“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To some, Black nationalism is now characterized as an outdated political strategy?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.
This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021 concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish.
This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021, concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish. Some of the responses to my statement were serious, thoughtful, and critical, but others were so hostile. I am convinced many of them were written by people who only had, at best, second- or third-hand knowledge of the content of my message.
Let me be clear, I remain steadfast that African American reparations in the United States should be designated specifically for black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. It is a position that I have maintained for upwards of 20 years, first articulated with the eligibility criteria I presented in an article published with Dania Frank in 2003 in the American Economic Review.
The criteria expressed at the time were twofold: 1. An American citizen would have to demonstrate they have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. 2. An American citizen would have to demonstrate that for at least ten years before the adoption of a reparations program they self-classified as black, negro, or African American. The first criterion is a lineage standard; the second is an identity standard. Both standards must be met to merit receipt of reparations payments.
In our recent book, From Here to Equality (FHTE), Kirsten Mullen and I modify the identity standard to lengthen the time to at least twelve years (two Senatorial terms) and to include the adoption of a study commission for reparations as one of two events that would trigger the time count on self-classification.
The core objective always has been to include all persons, and their descendants, who have been subjected to the cumulative, intergenerational effects of slavery, legal segregation and white terrorist violence, and post-Civil Rights Era mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, and ongoing discrimination in the justice claim. This is the community whose ancestors were denied the promised 40 acres as restitution for the years of bondage and as a material springboard for entry into full citizenship in the United States.
Kirsten and I argue further, in FHTE, the best economic indicator of the combined effects of these atrocities is the racial wealth gap. We propose that elimination of the gap yields the baseline value for a reparations plan—demanding a federal government expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion. It is a key aspect of our project to generate a research-based standard for determining the size of the bill that is due. We do not identify an upper bound for the bill.
We also insist that priority be given to mobilization of the funds in the form of direct payments to eligible recipients, whether cash transfers, trust accounts, other types of endowments, or some combination thereof.
The two eligibility criteria necessarily exclude many Americans. The lineage standard will exclude all blacks in the United States who migrated to the United States and became citizens after the end of the Civil War. Their descendants also will not be eligible, in the absence of a parent’s or grandparent’s intermarriage with black Americans having ancestry anchored in US slavery. Counting among blacks excluded would be the relatively small group that migrated to the United States during the Jim Crow years (estimated to be, according to a Smithsonian study, to the right of the decimal point). Also excluded is a much larger group of black immigrants (now approaching ten percent of the nation’s black population) who arrived after 1964, especially coming in large numbers from the 1980s onward.
The identity standard excludes all persons who self-identified as non-black, inclusive of all white Americans, at a point where there was no apparent financial benefit from classifying oneself as black.
Meeting the lineage standard necessitates serious genealogical research. As a result, in FHTE, Kirsten Mullen and I recommend the federal government establish an agency with genealogists with expertise in African American ancestry to provide free services to all persons seeking to establish their reparations claim. Despite that recommendation, we continue to get substantial push back from those who say many black Americans with ancestors enslaved in the US will hit a wall in getting past the 1870 Census to identify their particular ancestors who were held in bondage before 1865. Therefore, I have been giving more thought to modifications in the criterion that would make it easier for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery to be assured of inclusion.
One possibility that seemed reasonable is the one I advanced that stirred the pot to a boil—include black immigrants who came during the Jim Crow years on the eligibility list. Let me emphasize, I advanced this to prompt discussion. I even referred to this in a later post as a “trial balloon,” which left me open to the somewhat humorous charges that the balloon popped or, quite the opposite, the balloon was made of lead.
Here is the thinking that I pursued: Allowing pre-1950s black immigrants onto the reparations roll eases genealogical proof required of black American descendants of U.S. slavery to establish their lineage claim. You necessarily have a tradeoff between letting a small number of otherwise excluded black folk in the door versus keeping the strong genealogical standard that will demand going past the 1870 “wall.” Under the former case, with the relaxed lineage standard, a person would have to demonstrate, say, that they have at least two black ancestors who were citizens of the USA before 1950 or 1960.
