For decades, state and city leaders have clashed over who should control local spending, services and infrastructure. Now, both the federal manager and the city’s mayor are warning that state politicians are attempting to take over Jackson’s water system, along with hundreds of millions in federal funds meant for repairing it.
Jim Craig, of the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, center, and Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, at a water treatment facility in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Credit:Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo/Pool
JACKSON, Miss. — The freeze of early 2021 wasn’t the origin of Jackson, Mississippi’s water system collapse. But the winter storm introduced the country to Jackson’s aging and improperly maintained pipes and water plants, which failed and left residents without clean water for over a month.
The crisis surged back in the summer of 2022, leaving residents without clean water for two months and drawing comparisons to Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoning scandal, another banner example of America’s ruinous infrastructure systems. Here, as in Flint, the federal government stepped in: In November, the Department of Justice appointed a federal manager to take control of the beleaguered utility, and less than a month later, Congress approved $600 million exclusively for the city’s water system.
But the rescue effort is already running up against the realities of local politics, reflecting historic tensions between Jackson and the rest of the state. For decades, state and city leaders have clashed over who should control local spending, services and infrastructure. Now, both the federal manager and the city’s mayor are warning that state politicians are attempting to take over Jackson’s water system, along with hundreds of millions in federal funds meant for repairing it.
At the heart of the feud is Senate Bill 2889, introduced in mid-January by a lawmaker who says his only goal is to ensure the Mississippi capital’s water system is restored.
The legislation would create a new regional water-authority board to oversee the system’s water, sewer and drainage systems. The governor and lieutenant governor would appoint a majority of the board. Over the years, state leaders including the current governor, Tate Reeves, have expressed skepticism about whether Jackson is capable of managing its own affairs. Federal agencies, including the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, have also questioned the city’s management of its water and wastewater systems.
The latest move in the Legislature worries the manager, Ted Henifin, who says a regional authority could allow improvements and debt relief to flow out of Jackson and into suburban utilities that join the entity. “I believe the $600+ million in federal funding has created a monster in the Mississippi Legislature,” Henifin told the Mississippi Free Press and ProPublica in a written statement last week. A federal judge appointed Henifin to the position of interim third-party manager in late November.
Ted Henifin was appointed by a federal judge to shepherd Jackson’s water system out of crisis. Credit:Nick Judin/Mississippi Free Press
Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba built on Henifin’s critique Monday. “It is a colonial power taking over our city. It is plantation politics. I have not been shy in the ways that I have referenced this,” he said.
The mayor highlighted a litany of other proposed legislation that together would give Mississippi authority over segments of Jackson’s police and court systems. He called the legislative proposals a “unified attack” against the city’s autonomy.
“It reminds me of apartheid,” he said. “They dictate our leadership, put a military force over us and we’re just supposed to pay taxes to the king.”
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, whose office helped design the measure, strongly denied that attempts to divert federal funds were behind the legislation. After the news organizations asked Parker about some critics’ concerns, he and Hosemann agreed that the state should recoup none of the federal funds, and Parker pledged to introduce an amendment that would explicitly prohibit the use of the funds outside Jackson’s city limits.
Henifin was unmoved, saying he was concerned that amendments could be overwritten later, and that a regional utility was the wrong solution for Jackson in any case.
“We Need an Arbitrator”
If the Senate bill becomes law, the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act would effectively give the state authority over Jackson’s water system once the federal manager’s authority lapses.
That’s because it would grant the governor power to appoint three of the nine members, and the lieutenant governor two, giving statewide leaders, who are white, majority control over water, wastewater and stormwater utilities in Jackson, whose population is 82% Black. The mayor would get four appointments, including one that he would have to select in “consultation” with the mayor of nearby Byram, majority Black, and another chosen with the mayor of Ridgeland, a demographically mixed suburb. The board would then elect a president to formally lead the new regional utility.
In an interview, Henifin said he believes Jackson’s system requires judicial and federal oversight to prevent the mismanagement of critical infrastructure funds, which he estimates would take years to properly spend.
“I think at the end of the day we need an arbitrator, and I think that’s a federal judge in this case.” He said he believes this oversight should be extended to protect the federal dollars, estimating that five years of some form of oversight should be sufficient to lock in the necessary contracts and investments.
He later said that legislative interference might threaten efforts to procure a contract to address the water system’s crucial staffing shortages because the prospect of a change in the water utility’s leadership while a long-term contract is still being executed could scare off large corporations.
Although Parker and Hosemann were complimentary of Henifin in interviews with the Mississippi Free Press, Henifin says neither of the parties involved has ever consulted him. Indeed, he said that Hosemann’s office rebuffed his attempt to set up a meeting. Hosemann acknowledged that he had not spoken with Henifin yet but said he intended to “shortly.”
“I Wanted to Be Very Sympathetic”
Parker said that although he lives 200 miles from Jackson, he did experience the city’s water crisis firsthand.
“I have a daughter that I live with during the legislative session,” he said. “I’ve spent numerous times walking down to the swimming pool and dipping water into a cooler, taking it back up to the toilet to flush. We live in an apartment complex that’s had to put portable facilities on the ground floor to allow people to go to the bathroom.”
“I wanted to be very sympathetic and compassionate to the feelings of the mayor and other people who have spent a long time trying to seek answers to this problem,” Parker said. “So in setting up a board that would be overseeing the water and sewer system, my idea was to give the mayor four appointments on a nine-member board.”
He said he believed the governor and lieutenant governor should appoint a majority of the board’s members because Mississippi’s failure to “provide the basic needs and services that our people deserve is reflected 100% back on the governor and the people in this building.”
Credit:Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo
Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, introduced Senate Bill 2889. is restored.
He said, “Crafting something like this is an extreme challenge.”
Parker said he initially believed that residents in Ridgeland drew water from Jackson’s treatment plant. Though the facility itself is located in Ridgeland, reporters told Parker that Ridgeland does not currently receive water from Jackson’s water system; they also told him that parts of Ridgeland may use Jackson’s greater sewage system. He then suggested the bill may have included that city’s mayor in light of that fact.
