Thomas Wilson Mitchell ’87 was named a recipient of the 2020 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship for his work concerning property law reform on Oct. 6. Mitchell, who is a law professor at Texas A&M University, was recognized for his efforts to address long-standing legal doctrines that deprive Black families and other marginalized groups of land ownership and real estate wealth. Mitchell is the eighth Amherst alum to receive the award and the second in the past two consecutive years; Andrea Dutton ’95 received the fellowship last year. 

The prestige associated with the honor is coupled with a “no strings attached” award of $625,000 that will be paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years. This year, in the context of a global pandemic and trying political climate, the award is especially noteworthy. The work of the fellows is a testament to human resiliency and creativity, noted the MacArthur Foundation. 

To remedy racial wealth gaps and enable property owners to secure their land holdings, Mitchell successfully drafted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) in 2010 after a rigorous process of documenting the involuntary land loss of African American families through biased inheritance laws and collaboratively working with community stakeholders, expert attorneys and academics. The act has three tenets: guidance for courts on how to resolve a partition action, a co-owner buyout provision and a procedure that approximates the market value of property. Since 2011, the UPHPA has been enacted in 18 states and introduced in seven others.

“My work focuses on the challenges that disadvantaged families — families that are disproportionately but not exclusively people of color — have experienced in terms of maintaining ownership of property that they have acquired,” Mitchell told The Student in an interview. “That is both property located in rural communities but also properties in cities and other metropolitan areas. The focus of my research is property laws that have undermined the ability of African Americans and other minorities ownership of their family owned properties. It was an area that was undertheorized — there hadn't been a whole lot of attention paid by other legal academics or property scholars in this area.”

Mitchell initially focused on issues impacting the rural south and rural African American families. He was drawn to the issue largely because very little attention had been paid to rural issues in general, let alone dealings involving people of color in rural America. He often ventured to the rural South so that he could connect with the people that his projects were trying to help. 

Getting the phone call that he had won the award was a complete surprise, according to Mitchell. “I get a lot of spam calls on my cell phone. On Sept. 9, I started getting these phone calls with the Chicago area code. And I was like, ‘Nope, not gonna answer it!’ And then I got an email from the MacArthur Foundation from somebody at the very top of the foundation. The email said: ‘Listen, we want to talk to you, hopefully on Friday, about serving on an advisory committee for the foundation that will look at some equity issues in our grant-making,’” he said. 

“I planned to tell them that I could not fit in a committee because I was already chronically overextended. The law reforms that I have passed are not actually not part of my job; I still have a full time job doing what every other law professor does,” Mitchell added. “So, the phone rings on Sept. 11 and I'm about to go into my spiel, when, a few seconds in, the person from the MacArthur Foundation says, ‘We totally misled you. This has nothing to do with the Advisory Committee. We're calling to let you know that you've been named one of the 21 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship.’” 

Initially, Mitchell wasn’t jumping out of his seat; at that time, he did not understand  he had won the “Genius Grant,” instead thinking he won a smaller award from the foundation. After a member of the selection committee explained that he was being presented with the MacArthur Fellowship, Mitchell was overjoyed. “You know, I actually was overcome with emotion, and I'm not somebody who's normally overly emotional,” Mitchell admitted. “I do have to acknowledge that, in that moment, there were some tears in my eyes. I guess I recalled a memory from 25 years before when I had started this work when a partner at a major D.C. law firm told described legal scholarship as career suicide.”

Though Mitchell is honored to receive the prize money, he is more focused on the “reputational capital” that comes along with the MacArthur Fellowship. His plan is to build a center designed to systematically address property challenges that affect disadvantaged property owners. “The center would have staff: it would have law students and graduate students. We would cast a wide net in looking at these range of property issues impacting African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, poor whites in Appalachia [and] Native Hawaiians, and, in a systematic way, research these issues,” explained Mitchell. “We would do things like generate white papers, hold webinars, hold continuing legal education classes and then develop concrete ideas for law reform policy initiatives that could be pursued. I see us then working with a variety of stakeholders, elected officials, the American Bar Association, the Uniform Law Commission and community based organizations to operationalize those aims.”

“The money will help, but it's only $625,000,” Mitchell noted. “Although that does seem like a lot of money, I'd like such a center to be sustainable over decades — not just … for five years. To do that, I’d need to rely on the reputational capital of the MacArthur Fellowship to approach a number of foundations and potential funding organizations.”

The law professor's interest in advocacy and racial justice began when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College. When he arrived at Amherst, Mitchell noticed right away that only a few professors and athletic coaches were people of color. Soon, he found out that athletes of color often have less opportunities to play their sport and commonly washed out after their first year. “They thought they would be given no opportunity. And, you know, when I showed up, ready to play for the football team, I was jarred,” he said. “I had been recruited by a number of the Ivy Leagues and expected that I would be given the chance to play.”

Mitchell continued: “I was also raised with the mentality, mostly from my dad, that as an African American in our society, you don't demand more than what's coming to you, but you don't accept less. That was kind of my starting mindset. As I spent more time at Amherst, I progressively ended up having a whole series of meetings with people in the athletic department, and then the administration, and then the Board of Trustees, which resulted in the president, who was Peter Pouncey at the time, appointing a task force to address racial issues within the athletic department. The athletic director, Peter Gooding, and I were the co-chairs of that task force.”

Together, Gooding and Mitchell made a significant process by accessing data on recruiting. Mitchell cites his undergraduate experience in advocacy as the spark that motivated him to become a lawyer. It also showed him that it was possible to challenge established rules. It wasn’t until he studied at Howard Law School, however, that he recognized how law could be used to promote social justice.

Mitchell’s legal goals to promote social and racial justice are also inspired by the life of Charles Hamilton Houston, a member of the class of 1915 and an “architect of the legal reform movement to overturn Jim Crow.” “Houston famously encouraged lawyers to be ‘social engineers’ who should use the law to promote social and racial justice,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s humanistic spirit attracted him to the discipline of social justice, but he never imagined where it would lead him. “There’re just very few folks who were writing about rural African Americans, [and] I had this passion of dealing with this particular issue for a couple of reasons. But it was not viewed as the ticket to fame and glory. I never imagined that things would unfold the way that they did,” he said. “I took a lot of trips to the rural South where I got to know all kinds of really fantastic people or families or communities and their homes. You know, in community centers [and] other places. Yes, I enjoy being a law professor, connecting with people and having a human touch in this way but never imagined that I would receive a MacArthur Fellowship for doing that kind of work.”

Though he is receiving overwhelming support for his work presently, many questioned his choice to focus on property ownership reform. Mitchell recounted how he was called a “totally naive wide eyed optimist” in the humble beginnings of his career. Nevertheless, the doubts of colleagues and inevitable failures did not deter him from his overriding goal: “to do work that ultimately could be leveraged to change things in the real world, in a positive way for disadvantaged people.”

Mitchell has experienced an outpour of support from friends, family and official organizations such as the American Bar and other legal aid organizations over the past few weeks. Though a bit overwhelming, Mitchell said that he is incredibly grateful for all those that have supported him along the way. 

“I’ve heard from people from a variety of every stage of my life from elementary school — classmates I hadn't heard from for decades — to fourth grade or fifth grade teachers, all the way through college, my first law degree at Howard University Law School, and my second degree. I've also heard from a whole range of former students who ended up saying that I had played an important role in mentoring them and positively impacting their lives.”

Sophia Wolmer