Then, eligibility would be much easier to establish for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery at the “price” of including a small number of black immigrants who arrived during legal segregation. Let a few in who do not meet the original lineage standard to ensure that all make it in who meet the original lineage standard.
No Mission Creep
I reject the “slippery slope” argument that has it that making this exception opens the gates for every other group to piggyback onto the reparations’ claim. Conditions can be drawn so precisely that no additional groups will become eligible.
Nevertheless, I do take seriously, the following critical response to my “trial balloon”: The limitation of African American reparations to black American descendants of US slavery is a matter of principle that should not be compromised. America’s history of racial injustice has targeted this community so consistently and with such ferocity that we should brook no modification in the criteria, even it remains more difficult for each individual to establish eligibility for the merited compensation.
In fact, I take it so seriously, in a later message, I indicate that I would not advance as an option the proposal any longer, and I will stand committed solely to the original criterion. Unlike what is suggested in a number of messages on Twitter, I never proposed that recent black immigrants should be eligible for reparations from the U.S. government. Nor do I anticipate reneging on that position. . . ”
I wrote the following essay, “Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson,” in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, but it could have been written today—two days into a still unsettled presidential election; two days of witnessing frenzied, nail-biting, soul-searching Democrats wondering what happened to the blue wave and why 68 million people actually voted for Trump; two days of threats from the White House that they will fight in the courts and in the streets before giving up power. And today Cedric Robinson, pioneering scholar of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” would have celebrated his eightieth birthday.
Today Cedric Robinson would have celebrated his eightieth birthday. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
The lessons I took from Cedric in the aftermath of Trump’s election still stand: our problem is not polling, or the failure of Democrats to mobilize the Black and Latinx vote (they came out, often at great risk to their health and safety), or a botched effort to reach working-class whites with a strong, colorblind class-based agenda. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
But before reviving the tired race-versus-class debate, pay attention: Robinson was making an argument about racial regimes as expressions of class power and how racism undergirds class oppression. As I quoted Robinson before: “White patrimony deceived some of the majority of Americans, patriotism and nationalism others, but the more fugitive reality was the theft they themselves endured and the voracious expropriation of others they facilitated. The scrap which was their reward was the installation of Black inferiority into their shared national culture. It was a paltry dividend, but it still serves.” (The emphasis is mine.)
What we’ve seen is the consolidation of a racial regime based—as are all racial regimes—on “fictions” “masquerading as memory and the immutable.” Trump is saving white suburban women from Black rapists and drug dealers who want to take their Section 8 vouchers out to gated communities. He’s protecting our borders from “illegals” who have no claims whatsoever to this white man’s country. He’s shielding the nation from wicked critical race theorists and Howard Zinn with “patriotic education.” He responds to the assault on white supremacist mythologies by defending Confederate monuments. He dispatches federal military forces to crush antiracist protests and declares Kyle Rittenhouse a patriot for killing two unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters. And he dusts off the tried and true strategy of labeling all challengers to the regime “communists and socialists.” (When Biden brags “I beat the socialists!” and “I am the Democratic Party,” he plays right into the regime’s fictions—he is the neoliberal moderate taking back the country from rioters, fascists, and socialists.)
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. President Obama presided during the killing of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—ad infinitum. It was the mass rebellion against the lawlessness of the state—in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, in New York, in Los Angeles, and elsewhere—that prompted Trumpian backlash.
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity.
The massive vote for Trump and his fascist law-and-order rhetoric should also be seen as a backlash to a movement. Some of us believed Black Spring rebellion in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery signaled a national reckoning around racial justice. But rather than reverse the rewhitening of America, our struggles catalyzed and concretized the racial regime’s explicit embrace of white power. Once again, an unstable ruling class drapes itself in white sheets, puts on its badge and brings out its guns. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity. And in the face of a global pandemic, joblessness, precarity, and an economy on the verge of collapse, this paltry dividend still serves.