He expressed surprise over Henifin’s comments and strongly denied any intent to divert money away from Jackson. He said his only goal is to ensure the Mississippi capital’s water system
The bill gives the surrounding municipalities a path to join the new capital water authority, transferring their assets and debts to it, a common feature of regional utilities.
The news organizations asked Parker if any part of SB 2889 prevented that regionalization from allowing federal funds to be dispersed to utilities outside Jackson. Parker said he would look into that question. A day later, Hosemann said he had agreed with Parker that they should address any gaps that might allow money to be spent outside of the authority itself.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s office helped craft SB 2889, which would allow the governor and lieutenant governor to appoint the majority of a newly created regional water-authority board. Credit:Nick Judin/Mississippi Free Press
“It Is Plantation Politics”
Lumumba said the feud over spending the federal funds highlights the friction between the state’s majority-white leaders and the majority-Black capital city.
“It is plantation politics,” Lumumba said. “It’s consistent with this paternalistic relationship that the state of Mississippi believes that it maintains with the city of Jackson.”
Lumumba compared it to the 1% Sales Tax Commission, a system the Legislature designed to assert control over spending derived from a special sales tax Jackson maintains to fund infrastructure projects.The Unfinished Business of Flint’s Water Crisis
In a response to additional inquiries, Hosemann’s Deputy Chief of Staff Leah Rupp Smith said they defer to Parker on the legislation but “share a desire with all parties to find a long-term solution,” and she said that a regional utility authority “has been viable in other parts of our state.” They said they planned to meet with Henifin the week after next.
Parker said his conversations with the mayor have been “productive and congenial.” He added that they “share an interest in ensuring all people served by the systems have access to safe and reliable water and wastewater services at a fair and reasonable cost.”
In recent years, Lumumba has clashed repeatedly with Hosemann over Jackson’s autonomy. “The last time I met with him, he said that I needed to look at a possible relationship with the state of Mississippi, because ‘what did I think, that Biden was gonna write me a check?’”
“I recently told him I do, and he did,” the mayor said of Biden.
Senior reporter Kayode Crown of the Mississippi Free Press contributed reporting.
Los Angeles has agreed to pay $20m (£16.7m) for a beach that was seized from a black family in the 1920s and returned to their heirs this summer.
Bruce’s Beach was purchased in 1912 to create a resort for black people at a time of widespread racial segregation.
Located in the desirable city of Manhattan Beach, it was forcibly taken by the local council in 1924.
The Bruce descendants would be rich already if their land was never taken, said a LA official announcing the sale.
“The seizure of Bruce’s Beach nearly a century ago was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires,” said Janice Hahn, chairwoman of the LA County Board of Supervisors.
“This fight has always been about what is best for the Bruce family, and they feel what is best for them is selling this property back to the county for nearly $20m and finally rebuilding the generational wealth they were denied for nearly a century,” she continued in her Tuesday statement.
“This is what reparations look like and it is a model that I hope governments across the country will follow.”
Reparations are restitution for slavery – an apology and repayment to black citizens whose ancestors were forced into the slave trade. But whether the government should make payments, and how they should be doled out, is politically controversial.
Willa and Charles Bruce bought the two lots of land for $1,225 in 1912, telling a reporter at the time: “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it.”
But the local police department put up signs limiting parking to 10 minutes, and another local landowner put up no trespassing signs, forcing people to walk half a mile to reach the water. They even faced threats from the racist Ku Klux Klan terror group.
When those measures failed to deter visitors, the local authorities seized the land under eminent domain laws – designed to let the government forcibly buy land needed for roads, and other public buildings.
Officials claimed they planned to build a park. That did not happen until the 1960s, and the area remained vacant in the interim.
In June, the county returned the land to the family, and agreed to keep leasing it from them for $413,000 a year in order to continue operating a county lifeguard training centre located on the beach.
Anthony Bruce, a great-great-grandson of Willa and Charles, told an audience who attended the beachside transfer ceremony that the seizure had “destroyed” his ancestors.
“It destroyed their chance at the American Dream. I wish they could see what has happened today,” he said.
Earlier this year, California’s first-in-the-nation reparations taskforce announced the controversial decision to limit payments to the descendants of black slaves only.
The nine-member government panel must deliver a report to the governor by next year, with a plan for how the payments will be made.
Advocates and experts argue that on-going systemic racism has placed Black Americans at a disadvantage in everything from obtaining an education to being paid fair wages, purchasing homes, starting businesses, and passing down generational wealth — all components needed to achieve robust economic health.
Some advocates and experts say reparations are the answer. They would not only help eliminate wealth differences caused by systemic racism but are also “a form of compensation that would amount to healing,” William “Sandy” Darity, an economist and professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy told ABC News. The topic is controversial, even among the descendants. While arguments have been made that reparations to Black descendants of enslaved people could help restore economic balance in the nation, there is the outstanding question of how much should be paid out and to whom. So what exactly is owed?
Over our 34 years of live broadcasts, we have continuously brought advocates, economic experts, and activists in our discussions of reparations and reparations activism for descendants of the American chattel system. We have, in these discussions, underscored that reparations proposals must consider the economic contributions of free labor made within the hundreds of years of legal chattel slavery and continuing racial oppression up to today.
Episode #2: “Reparations: The Paradigm Shift”
Examining the demand for reparations through many eras of Black Struggle: Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, the Black Power eras and Black Lives Matters protests.
Rutledge M. Dennis is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina. He received his B.A. in Social Science and Sociology from South Carolina State University, and the M.A. and Ph.D in sociology from Washington State University. He is the editor/co-editor, and author/co-author of twelve books in the areas of urban politics, research methods in race and ethnicity, Black Intellectuals, W.E.B.Du Bois, the Black Middle Class, race and ethnic politics, comparative and theoretical approaches to race and ethnicity, marginality, bi-culturalism, Booker T. Washington, and more recently, Field Notes from the Black Middletown Study. He was presented the Joseph S. Himes Distinguished Scholarship Award by The Association of Black Sociologists, and the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award, by the American Sociological Association.
