The best books on the history of land dispossession

Who am I?

My family’s farm was lost due to a dishonest lawyer that my great-grandmother entrusted. Because of that, I have devoted the past 20 years of my career to providing low-cost legal services to aging rural farmers around estate planning and civil rights. As an attorney, I have worked for the US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Civil Rights in Washington DC. I also founded the non-profit organization F.A.R.M.S., which provides services to aging rural farmers such as preventing farm foreclosures, executing wills, and securing purchase contracts. After drafting Systematic Land Theft over the span of several years, I am happy to release this historic synopsis documenting the land theft of Indigenous and Black communities. I have written extensively on the topics of agriculture, environmental, and land injustice in a variety of legal, trade, and other publications.


I wrote...

Systematic Land Theft

By Jillian Hishaw,

Book cover of Systematic Land Theft

What is my book about?

Systematic Land Theft is a well-documented outline of U.S. history regarding Black and Indigenous land theft. Land Theft compresses 300 years of archives into 1200 footnotes, 12 chapters, and countless literary accounts told by Black farmers, civil rights leaders, and pioneers in the agricultural movement.

This is a heart-wrenching chronicle of how Blacks went from owning upwards of 16 to 20 million acres to the current estimate of 4.5 million acres. Jillian Hishaw thoroughly explains why over 97% of U.S. land is owned by White Americans and less than 3% is owned by people of color. The strategic immigration of Europeans and the adoption of English common law led to the murderous dispossession of tribal land as well. U.S. property laws have tactically benefitted Whites by allowing them to acquire stolen land and using it as collateral to secure their economic position for centuries. As Blacks continue to lose 30,000 acres per year in land ownership the need for legal and economic resolutions is immediate.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes

Jillian Hishaw Why did I love this book?

In Angie Debo’s classic book And Still the Water Runs, the tragic history of the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes which consist of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations is well visualized in words by Debo.  Due to the murderous overthrow of the tribal ways of life, Europeans forced the Five Civilized Tribes off their land in the Southeast region to settle in Indian Territory (what is now known as the state of Oklahoma). The depiction of the tribes' fight for their land, the deadly trek of the Trail of Tears, to the foreseen dispossession of the tribe’s land in Oklahoma by the U.S. government is a heart-breaking synopsis which Debo captures passionately in a visually impactful manner. 

By Angie Debo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked And Still the Waters Run as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Debo's classic work tells the tragic story of the spoliation of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations at the turn of the last century in what is now the state of Oklahoma. After their earlier forced removal from traditional lands in the southeastern states--culminating in the devastating 'trail of tears' march of the Cherokees--these five so-called Civilized Tribes held federal land grants in perpetuity, or "as long as the waters run, as long as the grass grows." Yet after passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, the land was purchased back from the tribes, whose members were then…


Book cover of Fallen Prince: William James Edwards, Black Education, and the Quest for Afro-American Nationality

Jillian Hishaw Why did I love this book?

William James Edward is the grandfather of the author Donald Stone. The author does a great job of highlighting the importance that William J. Edward placed on lineage at the beginning of the book. The author shows the forgotten legacy of Edwards as one of Tuskegee’s first graduates. Edwards goes on to start a secondary school in Wilcox county Alabama, following the legacy of Booker T. Washington. The school was called the Snow Hill Institute and in its prime employed over 20 teachers and had over a dozen buildings on the campus. The curriculum was like Tuskegee, where the students learned trades and received a formal education. Under the leadership of William James Edwards, the school thrived until it was forced to close in the 1960s. Donald Stone mostly uses primary sources to paint a picture of the opposition that Edwards faced in trying to operate a school outside of the powers that be. Through his research, he also changes the narrative of black independent success in the south.

Book cover of Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South

Jillian Hishaw Why did I love this book?

This book uses census data and other historical facts to highlight the 250,000 free blacks who were in the south post-Civil War. It shows the struggles black people faced in regards to their community, liberty, education, and economic independence inside an oppressive society. Berlin does a good job at depicting the interaction between Blacks and Whites both free and enslaved. He offers a better understanding of the complex race relations that existed in the south. He gives one of the best accounts on record, of the wealth black people accumulated during slavery and 20 years after despite the pushback they faced.

By Ira Belin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slaves Without Masters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The prize-winning classic volume by acclaimed historian Ira Berlin is now available in a handsome new edition, with a new preface by the author. It is a moving portrait of the quarter of a million free black men and women who lived in the South before the Civil War and describes the social and economic struggles that were part of life within this oppressive society. It is an essential work for both educators and general readers. Berlin's books have won many prizes and he is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars on slavery and African American life.


Book cover of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Jillian Hishaw Why did I love this book?

The Industrial Revolution of the U.S. could not have taken place without the disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Forced remedial labor under restrictive covenants and Jim Crow ensured oppression. The forced labor of Black Americans and stolen lands of Tribal nations has been the constant leverage used to catapult the U.S. into the quintessential superpower. Edward Baptist, the author provides the reader with a thorough mathematical analysis of how the plantations of the Southeast and the non-Union jobs of the Northeast laid the foundation of the current capitalist economy. Driven by greed, the book outlines in detail how a sequence of policy, treaties, and land theft led to settlers becoming dominant over all communities of color in finance and economics. The continued allowance of economic injustice and tactical means of discrimination outlined in a concise context makes for an amazing read and resource book!

By Edward E. Baptist,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Half Has Never Been Told as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution,the nation's original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America's later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy. As historian Edward E. Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told , the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United…


Book cover of Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom

Jillian Hishaw Why did I love this book?

A beautiful manuscript documenting the overall racial tension between Indigenous, enslaved Africans, and Europeans is superbly described by Dr. Miles in all aspects. The undertones of admiration and challenges between all three racial groups is eloquently pictured in the relationship between Shoeboots, a prominent Cherokee Champion and farmer, and Doll, his companion and enslaved African woman. The three-decade depiction of Shoeboot’s and Doll’s lives together and Doll’s petition to the federal government requesting Shoe Boot’s pension as his widow is beyond historic. Ties that Bind is a true testament to the enslaved Africans tribal experience before, during, and after slavery; it is essential to one’s book collection.  

By Tiya Miles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ties That Bind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This beautifully written book, now in its second edition, tells the haunting saga of a quintessentially American family. It is the story of Shoe Boots, a famed Cherokee warrior and successful farmer, and Doll, an African slave he acquired in the late 1790s. Over the next thirty years, Shoe Boots and Doll lived together as master and slave and also as lifelong partners who, with their children and grandchildren, experienced key events in American history including slavery, the Creek War, the founding of the Cherokee Nation and subsequent removal of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears, and the Civil…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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