If we’d paid attention, we wouldn’t have expected a Biden landslide or a blue wave ripping the Senate from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell grip. It is not a coincidence that Louisville is on fire over the murder of Breonna Taylor and countless others who died at the hands of police in McConnell’s state. Kentucky has always been a battleground. California is too, and we’re not necessarily winning. Voters just defeated affirmative action, rent control, and the labor rights of gig workers. And despite some important victories, California delivered a lot of votes to Trump. We need to face the fact that our entire country, and the world, is a battleground. Trump and McConnell have succeeded in packing the Supreme Court with reactionaries. Trump’s backers still run the Senate. Gun-toting men and women in red hats stand outside vote-tabulating centers, threatening to do whatever is needed to secure a Trump victory. They yell “stop the count.”
Even with a Biden victory, the failure of the blue wave will be attributed in part to a certain kind of identity politics—Black and Latinx voter turnout less than what was expected—or to the militancy of antiracist protests, or to left-leaning candidates who scared off white moderates by pushing for single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal. We should not see these as problems for legitimate Democrats. We’ve been witnessing authentic small-d democracy in action. In the streets we’ve seen a movement embrace Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, queer feminism, and a horizontal leadership model that emphasizes deliberative, participatory democracy.
We have an electoral college, battleground states, and voter suppression because the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy.
This is the democracy Cedric Robinson insisted we embrace. He reminded us that the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy, a theory of so-called enlightened governance that excludes the popular classes. This is why we have an electoral college, why we have battleground states, and why voter suppression was built into our country’s DNA. As I wrote three years ago, “today’s organized protests in the streets and other places of public assembly portend the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past five years, the insurgencies of the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations have warned the country that unless we end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of black and brown people, we are headed for a fascist state.”
We’re already here. And there is no guarantee that a Biden-Harris White House will succeed in completely reversing this trend. Nor should we expect presidents and their cabinets to do this work. That would put us back where we started—with tacit acceptance of the principles of anti-democracy.
Cedric’s words from exactly twenty years ago still haunt: “For the moment . . . an unelected government has seized illegal powers. That must be opposed with every democratic weapon in our arsenal.”
Happy Birthday, Dr. Robinson.
March 6, 2017
Cedric Robinson was fond of quoting his friend and colleague Otis Madison: “The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient.” Robinson used the quote as an epigraph for a chapter in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007), titled, “In the Year 1915: D. W. Griffith and the Rewhitening of America.” When people ask what I think Robinson would have said about the election of Donald Trump, I point to these texts as evidence that he had already given us a framework to make sense of this moment and its antecedents.
Robinson’s work—especially his lesser-known essays on democracy, identity, fascism, film, and racial regimes—has a great deal to teach us about Trumpism’s foundations, about democracy’s endemic crises, about the racial formation of the white working class, and about the significance of resistance in determining the future.
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.
Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap
Dr. William Darity‘s congressional testimony lays a path to fix historic inequity that produces unequal outcomes for blacks
(The following is testimony by William Darity Jr., on the proposed Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act before the 116th Congress 2019–2020 on June 19, 2019)
By William Darity Jr.
The time has come for the United States, finally, to lay to rest the issue of what has been called, variously, the Slave Problem, the Colored Problem, the Negro Problem, the Black Problem, and the African-American Problem. The country can ill afford to remain stranded in the mire of injustice, perpetually refusing to resolve the fundamental, historic national dilemma facing all Americans. For too long, the nation has refused to take steps to solve an unethical predicament of its own making — the problem of the unequal status of black and white Americans.
A policy of reparations is a set of compensatory policies for grievous injustice. The three goals of a reparations plan should be 1. acknowledgement 2. redress and 3. closure.
1.Acknowledgement is the admission of responsibility for the atrocity (or atrocities) by the culpable party, incorporating an apology. The admission must also be accompanied by a guarantee to make restitution in as rapid a fashion as possible.