This could also be titled, “How Imminent Domain was used as a tool to steal Black land ownership”.
In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a plot of land on the Southern California coast.
It was an oceanside lot in an area dotted with sunny blossoms of evening primrose and purple clusters of lupine. The land, made accessible by red trolley cars that trundled to and from the growing metropolis of Los Angeles, was ripe for development.
The Bruces and their son, Harvey, came from New Mexico and were among the first Black people to settle in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach. They built a resort where other Black families could swim, lounge, eat and dance without being subject to racist harassment.
The harassment came anyway, and the resort thrived despite it. But city officials shuttered the enterprise by condemning the land in 1924, claiming to need it for a public park. The Bruces fought the move through litigation, but failed. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.
Nearly a century later, their descendants are still seeking restitution.
“I just want justice for my family,” said Anthony Bruce, 38, a descendant of the Bruces who lives in Florida and has childhood memories of visiting the California land his relatives once owned.
“It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally,” said Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, a relative of the Bruces who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.
“What we want is restoration of our land to us,” he said, “and restitution for the loss of revenues.”
While the city is not seriously considering the possibility of monetary restitution — officials have said public funds cannot legally be used to pay such claims — property restoration is now on the table. Last week, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said she was open to returning the land to the family, ABC7 Eyewitness News reported. The land has been owned by the county since the 1990s and is now the site of a training center for lifeguards.
“This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property,” Ms. Hahn said in an emailed statement. She added, “I want the county to be part of righting this wrong.”
Both Mr. Bruce and Mr. Shepard said that restitution was about more just than their family. They pointed to the long history of racism in the United States, and to stories of Black people being robbed of their land or the fruits of their labor.
“We’ve been stripped of any type of legacy, and we’re not the only family that this has happened to,” Mr. Shepard said. “It’s happened all over the United States.”
Manhattan Beach has been reckoning with the story of the Bruces’ shuttered resort for years. A park there was renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in 2007, and the city erected a plaque to tell the family’s story.
But the plaque credits a white landowner, George Peck, with making it possible for the Bruce family to settle there. It omits reports of Mr. Peck’s attempts to obstruct Black beachgoers’ paths to the shore.
“We definitely need to change the plaque,” said Kavon Ward, 39, an organizer and resident of Manhattan Beach. “But that’s not going far enough for me. We need to figure out how to get this land back to the family it was stolen from.”
“I started thinking about the generational wealth that was stripped from that family,” she said. “It happened everywhere around this nation. We keep getting up, but why do we have to keep getting kicked down? Why? For me, it was time for reparations.”
“Many people only think about African-American civil rights through economic and political power,” Dr. Jefferson said. “They sometimes forget about the fact that recreation was a big part of the struggle.”
When Willa and Charles Bruce first opened their property to visitors in 1912, it had a small stand that sold food and fizzy drinks. By 1923, the property had a lodge and a beachside cafe, with space upstairs for dancing. Mr. Bruce was often out of town, working as a dining car chef on trains to Salt Lake City. It was Ms. Bruce who bought the property and handled much of the business at the resort.
“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Ms. Bruce told The Los Angeles Times in 1912. “But I own this land and I am going to keep it.”
The Bruces made their investment in the era of Jim Crow, amid a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities across the United States and campaigns of white supremacist terror and lynchings that drove millions of African-Americans away from the South. There was less violence against Black people in California at the time, but discrimination was rampant.
Still, the resort at Bruce’s Beach appeared to prosper. Black-and-white photographs from the era captured beachgoers wearing bathing suits and bright smiles, couples lounging in the shade and families playing in the surf.
In time, a small community of Black landowners bloomed around the resort. According to Dr. Jefferson’s book, these included George Prioleau, a formerly enslaved retired Army major whose family developed a duplex along the shore; Mary Sanders, a caterer from Canada who was known as a skilled entrepreneur; and John and Bessie McCaskill, who hosted elaborate beachside breakfasts.
But some white neighbors and city officials were intent on dismantling the community. Black visitors to the beach endured harassment, slashed tires and arbitrary regulations. The California Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper, reported that the Ku Klux Klan was active along the California shoreline during the 1920s.
And in 1924, the city condemned the Bruces’ property, claiming eminent domain in order to use the land as a park. The couple, both of whom were in their 60s, eventually moved to Los Angeles.
The land they left behind would not be developed as a public park for more than three decades.
Tourists continued to visit Bruce’s Beach after the resort was shuttered. So did members of the N.A.A.C.P., who participated in a “swim-in” to assert their right to the sea in 1927, according to Dr. Jefferson’s book. Several Black beachgoers were arrested that year.
As the decades passed, Manhattan Beach grew to become an affluent city of about 35,000 people, a vast majority of whom are white. According to 2010 census data, less than 1 percent of the population is Black.
In October, Manhattan Beach convened a task force of 13 residents to come up with recommendations for the city to right historical wrongs. Next week, the City Council will meet to discuss those recommendations, which include changing the plaque, erecting an art installation and issuing an apology.
“That’s fine,” Ms. Ward said. “But there are things they could address if they were thinking creatively — if there really was a will to become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place.” She suggested that officials consider forward-looking measures like a commitment to affordable housing.
At the county level, officials are expected to meet with Bruce family descendants next week to discuss handing over the property, which could also involve monetary restitution or an agreement to lease the land from the family.
But Mr. Shepard said the city that condemned the land should be the one to make amends.
Los Angeles County “is talking about restoring the land to us,” he said. “But the restitution and punitive damages, Manhattan Beach is going to have to pay. We’re going to keep up with them until we get it.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
The Legacy of Racism
Black, Native American and Fighting for Recognition in Indian Country
Sept. 8, 2020
How America’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder
On Long Island, a Beachfront Haven for Black Families
Oct. 1, 2020
A Black Police Officer Is Reinstated, 121 Years Later
“Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”
Dr. James Lance Taylor
To some, Black nationalism is now characterized as an outdated political strategy? Or, as Dr. James Taylor argues in his rich, sweeping analysis, a logical response to the failure of post–civil rights politics?
