When Larry King looks out over the banks of the Yazoo River, he sees 120 years of family history. “My great-grandfather purchased 800 acres of land here in 1905. He built a life farming cotton, soybeans and corn. And then came the levee.”
In the 1970s, a white family bought 13,000 acres of wooded adjacent property they planned to farm. Not soon after, Mr. King contends the Army Corp of Engineers began constructing a levee to shift the Yazoo’s waters off of their land – and onto his.
“On a yearly basis we would flood and lose our entire crop. You can’t make a living off that. Our property was left at the mercy of the Yazoo,” he says. The once-productive farm is now wetland.
In the rural South, Mr. King’s family story is not unique. In 1910, African Americans owned between 16 and 19 million acres of land in the United States. By 1997, about 90% of this land ownership was lost through a variety of challenges.
“We’ve managed to lose more than $325 billion in wealth. A big part of that is discriminatory practices, but it’s also because we don’t do proper estate planning,” says Wilbur Peer, founder of KKAC, a Black land ownership organization based in the Arkansas Delta.
Wilbur’s family also farmed in the Delta. After attending college, Wilbur returned home to help his parents farm their 40 acres. “I didn’t want my parents to grow old by themselves. My daddy used to get other people to harvest his bean crop for him. But since I owned a combine, I did it myself. Once I got those beans harvested before Thanksgiving, he never tried to give me advice about farming again.”
But in 1978, Wilbur left farming. “When you borrowed money from the USDA back then as a Black landowner, your loans would get approved late. Maybe they gave you half the amount you asked for, and when you got it, it was placed in a supervised bank account. There was just no way to make a living.”
The experience he gained farming led him to a career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., then back home to Arkansas once more. His current work focuses on helping Black families overcome generational land loss and take their futures back into their own hands.
The organization’s name signifies his own legacy – combining the initials of his nephew and grandsons. Today, KKAC provides education and technical assistance in agriculture business, estate planning, heirs’ property issues, and land management through national and statewide conservation programs.
One of KKAC's key components is its Heirs’ Property Clearinghouse, created with support from the Walton Family Foundation, and designed to clear up issues related to inherited property. Wilbur estimates that 30% of Black-owned land, which could have been passed down to future generations, has been lost due to a failure to make wills and trusts.
“Aging Black farmers and Black landowners, in general, believe that selling the land is the only option for financial benefit. But there are other options, like enrolling the land into an easement program.”
Wilbur indicates that the crucial need for an Heirs’ Property Clearinghouse was apparent from the beginning.
“What we quickly realized was that you can’t benefit from land if you don’t have clear title, if you can’t prove ownership,” he says. “They might have a tenant on their land without a legal lease paying them half of what the property is worth, but they can’t evict them. There are so many issues in our community tied up in complications around heirs’ property.”
The Walton Family Foundation is supporting KKAC as part of its effort to achieve better outcomes for people and the environment by engaging and learning from diverse communities. The foundation looks for good ideas like the ones Wilbur and KKAC have to help advance those goals. In the Mississippi River Basin, organizations like KKAC can encourage landowners to restore habitat and improve water quality while also building wealth within their communities.
Through the Heirs' Property Clearinghouse, KKAC is building capacity and strategic partnerships across the region. They are working with Black churches, who Wilbur says have a built-in constituency – through their often large and committed congregations – to spread the word and build trust within the community.
Wilbur has also engaged the local law school – the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law – to bring in additional support as families navigate the complexities of estate planning and law. “We create family trees and help them establish contact with relatives so they can understand who’s involved. We engage in mediation and dispel myths.”
Foundation support also means that KKAC can now cost-share to make federal conservation applications more competitive. “Now, we have specific funds set aside for minority landowners.”
It is support that Wilbur believes can help KKAC engage with their community on a broader scale to make real, cultural change.
To stem the loss of farming income, Mr. King successfully enrolled his land into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) run by the USDA. “The government came in and planted trees, helping bring it back to a natural state. In exchange, they pay me a rental fee. It’s been a lifeline.”
Now, KKAC is helping Mr. King access more conservation programs to grow his income.
One barrier to entry? Mr. King needs to obtain a cleared land title and permission from relatives to access 80 additional acres not contiguous to the rest of his property. The Heirs' Property Clearinghouse is working with the family to start solving this challenge. “If I get the easement, nothing changes. I still own the property. I can sell it, but I just can’t build,” he says.
“A lot of our landowners see wooded acres as wasted land,” Wilbur says. “We are working to make the value of federal programs clear – from recreation and conservation to carbon credits. But to benefit, you need to know what to ask for.”
Mr. King says he is grateful for the support. “The unfortunate thing is that the few Black farmers left don’t know about these programs. Wilbur is totally dedicated to helping people like me keep and maintain their land. I feel blessed.”
Here in Yazoo County, Mr. King believes he might be the only Black farmer remaining. And while his land will never again produce, it is finally back working for his family, and for nature.
“Everything is planted in trees. It’s back like it was before it was clear cut. Even though I love farming, I’m satisfied that it is being restored.”