2.Redress is the provision of restitution, typically in the form of monetary compensation — as it has been in the cases of Germany’s reparations program on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and the United States’ reparations program on behalf of Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II.
3.Closure means the agreement by the victimized community and the culpable party that the debt has been paid. The victims would make no further group-specific claims on the culpable party, unless new atrocities took place.
A plan for black reparations in the U.S. must fulfill specific principles, and those principles must inform, organically, the deliberations of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations for African-Americans. In addition to the three central aims of a reparations program described above — acknowledgement, redress and closure — there are six principles that must be met: 1. With respect to black reparations, the U.S. government is the culpable party that must meet the obligation of awarding restitution to those eligible for reparations. 2. The government is culpable for not providing compensation over the course of 150 years since the end of the Civil War for enslaved blacks, their heirs and their descendants. 3. The government also is culpable for maintaining the legal and authority framework that sanctioned slavery, legal segregation and continues to permit ongoing racist practices. 4. Eligibility for reparations for African-Americans must apply specifically to those black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. 5. Black reparations must be designed, at minimum, to eliminate the racial wealth gap. 6. Black reparations also must include a systematic plan to maintain historical memory of the conditions that motivated the inauguration of the program of restitution.
With respect to the claim for black reparations, the U.S. stands as the culpable party. The current text of HR40 makes note of “[t]he role which the federal and state governments of the U.S. supported the institution of slavery in constitutional and statutory provisions,” “the federal and state laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present,” and “other forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed African slaves and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present, including redlining, educational funding discrepancies, and predatory financial practices.” Indeed, to the extent that federal laws and their enforcement take precedence over both state government and private- sector actions, the failure of the federal government to prohibit discriminatory actions by non-federal entities reinforces the national responsibility for making restitution.
Moreover, the federal government abandoned the opportunity to provide immediate compensation to those persons formerly enslaved upon emancipation. The freedmen had been promised allotments of at least 40 acres of land. There is some ambiguity whether this was intended to be 40 acres per family of four or per individual, but even if we take the more conservative condition — 40 acres per family — the allocation would have amounted to 40 million acres for the four million persons who were newly emancipated. This allocation never took place, and in the subsequent 150 years there has been no act of restitution for the formerly enslaved or their descendants. This is not because the descendants of slavery have been silent on this score. It is because their efforts to this point, actively, have been opposed and blocked. The commission to be established under HR40 represents an opportunity, finally, to develop a reparations program that will address the nation’s unmet obligations.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself. Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era). Third are the legacy effects of slavery and Jim Crow, compounded by ongoing racism manifest in persistent health disparities, labor market discrimination, mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), black voter suppression, and the general deprivation of equal well-being with all Americans. Therefore, it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment — both slavery and post-slavery, both Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow — on black descendants of American slavery. It is precisely that unique community that should be the recipients of reparations: black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S.
Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era).
In a 2003 article written with Dania Frank Francis, and, more recently, in work written with Kirsten Mullen, we have proposed two criteria for eligibility for black reparations. First, an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. Second, an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years prior to the onset of the reparations program or the formation of the study commission, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro or African-American. The first criterion will require genealogical documentation — but absolutely no phenotype, ideology or DNA tests. The second criterion will require presentation of a suitable state or federal legal document that the person declared themselves to be black.
These criteria rule out blacks who are post-slavery immigrants to the U.S., whose own ancestors are likely to have been subjected to enslavement and colonialism elsewhere. Indeed, they may have substantial claims for reparations themselves, but not from the U.S. government. For example, Nigerians (and Nigerian-Americans) have, in my estimation, a claim for reparations against the United Kingdom; similarly, Haitians (and Haitian-Americans) have a comparable claim for reparations against France. However, legitimate claimants for black reparations from the U.S. government must be those Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here after having been forced immigrants, rather than voluntary immigrants. This is a unique segment of the nation’s black population; it is the segment that will be eligible for black reparations in America.
