Litigating Land Loss

Litigating Land Loss

When Thomas Mitchell told his friends he was leaving Covington & Burling, one of Washington, D.C.’s most prestigious corporate law firms, to return to graduate school in Wisconsin where he planned to study issues of land tenure and land loss among poor rural African American communities, “they thought I had lost my mind,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell had, up to that point at least, made all the right moves: graduated in the top 5 percent of his class at Howard’s law school, clerked for a federal judge and taken a job at a top-flight law firm. He was on a path, as he puts it, “to make a lot of money, to have a big home and a nice car.” But after two years in the corporate trenches, it began to dawn on him that these were things other people had told him he should be excited about.
Mitchell decided to follow his heart to Wisconsin — and there he immediately started knocking expectations askew. He took a job as an assistant dean; founded the University of Wisconsin Land Tenure Center, which has grown to a 10-school, multi-state externship program that places law students in rural areas with extreme unmet legal needs; and did well in his classes.
“I had a number of professors say to me, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re here to get your LLM!’ But what I was trying to say to them was that these things were not mutually exclusive,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell has received sweet vindication on all fronts. His colleagues back in Washington had to sit up and take notice when Black farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for generations of discrimination in the distribution of loans and other aid.
“People who had laughed at me or shaken their heads over me were suddenly like, ‘Weren’t you working on something in relation to that case?’ ” he says.
And the skeptics in the academy — those who didn’t believe he could juggle the demands of a tenure-track job with an equally demanding programming agenda — also have had to sit up and take notice. The fruits of his research — articles on land loss in the American South and in Southern Africa published this year in the Northwestern University Law Review and Indiana University International and Comparative Law Review — have made him the talk of the legal community.
In addition, Mitchell has spearheaded the development of yet another program —  the Center for Minority Land and Community Security, a joint UW-Tuskegee University program that trains community-based paralegals to work within underserved rural African American, Hispanic and American Indian communities. The Ford Foundation also became interested in Mitchell’s work. Mitchell, two UW land economists, and a postdoctoral student in sociology formed a team that received a $230,000 sponsored research grant to study the legal, economic and sociological consequences of land loss in rural African American communities. The project is titled “Forced Sales of Black-Owned Land in the Rural South.” It’s highly unusual, Mitchell says, for a law school to be able to attract such a grant.
“I always had this vision of how I wanted to be an academic,” Mitchell says. “I wanted to be involved in the world.”
In his case, taking the road less traveled is definitely paying off, both in his career and in the lives of the rural farmers he champions.
— By Kendra Hamilton



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