Taylor offers a provocative assessment of the contemporary relevance and interpretation of black nationalism as both a school of thought and a mode of mobilization. Fundamental to his analysis is the assertion that black nationalism should be understood not simply as a separatist movement—the traditional conception—but instead as a common-sense psychological orientation with long roots in US political history. Providing entirely new lines of insight and analysis, his work ranges from the religious foundations of Black political ideologies to the nationalist sentiments of today’s hip-hop generation.
Chair, Department of Politics, former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011.
Professor James Lance Taylor is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book ck Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco from 2012-2015, and Faculty Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
Professor Taylor is currently writing and researching a book with the working title, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and California Black Politics. He expects the book to be completed with a 2018-2019 publication range. The book is a study of the Peoples Temple movement and African American political history in the state of California.
He co-edited and published in Something’s in the Air: Race and the Legalization of Marijuana, with Katherine Tate (UC Irvine) and Mark Sawyer (UCLA), focusing on controversies concerning race, social justice, and marijuana legalization in the state of California.
Prof. Taylor has published articles on subjects such as Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement, Dr. Betty Shabazz (wife of Malcolm X), Dr. Benjamin Chavis (then, Muhammad), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Black Nationalism,” The post-9/11 relationship of Muslims in Northern California and the United States to Black Social and Political History, San Francisco Sun Reporter publisher Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, and on the Peoples Temple Movement in Northern and Southern California.
These works have been published by Harvard University Press and Oxford University Press, Baylor University Press, the State University of New York University Press (SUNY), San Diego State University (Jonestown Institute), and The University Press of Mississippi, and leading independent academic publishers.
Prof. Taylor’s scholarship internationally was acknowledged through his Keynote invitation at the 2014 National Indigenous Studies Conference (AIATSIS) in Canberra, Australia, where he presented the lecture, “Taking Intercommunalism Seriously: Black Power, Indigeneity, and Peoples’ Struggles for Recognition and Anti-Racist Democracy.”
He has taught previously as a Visiting Associate Professor of political science at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain and political science and African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
His most recent published article is “King the Sellout or Sellin’ Out King?”: Hip Hop’s Martin Luther King,” in Dream and Legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Post-Civil Rights era (2017).
Demand for Prof. Taylor’s political analysis, expertise, and opinion has been sought internationally by leading media organizations in Dublin, Ireland, Canberra, Australia, Toronto, Canada, and London, England. He serves as a political commentator on San Francisco, U.S national, California, and U.S. Black politics on behalf of the University of San Francisco’s Media Relations Office and appears regularly on San Francisco News TV with KRON 4, FOX KTVU local, and ABC 7. He is a frequent guest on NPR/KQED with Michael Krasny and other programs and has appeared counting so far eight times at the California Commonwealth Club in San Francisco alongside leading figures in law, media, and politics.
In 2015, Prof. Taylor addressed hundreds of California Law Enforcement Officers at the International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership in San Francisco (USF) on the topic of “The Black Lives Matter Movement” and Law Enforcement and currently serves as a committee member for two Executive Level committees (Bias and Community Engagement) (SFPD Command Staff level) for the Mayor’s Office of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Commission’s mandates to implement the Obama Department of Justice Findings and Recommendations on the operations of the San Francisco Police Department.
Prof. Taylor also served as moderator for two public comment and town hall events on behalf of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Police Commission on the policy consideration of implementing Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs), also known as tasers in 2017. He has also served as a policy consultant for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
The San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) and California Historical Society, the Hayward Black Historical Society, and many local community groups and organizations call on Taylor’s expertise in his fields. He has given public lectures at Northwestern University, The Ohio State University, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and DePauw University (Indiana).
Prof. Taylor is Vice President of the San Francisco Achievers Scholarship non-profit on behalf of African American males graduating from the San Francisco Unified School District.
His teaching and research scholarly interests are in religion and politics in the United States, race and ethnic politics, African American political history, social movements, political ideology, law and public policy, Black political leadership, and the U.S. Presidency. He lives with his family in Oakland, California.
After the Civil War, the United States searched for ways to redefine itself. But by the 1880’s, the hopes of Reconstruction had dimmed. Across the United States there was instead a push to formalize and legalize discrimination against African-Americans. The effort to marginalize the first generation of free black Americans infiltrated nearly every aspect of daily life, including the cost of insurance.
Initially, African-Americans could purchase life insurance policies on equal footing with whites. That all changed in 1881. In March of that year Prudential, one of the country’s largest insurers, announced that policies held by black adults would be worth one-third less than the same plans held by whites. Their weekly premiums would remain the same. Benefits for black children didn’t change, but weekly premiums for their policies would rise by five cents.
Prudential defended the decision by pointing out that the black mortality rate was higher than the white mortality rate. Therefore, they explained, claims paid out for black policyholders were a disproportionate amount of all payouts. Most of the major life insurance companies followed suit, making it nearly impossible for African-Americans to gain coverage. Across the industry, companies blocked agents from soliciting African-American customers and denied commission for any policies issued to blacks.
The public largely accepted the statistical explanation for unequal coverage. The insurer’s job was to calculate risk. Race was merely another variable like occupation or geographic location. As one trade publication put it in 1891: “Life insurance companies are not negro-maniacs, they are business institutions…there is no sentiment and there are no politics in it.”
Companies considered race-based risk the same for all African-Americans, whether they were strong or sickly, educated or uneducated, from the country or the city. The “science” behind the risk formula is credited to Prudential statistician Frederick L. Hoffman, whose efforts to prove the genetic inferiority of the black race were used to justify the company’s discriminatory policies.
You may unsubscribe at any time by clicking on the provided link on any marketing message.
