ProPublica reporter Lizzie Presser won a George Polk Award in Journalism for her story, co-published with the New Yorker, on the taking of heirs’ property in the South. The story was honored in the magazine reporting category. Administered by Long Island University, the Polk Awards honor intrepid and influential work, with a premium placed on original and resourceful investigative reporting. This marks the eighth Polk Award for ProPublica.
Heirs’ property, land that is informally passed down between generations, is a massive phenomenon in the South, where it constitutes a third of black-owned land. Historians and lawyers have pointed to vulnerabilities in heirs’ property that have allowed speculators to seize land, contributing to the racial wealth gap. Presser examined these vulnerabilities, methodically studying all such cases in the past decade in one hard-hit North Carolina county.
To demonstrate the legal challenges in maintaining this land, she spent months on the ground, looking through county courthouse records in the South, meeting aggrieved families, interviewing dozens of experts and watching property sales on courthouse steps. She spent many weeks investigating the land loss of one family, reading through thousands of pages of legal documents and conducting in-depth interviews with dozens of family members and involved parties. The result was an investigation that wove America’s history of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws into a present day narrative, which showed how black families without wills are not only losing wealth when they lose land. They also face the significant psychological harm of losing a sense of home and heritage.
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. Last October, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to help heirs’ property owners clear their titles. The amendment, which also passed in the House, 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.
See a list of all this year’s Polk Award in Journalism winners here.