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research in brief

RESEARCHER

Dr. Andrew Kahrl Assistant Professor, History

paradise lost: the decline of african-american coastal land ownership in the 20th century Dr. Andrew Kahrl has been a fan of James Brown and other R&B singers since childhood. As a graduate student, he intended to study black music and culture, but the research introduced him to many Southern beaches and resorts where black musicians would play. He’d never heard of these places and was curious to learn more. Such was the genesis of Kahrl’s doctoral dissertation and his award-winning book The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, which was chosen by the Organization of American Historians as the best book in civil rights history for 2012. Kahrl’s tragic narrative traces the history of blacks who had for decades owned millions of acres of mostly Southern coastal land, property they could afford to buy in the decades after emancipation because it was seen as marginal. But in the mid20th century, such land was rediscovered as more whites had the means to vacation at increasingly popular seaside resorts (all strictly segregated), while black owners began to create them for African-Americans. Coastal property became evermore valuable because of modern engineering efforts, new bridges and federally subsidized flood insurance. Some black owners sold the land because they couldn’t get loans to develop it or because rising assessments — based on the land’s new potential for development — made the

taxes unaffordable. Others were forced to sell as white developers worked hand-in-hand with white tax assessors who jacked up the value of coastal land. “I’d come across examples of gross manipulation of assessments,” Kahrl notes. Struck by how easily assessments could be manipulated, Kahrl was inspired to begin a second book, which, he says, “will take a sliver of the first book and look at it in a much broader way.” He points to the small town of Edwards, Miss., where black homeowners paid high property taxes but received no services: no sidewalks, sewer lines or garbage pick-up. “They got nothing for their taxes” and essentially subsidized the services for white homeowners, Kahrl notes. Typically, the assessment books were segregated in Southern states until the 1960s, with one for white-owned properties and one for black-owned properties. Kahrl is taking digital photos of “hundreds and hundreds” of pages of assessment records and transferring the data to spreadsheets to quantify the results. “What I’m finding is that African-Americans paid more for property taxes than other property owners,” he says. “The practice goes all the way back to the end of Reconstruction.” BRUCE MURPHY

Images used with permission: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, and University Archives, Hampton (Va.) University

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marquette university discover magazine 2014

Discover Research 2014  

Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette'...