Hoffman had plenty of bad science to work with. Most of the available data on African-American health statistics came from Civil War-era studies of black and white soldiers. Hospital administrator J.F. Miller and other researchers consistently claimed to have proof of the inherent weakness of the black race, reporting that the internal organs, including the lungs and brain, weighed less in blacks than in whites, making them more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and syphilis. Since most white physicians held the common belief that enslaved blacks had been relatively healthy, this proved that the constitution of the black race was incompatible with freedom:
These laws affect him in the air he breathes, the food he eats, the clothes he wears and every circumstance surrounding his habitation. In the wholesale violation of these laws after the war…was laid the foundation of the degeneration of the physical and mental constitution of the negro.
Black Americans were more likely to live in poverty and often lacked access to medical care, among many other hardships. Still, little credence was given to the theory that environmental factors were the reason for the higher black mortality rate. Hoffman’s work received widespread coverage in respected journals, including that of the American Statistical Association, a professional society where Hoffman later served as president.
Hoffman predicted that African-Americans would eventually die off like the Native Americans before them. He surmised that they wouldn’t be able to survive in “civilized” society, outside the bonds of slavery. The theory didn’t gain any traction, but Hoffman’s broader work on the racialist science behind black mortality rates did have lasting effects. Discriminatory policies based on race were standard in the insurance industry well into the twentieth century. In a 1940 survey, over forty percent of companies did not accept black policyholders.
Lincoln Center under construction, after the demoltion of the historically black neighborhood of San Juan Hill. Image: NYPL
When James Baldwin visited San Francisco in 1963 to film a documentary about U.S. racism, he encountered neighborhoods in turmoil: the city was seizing properties through eminent domain, razing them, and turning them over to private developers. Part of a massive, federal urban renewal program, nearly 5,000 families—no fewer than 20,000 residents, the majority of them people of color—were being displaced from rental homes, private property, and businesses in the Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin spoke to a Black teenager who had just lost his home and watched as his neighborhood was destroyed. He told Baldwin: “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Soon after, Baldwin would say: “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods.
That young man was one of millions of Americans, disproportionately of color, who lost homes and communities through the federal urban renewal program. In discussing its human costs—colossal in scope and yet profoundly intimate—Baldwin helped popularize a phrase common in Black neighborhoods: urban renewal meant “Negro removal.” To steal people’s homes, Baldwin understood, was to shred the meaning of their citizenship by destroying their communities. And “the federal government,” he said, “is an accomplice to this fact.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre and redlining have pierced the popular consciousness in recent years as ways that, through murder and markets, Black communities were destroyed. Curiously, urban renewal has so far remained on the margins of these discussions. Yet that program, in operation between 1949 and 1974, constituted one of the most sweeping and systematic instances of the modern destruction of Black property, neighborhoods, culture, community, businesses, and homes. At its peak in the mid-1960s, urban renewal displaced a minimum of 50,000 families annually—a 1964 House of Representatives report estimated the figure at more like 66,000.
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced. And, while we tend to remember urban renewal as a big-city program, pursued by titans such as Robert Moses in New York, the vast majority of projects were carried out in cities of 50,000 residents or fewer. These were small cities such as Greenville, North Carolina, where 207 families of color and 11 white families were displaced; Tupelo, Mississippi, where 217 families of color and 31 white families were displaced; and Demopolis, Alabama, where 55 families of color and 7 white families were displaced. Urban Renewal was spread as widely as today’s marches for social justice.
Today, as racially disparate rates of eviction, police violence, and capital flight raise urgent questions about the right to live in safe, thriving communities, a more complete reckoning with urban renewal’s record of destruction is necessary. Fortunately, because urban renewal was federally funded, Washington collected data about how projects unfolded; these records also allow us to reconstruct the many costs of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent comprehensive digital mapping project which I helped spearhead at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it’s now possible for the first time to visualize how hundreds of urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of Americans. While private–public practices such as redlining help explain the staggering racial wealth gap, the history of urban renewal, though no less materially devastating, involved kinds of theft that are more difficult to quantify—thefts that amount to the destruction of entire lifeworlds. And, the political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today. Like redlining, profit— in this case, returns derived from boosting property taxes— continues to define the state’s interest in destabilizing Black neighborhoods.
The political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today.
As the United States emerged from World War II, many cities faced a housing crunch. Whites policed the racial boundaries of their neighborhoods, often violently. And so as greater numbers of African Americans migrated north in search of manufacturing jobs and to escape the South’s more formal system of Jim Crow, Black neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded. Residents were often subjected to exorbitant rents in derelict housing owned by slumlords. Families and friends boarded together. Others sublet rooms to meet extortionate rents. Segregated neighborhoods in northern cities became so crowded that many schools operated in two shifts—half of the students went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. “Blight” was the term policymakers used to describe the worsening conditions structured by these national practices of urban segregation.
Meanwhile, city budgets teetered on the edge of fiscal cliffs, from which they had only just clawed their way back up. The economic exuberance of the 1920s had produced an urban and suburban “land boom,” as the Wall Street Journal put it—the overheated, last gasp of a period “of great and extended prosperity.” Cities fueled this speculation by taking on staggering levels of debt to support the infrastructure that made private property profitable. Net annual additions to municipal debt between 1923 and 1931 averaged over $845 million (or more than $13.5 billion in 2020 dollars), or enough, as one contemporary analyst accurately predicted, “to keep municipal finance in a turmoil for two decades or more.”
When the bottom fell out of the stock market, the consequences quickly ricocheted through urban land markets and city budgets. Property values plummeted, and tax delinquency skyrocketed. In the Great Depression, some 1,200 local or county governments defaulted or went bankrupt.
The New Deal helped stabilize the situation. Later, defense conversion and contracting in World War II injected desperately needed capital into cities. But cities still held considerable debt, and the New Deal’s public works agenda was not without its own considerable costs—while federally subsidized labor constructed many bridges, libraries, schools, and sewage plants, these public assets had also become new line items on municipal budgets. Moreover, as the Depression shuttered factories and the Great Migration brought new residents, officials worried that property tax revenues would never rise to meet these new burdens.
