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Though Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s (REC) primary mission is to provide members with safe, reliable and affordable electricity, it also aims to enhance the quality of life in the communities it serves. As we outlined in a previous article, the REC has a number of initiatives to empower members to invest in sustainability, and to help drive economic development in the seven counties where it operates.

Since 2013, the cooperative has also taken an active role in helping prevent African American land loss through a sustainable forestry initiative. The initiative is a joint venture of the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the National Resources Conservation Service and the USDA Forest Service. Through the project, the cooperative works with landowners to come up with sustainable sources of revenue from forest land, making the land an asset to the family instead of a tax burden. The REC also helps landowners come up with succession and estate plans to ensure that the land stays in the family after the oldest generation passes away.

History of African American Land Loss
Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 1910, African Americans overcame racist and discriminatory practices of public and private lending institutions and managed to amass between 15 and 19 million acres of land. Since then, African American land ownership has declined at an alarming rate to less than 50% of its peak, with estimates ranging between 7.7 and 2.1 million acres today.

There are a number of factors that contributed to African American land loss this past century. Many families fled racism in the south, leaving land behind as they pursued manufacturing jobs in northern cities. The cotton weevil devastated the important cash crop during the early part of the century, forcing many African American farmers to declare bankruptcy, and crippling many Black-owned banks. Federal programs set up to assist farmers often gave preferential treatment to whites. In a 1982 report on “The Decline of Black Farming in America,” the United States Commission on Civil Rights acknowledged that the USDA had engaged in discriminatory lending practices that contributed to the decline of black farmers. A 1997 report on “Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” acknowledges that discriminatory practices continued and in 1999, 13,300 black farmers won a major class action lawsuit filed against the USDA. The federal government was forced to pay $2.2 billion to black farmers who could prove they were discriminated against, however these payment often came too late to save black family farms.

Another major contributor to African American land loss is the failure of African American land owners to leave written wills or estate plans detailing what is to happen to the land after the landowner passes away. Without a will, all living heirs become partial owners of the land which makes land management and tax filings difficult. If one heir decides to sell his or her share, the buyer can force the sale of the entire parcel to the highest-bidder.

Reversing the Trend
In 2013, the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA Forest Service came together to try and stem the loss of African American land. They created a $1.2 million grant fund, and selected four organizations to start working on the issue, including REC’s non-profit subsidiary, The Roanoke Center, which received $425,000 to fund a thirty month pilot program.

The Roanoke Center has been working on economic development in the northeastern region of North Carolina for many years, and is no stranger to the problem of African American land loss. “In areas like our region, there is a huge exodus and loss of land that was once owned by African Americans. Over time, as the farming industry has gravitated towards larger farmers, farming more and more land, the small farmer has diminished. That used to be how the land was used. Without that, you have a lot of landowners who own land, but who are no longer generating revenue from the land,” explains Curtis Wynn, President and CEO of REC. “But there is still a tax burden, and in many cases, the tax burden becomes so much of a liability that the land is lost.”

In order to keep land in the family, owners need to make sure that the land can generate revenue for many years to come. As Forest Consultant for Roanoke Electric, Alton Perry helps landowners create forest management plans that create sustainable sources of revenue. “I’ve seen a lot of tracts of forests that were passed down, but parents harvested without doing any reforestation. So now the children are left with low quality forest that aren’t very productive.” By replanting high value trees, landowners ensure the next generation has assets they can use to cover the cost of taxes in the future.

Perry works closely with landowners and lets them know about USDA and other federal and state programs that they may be eligible for. In North Carolina, anyone with 20 acres of woodland and an active forest management plan is eligible to be taxed based on present use, rather than full market value. Some of the landowners that Perry works fit all of the criteria for a tax reduction but never knew that the Present-Use Value Program existed.

Perry also provides technical assistance to landowners who want to sell their timber. He connects them with extension agents and trusted forestry professionals who can help them realize the full value of their timber and helps them find credible buyers who are willing to pay a fair market price. Though the grant primarily targets African American landowners with more than ten acres of forest, Perry is happy to use the knowledge base he’s built to assist landowners with less acreage. He’s exploring ways that smaller landowners could form cooperatives that are big enough to negotiate deals with large logging companies.

Beyond timber, Perry encourages landowners to explore other ways of bringing in using their forest to generate revenue, like selling hunting rights and harvesting pine needles. New agroforestry research on alley cropping and silvopasture could help forest owners increase productivity and diversify revenue streams in the future.

Inheriting Problems
The initiative also works with families on estate planning, encouraging landowners to create a written will to avoid having control of the land divided amongst heirs.

“We want to help people figure out how to pass that land down in a structure that can keep it in the family for generations,” says Perry. He encourages landowners to talk to their family about their hopes for the land, but also educates about the issues that arise when there is no will to clarify who will be responsible for management decisions in the future.

The Roanoke Center has partnered with retired local Judge Alfred Kwasikpui to find attorneys in the area who can help landowners work out property issues and create legal wills. The grant will cover the cost of some legal services and action.

Building a Foundation
Since the start of the pilot, Perry has built an important knowledge base that will help landowners in the region better understand the value of their assets for many years to come. They are currently working with 30 landowners, and have over a hundred in their database who are still in the inquiry phase, or who do not meet the minimal acreage requirements. In the case of the latter, Perry still shares his knowledge and refers them to various partner organizations.

The initiative is also working to educate local youth about the economic, social and ecological benefits of their forest land. “At some point in time they are going to be forest landowners and local officials who will make decisions about the future of the forest in our region.”

The funding organizations will make a decision later this year about whether to continue to fund the pilot programs in North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama. The initiative has taken an important first step towards keeping African American land in the family, but there is still a lot of work left to do to help the African American community recover the wealth that was unfairly lost over the course of this past century.