In our forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for black Americans in the 20th Century, Kirsten Mullen and I have identified the immense racial wealth gap as the prime indicator of the cumulative effects of the full trajectory of harms thrust upon black Americans. Wealth, the difference between the value of what one owns and what one owes, must not be confused with income. Wealth is more important than income, at least, insofar as higher levels of wealth are protective against unanticipated losses in income due to unemployment or financial emergencies. Wealth is insurance against economic anxiety and economic disruption for individuals and families. Wealth expands opportunity and possibility for those with larger amounts.
Today, black Americans constitute approximately 13 to 14 percent of the nation’s population, yet possess less than 3 percent of the nation’s wealth. A core objective of the reparations program must be to move the black American share to at least 13 to 14 percent. Reparations designated specifically for black American descendants of slavery must be enacted and implemented to achieve that aim, moving black wealth, roughly, from less than $3 trillion to $13 to $14 trillion.
While closure is one of the imperatives of any reparations program, arriving at closure does not mean forgetting the record of atrocities. Thus, a key dimension of a black reparations program must be the development and application of a rigorous curriculum, fully integrated into public school instruction at all grade levels, telling the story of America’s racial history, in all of its complexity, accurately.
The foregoing six principles should be guidelines that structure the charge of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans. In addition, there are several revisions to HR40 that I view as essential to yield the strongest legislation to launch the commission. The window that is relevant to the American black claim for reparations is 1776 to the present, not 1619 to the present, as the bill currently reads. Since the eventual claim for legislative redress must be made on the U.S. government, the beginning date must be associated with the founding of the republic, not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown. Furthermore, the array of atrocities that occurred between 1776 and the present are of sufficient magnitude that the case is not weakened by discounting the colonial period.
In its current form, the longevity of the commission is not specified in HR40. I recommend the commission completes its report, inclusive of a detailed prescription for legislation to enact a reparations program for black Americans, within 18 months of its impaneling. … President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known colloquially as the Kerner Commission) issued its report with recommendations a mere seven months after impaneling.
… it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment
I also recommend, like the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the commission on reparations proposals commission should be appointed exclusively by the Congress. The commission appointees should be experts in American history, Constitutional law, economics (including stratification economics), political science and sociology. These appointees must have expert knowledge on the history of slavery and Jim Crow, employment discrimination, wealth inequality, health disparities, unequal educational opportunities, criminal justice and mass incarceration, media, political participation and exclusion, and housing inequities. The commission also should include appointees with detailed knowledge about the design and administration of prior reparations programs as guidelines for structuring a comprehensive reparations program for native black Americans.
In addition, the commissioners should not receive payment to minimize the prospect that personal aggrandizement will influence the proceedings. However, there should be a paid professional staff, and the commissioner appointees’ reasonable expenses should be met. In essence, they (nor any organization to which they belong) should not receive a salary, honorarium, or the equivalent for performing this critical national service.
There are also some sections of HR40 that merit revision for accuracy. For example, Section 2 (a) of the legislation notes that many more than four million persons were enslaved in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865, since not all persons enslaved over that interval still were living at the end of the Civil War. It is valid to say there were about four million persons emancipated when the Civil War ended, but they were not the total number of persons subjected to American slavery.
And Section 3.b. (2) indicts the U.S. government for blocking repatriation of formerly enslaved blacks to the African continent. Arguably, the exact opposite is true, particularly given the United States’ role in the creation of Liberia. Even Abraham Lincoln advocated black repatriation until the later years of the Civil War. Alleged obstacles to repatriation are not a justification for black reparations. The core of the claim for reparations is a declaration for the establishment of full citizenship rights and compensation for the sustained denial of liberty for black descendants of American slavery. Of course, it will be their prerogative if some black recipients of reparations choose to use their funds to migrate to their preferred country in Africa, or elsewhere.