As early as the late 1930s, New Dealers were increasingly concerned that city budgets were fiscal time bombs that threatened to explode the entire progressive project. And they saw that local governments were already using New Deal works programs to remedy the situation. As Mabel Walker, an urban analyst, noted in 1938, in New York City, federally subsidized works projects had begun “siphoning off [the] slum population,” constructing affordable housing “in cheaper areas,” and might even facilitate the delivery of cleared land to “higher income groups” and “business and industry.” The result, she wrote, was “in effect a gigantic subsidy or bonus handed out to property holders in these slum areas” who could never have assembled enough private capital to reset urban land markets themselves. By 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia estimated the city had torn down or gutted nearly 9,000 buildings. In Philadelphia federal support for clearance subsidized the demolition of 8,328 structures, releasing land with an estimated value of $11.5 million.
Federal leaders struck on the idea of using urban renewal to harness this haphazard redevelopment of cities and turn it into a more coherent, national program of planning, redevelopment, and housing. They also recognized that the federal government’s budget overwhelmingly depended on capital generated in cities in the form of confiscatory, progressive corporate and personal income tax rates. As one of urban renewal’s federal designers put it, short of “a nation-wide overhauling of our traditional arrangements for taxation and public expenditures,” “it seems only fair that the federal government should aid the local governments to the extent necessary to cover their urgently needed outlays.” Federally subsidized slum clearance and redevelopment could put cities back on the path to fiscal independence—and the federal government wouldn’t have to share much of its precious income tax revenue.
Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment.
World War II delayed the initiative, but the Housing Act of 1949 set aside significant financing to enable cities to build public housing and to demolish neglected, overcrowded neighborhoods, and antiquated or abandoned industrial properties. As in a number of New Deal programs, the subsidies would be offered in the form of bonded debt, which, after cities delivered a matching share, the federal government would retire. The goal with such a convoluted system of finance was to get capital moving through private financial institutions and to plausibly deemphasize the role of the national government. These were local programs.
This growing mishmash of priorities was a hallmark of midcentury liberalism, which forged cross-cutting relationships with many different interest groups. Some policymakers, for instance, worked closely with real estate interests and business groups and their allies in city halls. Together they hungered for the potential bonanza of private redevelopment and city property tax yields. Others were aligned with progressive public housing advocates or worked closely to cultivate the support of African American community leaders. When he signed the 1949 bill, a signature piece of his Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman heralded a new front in the war for civil rights: securing a decent home for all Americans. Early on, Black clergy and civil rights activists were among the initiatives’ most hopeful supporters.
Congress soon confronted the reality that few local governments were pursuing the program. Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment. But the act’s regulations mandated that housing projects were to be prioritized.
Rather than amend the legislation to offer greater incentives for housing, a revised version of the legislation, the Housing Act of 1954, created the federal Urban Renewal Administration, ceding to the interests of commercial lobbyists and mayors. The act loosened housing mandates and so unleashed a goldmine of federally financed business-oriented clearance and development.
Many of the developments that resulted are among their city’s most iconic. New York City’s Lincoln Square, anchored by Lincoln Center, displaced at least 4,000 families, many of whom were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. (One imagines some of those residents had been displaced from Puerto Rico, too, where the federal government funded renewal projects in some 30 municipalities, displacing at least 10,000 families.) Pedro Quinones protested displacement by joining a movement called Save Our Homes. As he correctly understood, the program “has come to New York to ‘clean up’ minority groups.” But “we are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. . . . We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants to have what are called ‘better class people’ there.”
Other projects underwrote the emergence of the “meds and eds” economy that fuel so many cities today. The University of Chicago displaced more than 4,000 families in a series of projects. Clearance and construction of Oklahoma City’s University Medical Center displaced at least 700, disproportionately African American families. And Detroit’s massive Medical Center displaced around 2,000 families, again disproportionately of color. That campus now anchors the city’s fashionable Midtown neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania spurred projects that displaced more than 700 African American families and a thriving Black business district. That community, called Black Bottom, had been owned or occupied by African Americans since at least the Civil War. Many of its men were Union Army veterans.
“We are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants ‘better class people’ there.”
Just counting families displaced, however, misses important dimensions of what made this so devastating. While they may not have been thriving in the terms that counted on municipal balance sheets, and while many residents were in dire economic straits, the informal, unplanned mix of public and private, business and culture often amounted to thriving communities. In New York, for instance, more than 600 businesses sat within the Lincoln Square project footprint, businesses that defined the commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood: diners and luncheonettes, candy stores and beauty parlors, a “Chinese goods” store, photography studios, a detective agency, and a funeral parlor.
For displaced businesses, federal law authorized a $2,500 reimbursement for “moving and fixtures” (the ceiling was ultimately abolished, but payments were still at local officials’ discretion). But business owners protested that the figure was a pittance compared to the costs associated with moving, reopening, and lost revenue in the meantime. Small businesses operated on vanishingly slim margins. One pharmacist estimated the cost of relocating and reopening was more like $20,000. Many displaced businesses simply closed down. These dynamics played out in small cities such as Rome, Georgia, too. Callie Martin had owned and operated Let’s Eat Café in the city’s cleared Black neighborhood. After packing up, moving, and reopening, she was barely scraping by. “I was able to give work to two people,” she told the local paper in 1971. “But now I’m just working by myself and not really making ends meet.” Renewal “really caused me to lose a decent living.” Hubert Holland, who lost his barber shop was clearer: “The way I see it, they destroyed the Negro businesses, what little they had.” Two years after clearance, just four of Rome’s 16 displaced Black businesses had reopened. As of 1963, some 39,399 businesses were reported to have been displaced through urban renewal alone (the federal highway program displaced thousands more). Urban renewal would run for another 11 years.
The vast majority of families displaced were renters: a 1968 study found that two thirds of all “relocatees” and three quarters of non-white families displaced were renters. While their landlords—slumlords in many cases—would be compensated for the loss of their property (and some quite handsomely), very often the families that actually lived in these buildings were not. Instead, federal statutes entitled these citizens to “relocation assistance”—vague guidelines that local authorities assist displaced families with finding temporary housing. The legislation “authorized” local governments to offer up to $300 in relocation grants to displaced families. That figure was raised to $500 in 1964, the first year that relocation funds and rental assistance were included elderly individuals. But in many cities, “relocation assistance” simply amounted to flyers with lists of local real estate brokers.
