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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.
The Reels brothers grew up on waterfront land that their great-grandfather bought one generation after slavery. Their family has lived there for more than a century. But because it was passed down without a will, it became heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. Without a clear title, these landowners are vulnerable to laws that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. One attorney 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.”
What can heirs’ property owners do to protect their land?
Plan for the future. Write a will or prepare a transfer on death deed to help pass a clear title to the next generation.
Pay your property taxes. Visit your tax assessor’s office and make sure that your taxes are paid and that the address of the person responsible for coordinating bills is up to date.
Write a family tree. Find out the names on the deed for your land and lay out each generation of heirs that has followed. You can use legal documents from the county, like birth certificates and marriage licenses, as well as family letters, obituaries, information from genealogy websites and records from family reunions.
Create a paper trail to prove your ownership. If you inherited your property without a will or formal estate proceedings, many states allow for an affidavit of heirship to be filed in the property records to establish your ownership. The rules of when and how an affidavit can be filed vary by state.
Consolidate the ownership. Consider asking other heirs if they would be willing to transfer their interest in the property to those with the closest ties to the land. In many states, this can be done through a gift deed.
Manage the co-ownership. Talk to a lawyer you trust about your options, like creating a family LLC or land trust.
Track your expenses. If you pay for expenses on the property, like improvements to the homes or taxes, keep track of them. If a partition sale is started, you may be able to receive a larger share of the proceeds.
What laws affect heirs’ property owners?
Fourteen states have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which expands heirs’ rights in partition actions and can help heirs’ property owners gain access to Department of Agriculture programs. States where this has not passed include North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The 2018 Farm Bill created a lending program that, if funded by Congress, would support local organizations providing legal assistance to heirs’ property owners.
About half of the states have Transfer on Death Deed statutes, which allow families to file a simple deed that automatically transfers title to real property upon the owner’s death, without having to go through probate court. The Uniform Real Property Transfer on Death Act has been presented as a model for how such statutes can be written.
What do advocates see as the next steps in helping heirs’ property owners?
Advocates have supported a number of possible legislative initiatives, including:
Funding to support an increase in the number of legal aid lawyers who help families clear title and make estate plans, and to support local legal education on maintaining clear title.
Legislation that creates an easier route for heirs’ property owners to access FEMA and home repair programs by allowing for heirship affidavits, a simpler, less costly process than clearing a title through the courts.
Legislation that creates alternatives to the formal administration of estates when a homeowner dies without a will.
Legislation that allows heirs’ property owners to access exemptions from property taxes that are available to other homeowners.
As the world grapples with uprooting systemic racism—a conversation catapulted into collective consciousness by the death of George Floyd—it is imperative that Black economists become household names. Their work will move us through the current moment to enable a long-lasting future that upends the oppression in the Black community that subsequently harms the economic system at large.
Economics—a discipline whose core focus is exploring who gets what, where, when, and why—is of great interest to Black people, who too often find themselves on the wrong side of America’s divides in wealth and income. But they’ve faced barriers in matriculating into the profession, as Lisa Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku Agyeman noted in their recent New York Times article, “It Was a Mistake For Me To Choose This Field.” The most recent data, from 2017, show that only 3.2% of doctoral degrees in economics are awarded to Black people each year. More than 52% of Black economists experience racism and/or discrimination, according to a 2019 report by the American Economics Association, and less than half of one percent of all top economics papers across a 30-year-period explicitly address race/ethnicity.
Nearly 100 years have passed, and not much has changed, since America’s first Black economist, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander, obtained her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. She aimed to champion economic inclusion and justice, despite being denied the ability to practice as an economist in the pre-Civil Rights era. Even though she was deliberately excluded from the profession, she continued to use her economic expertise to recommend better policies for the working class such as the federal jobs guarantee, a concept embraced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that has been a foundational concept in progressive politics ever since.
Scholars Julianne Malveaux and Nina Banks have been committed to unearthing Alexander’s legacy through her speeches. Her passion for using economics to serve marginalized voices through policy is a common thread that connects the earliest work of Black economists as well as current scholars in the field. Phyllis Ann Wallace, the first woman to receive doctorate of economics at Yale University, focused on racial, as well as gender discrimination in the workplace. Abram Lincoln Harris, who published major economic studies in the 1920s and 1930s, made it a point to focus on “class analysis, black economic life, and labor to illustrate the structural inadequacies of race and racial ideologies.”