Finally, in addition, the commission’s report must detail the long and cumulative trajectory of atrocities visited upon black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. and their ancestors, and it must provide a well-designed comprehensive program for reparations that will address the following specifics: criteria for eligibility for reparations and assistance for potential claimants to establish their eligibility, criteria for establishing the size of the reparations fund, details on how the reparations fund will be disbursed (and toward what ends), details on how the reparations program will be administered and monitored, and benchmarks for gauging the long-term success of the program and administrative modification, if needed.
William Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.
Where do we go from here?
What would it take to bridge the black-white wealth gap?
A Q & A with Duke University economist William ‘Sandy’ Darity, who has some radical—yet doable—ideas
Reparations well-intentioned, but insufficient for the debt owed
City of Memphis gives $50,000 each to the 14 living black sanitation workers from the 1968 strike
The Loebs : Exploited black labor and inherited white wealth
Penny-pinching Loeb ancestors kept wages flat for 25 years as black laundresses did “miserable” work
Does the black church still have a major impact on economic, political, and social progressions of African Americans today?
“Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. wrote a piece a few years ago, asserting “the Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead.”
Some claim that the black church isn’t doing enough to assist with the economic, social, and political progress of the black community.
The Michigan Chronicle recently took a look at research reporting that well over $420 billion had been donated to the black church as of 2013—a figure which averages out to at least $12 billion–$13 billion per year.
WHERE DID THE MONEY GO?
The question then turned into the whereabouts of the money donated and whether it had been spent to help progress the economic, social, and political stances of African Americans?
Leadership Network releases reports every year on the current trends in megachurches and other data on churches in general. They find that the largest 7% of churches contain nearly 50% of all churchgoers. Furthermore, they find that nearly 100% of church revenue comes in the form of donations and nearly 60% of said church revenue goes to staffing-related costs. Based on this data, it could be argued that the monies donated to churches in general, which includes the black church, are being used mainly to compensate the individuals who are directing, performing, and managing the church organization, rather than being spent to feed the poor as Proverbs 22:9 says.
SHOULD THE DONATIONS BE RE-DIRECTED DIRECTLY INTO BLACK COMMUNITIES?
Various bloggers and commentators have suggested that the $12 billion to $13 billion per year going to black church donations could have been reinvested to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars in black homes; send over 1 million black students to college, and feed literally every black homeless person for a number of years. This amount of reinvestment would also assist “Buying Black Expert” Maggie Anderson with her efforts to redirect black dollars into more productive measures in the black community; to assist with creating more black jobs.
SHOULD PORTIONS OF THE DONATIONS BE RE-DIRECTED DIRECTLY TO THE GOVERNMENT?
In addition, based on the Leadership Network data along with similar data, it has been argued throughout the years that churches should no longer benefit from 501(c)3 tax exemption status, as taxing the church revenues would bring nearly $20 billion or more into the federal government every year.
ABSENCE DURING POLITICAL PROGRESSIONS
Others, including sympathizers of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, also believe that the black church is not aiding “enough” in efforts for political and social progression. On the heels of major media cases of unarmed black men being killed by police, many in the BLM Movement believe that the black church’s presence hasn’t been displayed enough to help combat in the fight against police brutality. This is in comparison to the role of the black church during the civil rights movement, where its voice was heard loud and clear in the fight for progression, along with its temple used for networking and strategy sessions within the African American community.
All of these discussions and reports continue a debate revolving around the present-day impact of the black church and if the black church still truly matters in terms of the economic, social, and political advancement of African Americans?
It is a shock to many that about 1 million Black landowners in the South of America have lost 12 million acres of farmland in the last 100 years. Even as we write this, we are shocked beyond reactions as to how a system can frustrate a people over the span of a century, without any plan to let go.
The loss of farmland of Black landowners started around the 1950s and has lasted to date. According to reports from The Atlantic, the black families which have lost their farms were victims of a war that is waged by the “deed of title” system which is said to be promoted by white racism/supremacy and local white power.