Because of baked-in local discretion, thousands and thousands of those who were displaced never received any financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them; as a result, displacement records constitute one of the archival silences of urban renewal. In one Cleveland neighborhood, 717 families’ homes were razed to clear land for industrial redevelopment. Of them, 224 moved to “unknown” locations (they were likely living with friends and family); 57 moved into other forms of “substandard” housing; and 301 still lived, as the city’s Black paper reported, “in the midst of abandoned housing.” Across a number of Cleveland’s renewal programs, officials admitted not knowing what had become of another 1,194 families.
Thousands of those who were displaced never received financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them.
The transfer of wealth, capital, and land from these communities to large business interests and developers only scratches the surface of the damage done by urban renewal. Ties of kinship and community were shattered. The loss of a sense of “rootedness” was devastating. Grady Abrams, who was displaced from the Five Points neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, recalled the traumatic experience of his lost community. “It is one thing to leave your home, your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner.” He testified to the lasting trauma: “It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. In fact, my neighbors and I lost relationships forever. There is nothing of the past now in Five Points that I can show my grandchildren and great grandchildren that was part of my past. Nothing at all.”
All of these issues were known to federal administrators. As one 1965 report found, thanks to urban renewal, “Nonwhites have been forced into already crowded housing facilities, thereby spreading blight, aggravating ghettoes, and generally defeating the social purpose of urban renewal.” Displaced citizens, another report found, “are faced with having to reconstruct their lives. . . . They must terminate relationships and break routines that—especially for the elderly—have been equated with life itself.” These were connections to tradition, community, and history that the built environment makes manifest—the millions of memories and attachments we make to each other through spaces like street corners and schools, bars and barber shops.
As we try to reconstruct these histories, so far we only have comprehensive family displacement data for the years 1950–66. These figures dramatically undercount families of color because in many places Latin and Caribbean communities were counted as white, as in the Lincoln Center project and a number of clearance projects in California. Moreover, the government only counted families for displacement purposes, because they were the primary displacees entitled to the paltry and frequently underdelivered relocation assistance grants. Non-elderly single people and nonconforming households—by which officials meant gay and lesbian families and those in which unmarried women and men cohabitated—were not entitled to relocation assistance. They literally didn’t count.
Rather than solve urban decay, urban renewal often exacerbated the problems. Many projects took years to complete. In the state of New York, it took an average of 8 years to develop a project; in New York City the average was 13 years. Those who stuck around their old neighborhoods often lived among boarded-up and vacated buildings or vacant lots. Not surprisingly, crime, which often hadn’t been much of a problem before, frequently took hold. Once optimistic Black residents—who had hoped to take their relocation checks out to the suburbs or use them to secure new homes in their old neighborhoods—couldn’t wait to get out. As one Black property-owner in Cleveland put it, “I’d move tonight if the city will buy my property. I’m ready to get out.” But in Cleveland, as in other cities, the local urban renewal office often intentionally delayed purchasing properties. In the mid-1960s, the federal Civil Rights Commission found that city officials allowed targeted properties to fall into further disrepair in order to secure a lower purchasing price ahead of demolition.
As historian Arnold Hirsch found in his landmark study of midcentury Chicago, clearing out African Americans was often the entire point: as the Chancellor of the University of Chicago put it, the program would act as “an effective screening tool” and as a way of “cutting down the number of Negroes” in the neighborhood surrounding the elite institution. That said, communities of color, immigrants, and the elderly were not alone in shouldering the costs of urban renewal. Many working-class white communities were devastated as well. While white families had more options for neighborhoods where they could move, and greater access to traditional mortgages, the loss of community and history reverberated across the color line.
“It is one thing to leave your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner. It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. There is nothing of the past now that I can show my grandchildren.”
In Boston, the majority of families displaced to build the city’s new West End and brutalist Government Center complex—nearly 70 percent—were white. Though even that figure suggests that nonwhite Bostonians were disproportionately displaced: as of 1960, they were still less than 10 percent of the city’s population. Still, the sheer number of white families displaced in Boston, more than 7,000, is staggering. And, as in Black neighborhoods, class played an important role in leading officials to choose certain communities—those with fewer resources and less political clout suffered greater losses. In Brooklyn, for instance, white, middle-class gentrifiers successfully blocked or modified key aspects of Robert Moses’s redevelopment plans for Brooklyn Heights and neighborhoods farther south. In the process, they also taught city planners about the potential value to be gained through preservation and gentrification. From these clashes emerged new, subtler and more recognizably modern forms of urban renewal: code enforcement, historical zoning, targeted policing.
In total, at least 550 square miles of U.S. cities were razed through urban renewal. The scale of displacement in big cities was staggering. Washington, D.C.’s Southwest projects displaced more than 4,000 families. The Lubbock, Texas, Coronado project forced out nearly 1,300 families and, federal data shows, managed not to touch a single white family. The country’s single largest project in terms of dislocation was Cincinnati’s Kenyon-Barr, which displaced at least 4,953 families—4,824 of which were African American. However, the intimacy of clearance in small city renewal projects was no less devastating. Communities that had lived and worked beside each other were ripped apart. Tiny Danville, Kentucky—population 9,010 in 1960—cleared out its lone Black residential and commercial district, displacing businesses and at least 48 families of color. When violence erupted in smaller cities in Georgia—Augusta in 1970 and Rome in 1971—a younger generation of African Americans in these communities signaled that discriminatory policing and displacement continued to define their second-class citizenship.