To turn the tide against blatant exclusion in their field, today’s Black economists have been keen on supporting pipeline efforts through a variety of organizations including The National Economic Association, the American Economic Association, the Committee on the Status of Minorities in the Economics Profession (CSMGEP), the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Research, and The Sadie Collective.
The list presented here, on Juneteenth, serves as a means to center and celebrate the work of Black economic experts across various specializations—both emerging and well-established. Their research and policy analysis should inform public discourse not only on how to improve the Black community’s reality, but in turn to make policy that is better for everyone. Please note: This list is certainly not exhaustive.
Each economist’s name is followed by their main area of specialization, in parentheses.
Dania Francis (Education) is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst whose work spans from the implications of educational outcomes for Black females based on the perceptions of Black girls in the classroom to economic reparations for African Americans. Her research interests include labor economics, public finance, economics of education, and racial and ethnic economic disparities.
Peter Q. Blair (Education and the Future of Work) is on the faculty in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, where he co-directs the Project on Workforce. He serves as a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the Principal Investigator of the BE-Lab, a research group with partners from Harvard University, Clemson University, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His group’s research focuses on the link between the future of work and the future of education, labor market discrimination, occupational licensing, and residential segregation.
Jhacova Williams (Race and Inequality) is an economist for the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE). In this capacity, she explores the role of structural racism in shaping racial economic disparities in labor markets, housing, criminal justice, higher education, and other areas that have a direct impact on economic outcomes. Williams’s research has focused on Southern culture and the extent to which historical events continue to impact the political behavior and economic outcomes of Southern Blacks.
Kristen Broady (Race and Inequality) is the dean of the College of Business and Barron Hilton Endowed Professor of Financial Economics at Dillard University. She is also the proprietor of KBroad Consulting. Her most recent publications include “Passing and the Costs and Benefits of Appropriating Blackness,” “Dreaming and Doing at Georgia HBCUs: Continued Relevancy in Post Racial America” and “Race and Jobs at High Risk to Automation.”
William Darity, Jr., (Race and Inequality) is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. He has served as chair of the Department of African and African American Studies and was the founding director of the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality at Duke. With well over 300 publications, Darity launched the sub-field of stratification economics in 2005. Darity’s research focuses on inequality by race, class and ethnicity, schooling and the racial achievement gap, North-South theories of trade and development, skin shade and labor market outcomes, the economics of reparations, the Atlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution, the history of economics, and the social psychological effects of exposure to unemployment. His most recent book, co-authored with A. Kirsten Mullen is From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.
Darrick Hamilton (Race and Inequality), one of the country’s leading economists examining racial disparity, will serve as the founding director of the newly created Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School. His research spans the gamut from stratification economics through economic and social policy, race, ethnicity and colorism, education, health, labor, asset and debt markets and family formation. His TED Talk, with over 1.5 million views, incited much conversation during the past presidential election season about how to end inequality in America.
Trevon Logan (Economic History) is the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Economics at The Ohio State University. As the youngest president of the National Economic Association to date, he specializes in economic history and applied demography. He obtained his PhD in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Willene Johnson (International Economics) is president of Komaza, Inc., a consulting firm that offers instruction and advice on economic and financial development, including microfinance, security sector resource management, and the role of economics in conflict management. Johnson has worked extensively in Africa, where she was first a volunteer teacher and more recently the U.S. executive director at the African Development Bank. She worked for twenty years in the Federal Reserve System, where her assignments included both research and operational responsibilities in international financial markets.
Peter Blair Henry (International Economics) is a former dean of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he is now the William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Business. He’s the author of TURNAROUND: Third World Lessons for First World Growth. His research interests include international finance, emerging markets, international economic policy, globalization & trade, and macroeconomics.
Susan Collins (International Economics) is the interim vice provost at the University of Michigan. She joined the Michigan faculty in 2007, serving as the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy until 2017. Before coming to Michigan, she was on the economics faculty at Georgetown University and Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (where she retains a nonresident affiliation). She is an international economist whose research interests center on understanding and fostering economic growth in industrial, emerging market, and developing countries.
Sandile Hlatshwayo (International Economics) has research interests in the areas of international trade, international finance, and macroeconomics. She is an economist at the International Monetary Fund, where she helps identify and evaluate global risks through predictive modeling, text-based analytics, and strategic foresight tools (e.g., scenario planning). She also sits on the board of Black Professionals in International Affairs and serves as an inaugural member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Individuals in the Economics Profession.
