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March 15, 2023

Racism and Black Land Loss in the South: Review of Secrets of Sulphur Springs (Disney, 2021)

Can time travel shows tackle racism? This TV series says yes. While entertaining the young audience with stories about ghosts and mysteries, a more solemn message about Southern racism and black land loss also came through. 

Twelve-year-old Griffin (Preston Oliver) and his family purchased an old hotel property (Tremont) in a fictional place of Sulfur Springs, New Orleans, trying to refurbish it and open for business. After having settled down, Griffin met a new friend Harper Dunn (Kyliegh Curran), and the two of them discovered a secret about the local community. 

Rumors circulated that a young girl named Savannah (Elle Graham), who was a school friend of Griffin’s father, had gone missing on the Tremont hotel property in the 1990s. A ghost has been haunting this hotel ever since. 

In their effort to solve the mystery about Savannah, Griffin and Harper discovered that this hotel has always been a portal back in time. They traveled back in time to 1962 in search of Savannah. This trip opened their eyes to what institutionalized racism looked like. 

Soon the mystery of Savannah’s disappearance began to reveal more about a past trauma. Harper uncovered her ancestral connections to the Tremont Hotel. It turns out that the vast Tremont property belonged to this black family as a farm in the 1930s but lost it to Judge Walker through a fraudulent agreement. The ghost that appeared in the hotel since then was Grace Tremont, Harper’s ancestor and the rightful owner of the family farm. 

Towards the end of Season Two, Harper and Griffin were able to right the wrongs by providing evidence to restore the ownership of Tremont Hotel to Harper’s family. The ghost of Grace ascended into the night sky, singing “Amazing Grace.” 

The history of black land loss in America is not a familiar one to many people today. Around the 1910s, Congress set up a Farmers Home Administration to extend credit to small income farmers, benefiting many black American farmers. Rights to land ownership in southern states saw a time of improvement. 

Despite this and similar efforts, black ownership of land continued to decline. The primary reasons included the heir property policy, discriminatory policies, and other financial encumbrances. A senior editor, Vann Newkirk, at The Atlantic once described it as “The Great Land Robbery.”

Even after many reparations, such as President Barack Obama’s Pigford settlement in 2010, the injustices of black land loss remained a social problem, perpetuating racial wealth gaps and intergenerational trauma. A tragic legacy of the Jim Crow South, black land loss needs to become part of the conversation today. 

This topic about black land loss is relevant to discussions around racial wealth gaps today. Many Black landowners lost valuable assets for making their children and grandchildren prosper. While the offsprings of white landowners reaped the benefits of ready access to capital, including education and socioeconomic opportunities, injustices bore bitter fruits for generations in communities of color. Many families and activists in the South are still in this fight for justice. 

****Converge specializes in strategy development for funders and nonprofit leaders to address systemic racism in the South. We empower BIPOC organizations and leaders to build and shift power to communities of color that continue to suffer the consequences of structural racism. If you are interested in collaborating with Converge, please reach out to [email protected]