Throughout, local and federal officials kept their eyes on the bottom line: property values and property tax revenues. As the commissioner of the federal Urban Renewal Administration testified before Congress, the leading rationale for the program had “always been to sustain and increase the capacity of cities to meet rising needs for essential public facilities and services”; “private enterprise could not do it alone”; and “the impact of urban renewal upon taxable values is particularly important.” Local officials enthusiastically ratified these commitments. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley expected the city’s tax harvest on renewed land to rise from $2.3 million to $4.8 million. The massive Southwest, Washington, D.C., renewal project—estimated to displace some 2,500 black families—was expected to produce nearly $5 million in tax revenue annually against less than $600,000 prior to clearance. Even Tiny Calexico, California, population 7,900 in 1960, situated on the California–Mexico border, predicted a nearly fourfold uptick in property tax yields on its renewed land, from $4,400 to $16,400.
Many projects failed, leaving cities under pressure to boost property values through aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the DOJ found that Ferguson’s harsh policing of Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue.
Yet, for many cities, these forecasts were dead wrong. Many projects failed to materialize, often removing otherwise “productive” properties from the tax rolls. The result has been even greater pressure on municipal governments to boost property values and tax yields, goals they have often pursued through greater borrowing and aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city’s harsh policing of its Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue. The recent allegations that Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police was tied to a special police squad—“Place Based Investigations”—makes the linkage between policing, municipal revenue creation, and redevelopment even clearer. According to attorneys for Taylor’s family, the warrants associated with narcotics investigations were meant to address one of the “primary roadblocks” to a multimillion-dollar redevelopment initiative. As the attorneys put it, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
The young man James Baldwin spoke with in San Francisco understood that the fullest expressions of identity and citizenship rest on the most intimate foundations—the spaces of home and community through which our lives take on meaning, a neighborhood to which we might return, memories created and that come rushing back. Returning to such spaces enables us to rediscover our roots, collapsing, for a moment, the distance between past and present. Urban renewal robbed generations of these formative spaces—and much more besides.
As today’s movements for social justice grapple with state-sanctioned violence on communities of color, we must also be alert to the fact that policing is but one branch of the local state. While the audacity and scale of urban renewal was exceptional, the structural conditions and fiscal-political logics that created it are still with us. Indeed, today’s austerity and municipal debt only increases urban budgetary pressures, which helps explain why cities led by Black mayors and councils are as likely as any other to pursue aggressive displacement and redevelopment schemes. These powerful dynamics also help explain why city officials resist calls for defunding the police: they guard present property values and are one among a number of tools for producing the property values of the future. Focusing on policing alone, then, misses this broader picture—of urban real estate, the fiscal bases of city governance, and capitalism. Producing flourishing Black communities today means addressing all of these forces at once.
Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery.
The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.
By Lizzie PresserPhotography by Wayne Lawrence
This story was co-published with The New Yorker.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
IN THE SPRING OF 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.
Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”
Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.
Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.
Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.”
By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”
They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.
LAND WAS AN IDEOLOGICAL PRIORITY for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.
The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners.
A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”
By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.
Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”
Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”
BEAUFORT IS A QUAINT TOWN, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.
Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.
Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.
Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”
In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.
Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”
Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me.
Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.
Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”
In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.
Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers.
THE REELSES KNEW that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”
This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.
In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”
FOR YEARS, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”
The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed.
When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.
The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.
In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions.
Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.
In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.
Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”
At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.
By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.”
ONE OF THE MOST PERNICIOUS legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.
When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.
On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000.
The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)
Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”
Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”
Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?”
Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.
Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.
The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”
In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said.
Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”
Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.
Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.
Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.”
Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.
Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”
THE REELS BROTHERS were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.
In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.”
An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.
When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”
Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.
Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.
A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law.
The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.
After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”
Worried about protecting heirs’ property owners? We made a list of ways that families can protect themselves and describe legislative reforms that experts have proposed.
This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.
Lizzie Presser covers health and healthcare policy at ProPublica. She previously worked as a contributing writer for The California Sunday Magazine, where she wrote about labor, immigration, and how social policy is experienced.
In the middle of the 20th century, organized labor kept capital from capturing a larger share of the wealth that American industries were creating. In recent decades, the absence of a strong union presence has allowed the 1 percent to funnel that wealth upward uncontested. We can’t fully address this situation until we link the struggle against racism to the struggle for the right of all workers to union representation.To build the power needed to secure labor-law reform and an overhaul of trade policies, we need to integrate the labor movement into a broader coalition that includes civil-rights activists, women’s-rights groups, and faith-based organizations.A strong constituency for such a change certainly exists, although it has not fully coalesced. Recent polling shows that about 87 percent of low-wage black workers approve of labor unions, a level of support almost 20 percent higher than among white workers. When women of color make up three-quarters of the workforce, unions win representational elections at a rate of 82 percent, compared with 35 percent in places where white men make up the majority.
Many seemingly unrelated groups have already begun working together to forge a broader movement to build black worker power. Last September in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Institute for Policy Studies hosted “Black Workers Matter: Organize the South,” a conference that brought together several national labor unions, the NAACP, the Moral Mondays movement, Black Lives Matter, and other civil-rights and religious activists.As the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of the Moral Mondays movement, has pointed out, linking civil rights and worker rights hardly counts as a new idea. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the labor movement to invest heavily in worker organizing in the South, and the rallying cry at the March on Washington was “jobs and freedom.” To make black economic equality a real possibility in the 21st century, we need to infuse that idea with fresh energy.
My mother purchased her home on the south side of Chicago for $55,000 in 1986, the equivalent of $123,000 today.When she died without a will, court fees and fines left our family with just $40,500 — a loss of over $80,000 on the purchase price of her house.I realized that, because of our history, many African Americans haven’t learned how to transfer wealth generationally by making an estate plan.So, after my mother’s death, my husband and I drafted an estate plan, which we review annually around my mother’s birthday.
My mother purchased her home on the south side of Chicago for $55,000 in 1986, the equivalent of $123,000 today.
When she died without a will, court fees and fines left our family with just $40,500 — a loss of over $80,000 on the purchase price of her house.
I realized that, because of our history, many African Americans haven’t learned how to transfer wealth generationally by making an estate plan.
So, after my mother’s death, my husband and I drafted an estate plan, which we review annually around my mother’s birthday.