Ebonya Washington (Public Finance), a professor at Yale University, specializes in political economy. Her work explores the formation of political attitudes and how marginalized populations use the political system to attain economic needs. In a recent paper she turns her lens on her own profession, asking what economists can do to increase racial and ethnic diversity in their ranks.
Damon Jones (Public Finance) is an associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. He conducts research at the intersection of three fields—public finance, household finance, and behavioral economics—and focuses on topics of inequality. He was a post doctoral fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (2009–2010) and is a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Julianne Malveaux (Public Finance) has long been recognized for her progressive and insightful observations. As a labor economist, Malveaux has been described by Cornel West as “the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the country.” Her contributions to the public dialogue on issues such as race, culture, gender, and their economic impacts are shaping public opinion in 21st century America. She is the 15th president of the historically Black all women’s school Bennett College. Her notable works include writings on race, class, and Black women’s economics.
William Spriggs (Labor Economics) is the former assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. He currently serves as the chief economist to the AFL-CIO and has been professor of economics at Howard University since 2012. Spriggs’s economic expertise lies in workforce issues, labor, tax and public policy. Prior to his position at AFL-CIO, he led economic policy development at several think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Urban League. He has also held roles at the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.
Ellora Derenoncourt (Labor Economics) is an economist with research interests in labor economics, economic history, and inequality. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Industrial Relations Section in the Department of Economics at Princeton University. In July 2020, she will join the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and the Goldman School of Public Policy.
Michelle Holder (Labor Economics) is an assistant professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. Prior to joining the John Jay faculty, she worked as an economist for a decade in both the nonprofit and government sectors. Her research focuses on blacks and women in the American labor market, and her economic policy reports have been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Amsterdam News, and El Diario. Her first book, African American Men and the Labor Market during the Great Recession, was released in 2017.
Valerie Wilson (Labor Economics) is the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color. Prior to joining EPI, Wilson was an economist and vice president of research at the National Urban League Washington Bureau. She has written extensively on various issues impacting economic inequality in the United States—including employment and training, income and wealth disparities, access to higher education, and social insurance.
Lisa Cook (Macroeconomics) is a professor in the Department of Economics and in International Relations at Michigan State University. Among her current research interests are economic growth and development, financial institutions and markets, innovation, and economic history. She was a National Fellow at Stanford University and served in the White House as a Senior Economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. She also served as President of the National Economic Association and is currently Director of the American Economic Association Summer Program.
Fanta Traore is an MPP and MBA candidate at Yale University. She co-founded the Sadie Collective, which addresses the underrepresentation of Black women in economics and related fields. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @TheFantaTraore.
Proud to note that of these 5 are OUR COMMON GROUND Voices (guest on our broadcast).
Drs. Lisa Cook,William Darity, Darrick Hamilton,Peter Blair Henry, Willene Johnson and William Spriggs.
Racism and discrimination have choked economic opportunity for African Americans at nearly every turn. At several historic moments, the trajectory of racial inequality could have been altered dramatically. Perhaps no moment was more opportune than the early days of Reconstruction, when the U.S. government temporarily implemented a major redistribution of land from former slaveholders to the newly emancipated enslaved. But neither Reconstruction nor the New Deal nor the civil rights struggle led to an economically just and fair nation. Today, systematic inequality persists in the form of housing discrimination, unequal education, police brutality, mass incarceration, employment discrimination, and massive wealth and opportunity gaps. Economic data indicates that for every dollar the average white household holds in wealth the average black household possesses a mere ten cents.
In From Here to Equality, William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen confront these injustices head-on and make the most comprehensive case to date for economic reparations for U.S. descendants of slavery. After opening the book with a stark assessment of the intergenerational effects of white supremacy on black economic well-being, Darity and Mullen look to both the past and the present to measure the inequalities borne of slavery. Using innovative methods that link monetary values to historical wrongs, they next assess the literal and figurative costs of justice denied in the 155 years since the end of the Civil War. Finally, Darity and Mullen offer a detailed roadmap for an effective reparations program, including a substantial payment to each documented U.S. black descendant of slavery. Taken individually, any one of the three eras of injustice outlined by Darity and Mullen–slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day discrimination–makes a powerful case for black reparations. Taken collectively, they are impossible to ignore.