In our bid to dig into history to find the causes for Black poverty, economic and social decline, we find that Black people in America have suffered social injustice so much that it will take hard work (unity and power) for Black communities to rival white communities and businesses which are fed with finances of white privilege in America.
Our findings show that 98% of black farm owners in America have been dispossessed of their land. This is a direct indication of the systemic prejudice, and racial injustice perpetrated against the people of African descent in America.
History holds it that the vegetative and arable farmlands in the South of America, especially those along the Mississippi River, was forcefully taken from Native Americans, by the first Europeans who came to America. These Europeans would later venture into the enslavement of Africans for the cultivation of those lands. The Africans would later become owners of some of those lands after the abolishment of slavery and their emancipation.
A report by the U.S Department of Agriculture says that from the year 1900 till 1910, that there were 25,000 black farm operators. This figure increased by 20% in the space of those ten years. The report from ‘The Atlantic’ which we draw our information from, states clearly that the research was carried out on black farmland in the Mississippi area. The lands in question were found to be 2.2 million acres as of 1910. This number was about 14% of the total lands owned by Black people in America.
How Black People Lost Their Lands – The Plots And Twits
What was later realized about how Black people lost their lands was that it was somewhat a well thought out plan, and it was well executed over a long span of years. Some others would say that it was a collection of racist events that drove the wheel of white supremacy in one direction. Through legal, violent, and coercive means, the farmlands which were legally owned by people of African descent in America were transferred to white people. They started the land grab and transfer by aggregating them into large holdings, then aggregated them again, before attracting the profit-seeking eyes of ‘Wall Street.‘
The operation started with New Deal agencies in 19937. These agencies were federal agencies with white administrators, who were exceptionally targeting Black people. They denied Black landowners’ loans, and in turn channeling the sharecropping jobs to white people majorly. These agencies were systematically made to be in charge of the prices, investors, and regulation of the agricultural economy in America. This led to the failure of small farms and gave way for the rise of huge industrial mega-farms, which were formerly large plantations. The mega-farms and their new owners were then given the power to dictate and influence the policies of the agricultural sector.
The Black landowners suffered numerous illegal pressures through USDA loan programs. The USDA loan was originally designed to give rural people in America, an opportunity to take loan with zero down payment. It also offers low-interest-rate on the down payments.
Instead of these loans to be given proportionately to Black and white farmers, it was not. More white people got loans thereby frustrating the Black landowners and caused an enormous wealth transfer just after the 1950s. In a space of 19 years, black farmers had lost about 6 million acres of land by 1969. The effects were catastrophic on Black wealth. This saw a failure of half a million Black-owned farms across America. The cotton farms that were owned by Black farmers were almost non-existent at that point.
‘The Atlantic’ puts the loss of black farmers in Mississippi, to be around 800,000 acres, amounting to $3.7 billion (in today’s dollars), between 1950 and 1964.
As the tides change, more African-Americans—both nationally and abroad—are getting into the haircare and beauty supply store industry, while also making sure that they are doing business with other Black beauty entrepreneurs in the process.“Koreans used to control the market, now they are selling the stores back to us because their kids do not want to take on the store,” says Sam Ennon, President and CEO of The Black Owned Beauty Supply Association . Over the past 15 years, the organization has helped open 450 Black-owned beauty supply stores across the country.
“The second and third generation (of Korean Americans) went to college and go into other professions,” Ennon added. “We’re very pleased with the future of the Black haircare industry where it’s going because more entrepreneurs, more young people are getting into the business,” Ennon shared recently with CNBC. This new trend presents a unique, yet profitable, opportunity for the Black community and combats the continuous racial profiling many of us have experienced or witnessed shopping in most Asian-owned stores. Just this month, two black women were physically attacked by a store owner.
Despite being such a highly-visible staple in our community, there are still several unknowns within, and about, the industry. To answer some of the outstanding questions about breaking into the business, we reached out to several store owners who shared some of the gems they’ve learned on their entrepreneurial journeys in hopes of helping out the next generation of black beauty store bosses. Keep reading below to hear what they had to say.