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‘Death And Dirt’ Law To Conservation For Black-Owned Forests: Meet Mavis Gragg

Mavis Gragg never thought her work would “take her to the trees,” but that is where she has found herself. 

She grew up during the 80s in Black Mountain, North Carolina as the middle child to a long-haul truck driver and a bank teller. Gragg had her sights set on law school from an early age after her father promised her an orange corvette as a law school graduation gift. After studying unions and labor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an undergraduate, she went on to graduate from Pepperdine University Rick J. Caruso School of Law in 2002. She did not get the corvette, but Gragg knew she had made her parents proud and she started working for a large firm in Washington, D.C.

Then in 2012, Gragg’s parents died unexpectedly. The sudden loss propelled her into an emotional and career reckoning. Was she really practicing law because she wanted to, or because her parents wanted her to? About a year of career guidance and therapy later, Gragg realized she was just practicing the wrong kind of law.

"I believe that families should not lose thousands of dollars pursuing a resolution to an heirs property matter."

In 2014 she moved to Durham and opened her own law firm that specialized in what she calls “death and dirt” law. The idea to focus on estate planning and heirs property law came after her parents’ death, when Gragg suddenly became the custodian to a number of family estates, and her family lost considerable property. She wanted to help other families get organized and prepared for what happens when a family member passes, particularly for people of a low socioeconomic class whose wealth is even more precious.

That practice ran until 2019, when Gragg accepted the position of director of the Sustainable Forestry & African American Land Retention Program with the American Forest Foundation. Black land ownership in America has steadily declined since its peak 100 years ago, so Gragg helps black families maintain and keep their privately-owned forest land. It is a departure from the legal world, but Gragg enjoys the conservationist aspect to her work in protecting African American property. Host Anita Rao talks to Mavis Gragg about finding purpose in her work and how families can protect intergenerational wealth. Note: This program originally aired June 15, 2020.

Credit Courtesy of Mavis Gragg
Gragg speaking with the Triangle Land Conservancy in 2018.

Interview Highlights:

On how her father motivated her to go to law school:

My dad promised me a Corvette if I graduated law school. Well, everything that I did from a young age had to be directed towards going to law school or getting that degree. And I think that had to do with the fact that my parents just wanted us to have better circumstances than they had, socioeconomically and from a racial perspective. I'd never met any black attorneys—because there weren't any in Black Mountain. There were black attorneys in Asheville, but Asheville even seemed like a good distance. I didn't meet my first black female attorney until I went to college … I saw that car, and he promised he would get that for me if I graduated from law school, and I wanted to do anything to please him .. I didn't know what law school was, but he gave me a goal. So I went after it, but I did not get the Corvette. I got a Honda.

People don't know that there are people of color in the mountains - in the Appalachian Mountains.

On her belief in sustainable, passion-driven law practices:

A lot of lawyers pursue passion-driven work, but don't get paid well for it. So it was important to me to try to always maintain getting compensated for it. And so, I chose to work on “death and dirt.” I chose to work with families who are land rich, cash poor. I chose to work on issues that a lot of lawyers don't want to work on, because of the complexity of it and the lack of satisfaction from the clients, because it is complex. I wanted to craft it in a way that made it sustainable for me and make it possibly sustainable for other attorneys to do that work.

On heirs property:
Heirs property really refers to any type of real estate that's owned by multiple people, each of whom have inherited their share. I think people have heard more and more about heirs property in the last couple of years because of the tremendous land loss that has been experienced by the Black community. But it's an issue that impacts many Americans, because most families that have land will transfer it by inheritance. And so heirs property is an issue that affects people across the country. I have focused specifically on the African American community and families who are land rich, cash poor because they need the help the most.

Our country's health, our state's health, our community's health is really supported by privately-owned forests.

On addressing racial inequity in her position with American Forest Foundation:

When a conservation organization talks about its role in racial inequity and land loss it's a difficult conversation. A  lot of people who are conservationists or environmentalists who care about those issues do not see a direct relationship between police brutality and general brutality of a specific community. And it's a difficult conversation, but I think that the current events are forcing organizations, including my own, to think about what role we play in addressing those injustices and what good work can we do to eliminate them. It's a challenging time for me personally, as an African American, because it's depressing to hear this and to see what's going on. When you have to show up for work and then try to be creative and innovative in this. It's not something you learn in school.


Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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