America’s willful ignorance about Black lives
This could be a watershed moment for the threats that Black Americans face, but only if political leaders and citizens refuse to accept anything less than real reform.
“The reason that Black people are in the streets,” the acclaimed American writer James Baldwin said in 1968, “has to do with the lives they are forced to lead in this country. And they are forced to lead these lives by the indifference and the apathy and a certain kind of ignorance, a very willful ignorance, on the part of their co-citizens.” A half century later, Baldwin’s wrenching words reverberate in an America where thousands of protesters across dozens of cities have taken to the streets over the past three days despite a deadly pandemic. The country they are objecting to is one where a police officer kneels on the neck of a Black man until he dies, knowing it is all being caught on camera; the country where, after a Black jogger in a white neighborhood is shot to death in broad daylight, the killers go weeks without facing charges; the country where police officers can shoot a young Black woman eight times in her own apartment after entering unannounced with a warrant for someone who did not live there.
In this America, the president tweets out dog whistles to white supremacists and threatens protesters with violence. Never mind that the same president encouraged protests just a few weeks ago that culminated in the storming of the Michigan Capitol by armed white vigilantes.
“Everybody knows, no matter what they do not know, that they wouldn’t like to be a Black man in this country,” Baldwin said in 1968. The ills he spoke of remain; some have even worsened. Stark income and wealth gaps persist along racial lines, failing schools and paltry social services put a giant foot on the scale against Black youth, biased judges and juries disproportionately imprison Black men, and the severe health disparities suffered by Black Americans now include a higher death rate from COVID-19. But the most poignant picture of racial injustice in America is repainted in blood whenever a police officer, armed and sanctioned by the state and wearing the uniform of the law, kills a Black citizen with impunity. With the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, Black Americans once again relive a brutal nightmare that dates back to the country’s founding. Their lives are deemed dispensable, even and sometimes especially by those whose job it is to enforce the law.
And on Tuesday, the day after the incident, it took civil unrest in the streets to spur his arrest and murder charges on Friday. The three officers who helped him during the arrest, who either held George Floyd down or stood by as he said he could not breathe and cried out for his mother, have not faced charges. The camera footage shows a group of officers who acted as if they knew they would not be punished.
It is a form of Baldwin’s “willful ignorance” that the country’s politicians, policy makers, prosecutors, and police departments have not done more to prevent and punish acts of violence against Black people on the part of police and it is a form of willful ignorance that more citizens are not outraged. Piecemeal reforms to diversify police forces, train officers to de-escalate conflict, and require body cameras have fallen abysmally short in protecting Black people from errant law enforcement officers. Derek Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him and had opened fire on two people before he knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Across the country, there is still too little accountability for police, including here in Boston, where the city has stopped releasing stop-and-frisk data.
It is striking that chiefs of police around the nation quickly condemned the incident that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. But over the past few days, what has followed such political statements are violent confrontations between police and protesters and between police and journalists in many cities. Law enforcement officers have driven vehicles through crowds, tear-gassed protesters, and opened fire with rubber bullets on journalists. For the people on the streets who are exploiting the unrest and endangering others, arrests are justified. But numerous accounts point to acts of disproportionate police violence in response to peaceful protests.
That more and more Americans are refusing to accept the violence against Black Americans presents political leaders and law enforcement agencies around the nation with an imperative to act. State and federal lawmakers must use this moment to enact bolder policy reforms than those to date to reduce sentencing disparities, raise juvenile justice ages to keep young people out of the prison system, reform civil service laws that make it hard to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing, and strengthen civilian police-oversight boards. Police departments across the nation should press for the authority to remove officers who have any history of racial violence or aggression toward citizens; police chiefs should show that they have zero tolerance for such acts. They must send a loud and clear message that the era of sanctioned police violence against Black citizens is over.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.
My mother is dying a painful death, and it has everything and nothing to do with Covid-19.
In a piece for The Atlantic detailing the ways in which the coronavirus seems to be hitting black people the hardest, Ibram X. Kendi wrote: “Sometimes racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.” My mother is a living example of what we already know about race, class and suffering.
She is not in an elder-care facility, nor a hospital. She has not been, and most likely will not be, tested for the virus or receive a diagnosis of having it.
Still, hers is the body of all the black people at the bottom of the pandemic. No insurance, though not for lack of trying. Medicaid applications denied for reasons we don’t understand. Inconsistent care at a local public clinic meant hard-to-come-by appointments and checkups only at moments deemed most critical. It wasn’t enough.
