentation.
Learn more about the John Bartlow Martin Award here.