Now, she’s dying from end-stage liver disease and kidney failure, diagnosed too late to save her. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
My brother, who lives exactly six minutes and 24 seconds away from Mommy, risks seeing her because someone needs to make sure she’s still breathing. That check-in is thus essential. He scrubs himself clean after work with all manner of chemicals — he’s a waste management truck driver, an essential employee. This is an effort to protect her. He’s close to her. This is an effort to protect us. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
It’s officially power-of-attorney and health-proxy time. Getting my mother to the lawyer — a four-minute drive — is a thing. My brother and I spend hours strategizing transportation. The errand feels like it takes an eternity. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
Like so many, countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will most likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No low-country songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
When the pandemic is over, we still won’t know how to deal with this. We’re not ready for this kind of grief. Death is so utter, so absolute, yet so much right now is uncertain. My mother is dying a painful death, and it has everything and nothing to do with Covid-19.
LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant (@DoctorRMB) is associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College and the author of “Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory Among Gullah/Geechee Women.”
Our genetic make-up is the result of history. Historical events that influenced the patterns of migration and mating among our ancestors are reflected in our DNA — in our genetic relationships with each other and in our genetic risks for disease. This means that, to understand how genes affect our biology, geneticists often find it important to tease out how historical drivers of demographic change shaped present-day genetics.
Understanding the connection between history and DNA is especially important for African Americans, because slavery and discrimination caused profound and relatively rapid demographic change. A new study now offers a very broad look at African-American genetic history and shows how the DNA of present-day African Americans reflects their troubled history.
Slavery and its aftermath had a direct impact on two critical demographic factors that are especially important in genetics: migration and sex. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a forced migration that carried nearly 400,000 Africans over to the colonies and, later, the United States. Once in North America, African slaves and their descendants mixed with whites of European ancestry, usually because enslaved black women were raped and exploited by white men. And, more recently, what’s known as the Great Migration dramatically re-shaped African-American demographics in the 20th century. Between 1915 and 1970, six million blacks left the South and settled in the Northern, Midwestern, and Western states, in hope of finding opportunities for a better life.
How this turbulent history shaped the genes of African Americans has been unclear because, until recently, most genetic studies have focused either on populations from different geographical regions around the world, or on Americans with European ancestry. Fortunately, African Americans are now being included in these studies on a larger scale, and several long-term studies have collected genetic data on thousands of African Americans, representing all areas of the country. In a recently published study, a team of researchers at McGill University in Montreal turned to this data to take a broad look at the genetic history of African Americans.
AFRICAN AMERICANS WITH A HIGHER FRACTION OF EUROPEAN ANCESTRY, WHO OFTEN HAVE LIGHTER SKIN, HAD BETTER SOCIAL OPPORTUNITIES AND WERE THUS IN A BETTER POSITION TO MIGRATE TO NORTHERN AND WESTERN STATES.
The researchers focused on nearly 4,000 African Americans who participated in two important studies, both sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The Health and Retirement Study consists of older volunteers sampled from urban and rural areas across the U.S., while the Southern Community Cohort Study focuses on African Americans in the South, particularly areas that have a disproportionately high burden of disease. Together, these two studies are among the largest sources of genetic data on African Americans. Importantly, they represent a geographically broad sampling of the African-American population, which is critical for outlining the patterns of genetic history.
The researchers first looked at what fraction of African Americans’ genetic ancestry could be traced back to Africa. Not surprisingly, the data shows that, for most African Americans, the majority of their DNA comes from African ancestors. The results also show that essentially all African Americans have some European ancestry ancestry as well. The genetic mix of African and European DNA, however, follows a striking geographical trend: African Americans living in Southern states have more African DNA (83 percent) than those living in other areas of the country (80 percent). Conversely, African Americans outside the South have a larger fraction of European DNA. Even within the South, this trend holds: Blacks in Florida and South Carolina have more African DNA than those living in Kentucky and Virginia.
One explanation for this geographical bias could be that interracial marriages have been less frequent in Southern states. But this explanation appears to be wrong. The McGill researchers found that most of the European DNA among blacks today probably entered the African-American gene pool long before the Civil War, when the vast majority of blacks in the U.S. were slaves living in the South. The genetic patterns observed by the researchers suggest that, for at least a century before the Civil War, there was ongoing admixture between blacks and whites. After slavery ended, this interracial mixing dropped off steeply.
The implication of these findings won’t be surprising to anyone: Widespread sexual exploitation of slaves before the Civil War strongly influenced the genetic make-up of essentially all African Americans alive today.
But this poses a puzzle: If African Americans can trace most of their European ancestry to an era when America’s black population was overwhelmingly confined to the South, why is it that African Americans now living outside the South have more European DNA?
The researchers propose an interesting answer. They argue that the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South was genetically biased: African Americans with a higher fraction of European ancestry, who often have lighter skin, had better social opportunities and were thus in a better position to migrate to northern and Western states. Though it will take further evidence to show this definitively, the McGill researchers’ results imply that, even after the end of slavery, discrimination that varied with shades of skin color continued to influence the genetic history of African Americans.
Do these genetic findings matter to anyone other than historians and genealogists? The answers is yes — studies of genetic history like this one are important because they help explain why blacks and whites often have different genetic risk factors for the same diseases. African Americans are disproportionately affected by many common diseases, and while much of this is due to poverty and limited access to good health care, genetics plays a role as well. If African Americans are to fully benefit from modern health care, where diagnoses and treatments are increasingly tailored to a patient’s DNA, it is critical that we understand African Americans’ genetic history, and how it contributes to their health today. In other words, we need to understand not just the cultural and economic legacies of slavery and discrimination, but the genetic legacy as well.
African-Americans are more likely to die from the disease than white Americans
COVID-19 was called the great equalizer. Nobody was immune; anybody could succumb. But the virus’ spread across the United States is exposing racial fault lines, with early data showing that African-Americans are more likely to die from the disease than white Americans.
The data are still piecemeal, with only some states and counties breaking down COVID-19 cases and outcomes by race. But even without nationwide data, the numbers are stark. Where race data are known — for only 3,300 of 13,000 COVID-19 deaths — African-Americans account for 42 percent of the deaths, the Associated Press reported April 9. Those data also suggest the disparity could be highest in the South. For instance, in both Louisiana and Mississippi, African-Americans account for over 65 percent of known COVID-19 deaths.
Other regions are seeing disparities as well. For instance, in Illinois, where the bulk of infections are in the Chicago area, 28 percent of the 16,422 confirmed cases as of April 9 were African-Americans, but African-Americans accounted for nearly 43 percent of the state’s 528 deaths.
Other data find similar trends. A study published online April 8 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report looked at hospitalizations for COVID-19 across 14 states from March 1 to 30. Race data, which were available for 580 of 1,482 patients, revealed that African-Americans accounted for 33 percent of the hospitalizations, but only 18 percent of the total population surveyed.
Here are three reasons why African-Americans may be especially vulnerable to the new coronavirus.
1. African-Americans are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is highly contagious, even before symptoms appear (SN: 3/13/20). So to curb the virus’ spread and limit person-to-person transmission, states have been issuing stay-at-home orders. But many individuals are considered part of the critical workforce by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and must continue to work. That includes caregivers, cashiers, sanitation workers, farm workers and public transit employees, jobs often filled by African-Americans.
For instance, almost 30 percent of employed African-Americans work in the education and health services industry and 10 percent in retail, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. African-Americans are less likely than employed people in general to work in professional and business services — the sorts of jobs more amenable to telecommuting.
Additionally, a disproportionately high percentage of African-Americans may live in places that could increase their risk of exposure. Census data from January 2020 show that only 44 percent of African-Americans own their own home compared with almost 74 percent of white people. Consider a family living in a crowded inner-city apartment, says epidemiologist Martina Anto-Ocrah of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “Can you possibly take an elevator alone? No.”
African-Americans’ risk of higher exposure to COVID-19 has historical roots — including legal segregation in schools and housing, discrimination in the labor market and redlining, the practice of denying home loans to those living in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Those forces have contributed to a persistent racial wealth gap, with African-Americans continuing to struggle to move into neighborhoods with the sorts of socioeconomic opportunities that allow white families to better avoid exposure to COVID-19.
“All the ingredients are in place for there to be a sharp racial and class inequality to this [pandemic],” says Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard University.
2. African-Americans have a higher incidence of underlying health conditions.
Among those at highest risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 are patients with other serious health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease (SN: 3/20/20). Over 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure, among the highest rates in the world, according to the American Heart Association. By comparison, about a third of white Americans have high blood pressure. Similarly, African-Americans tend to have higher rates of diabetes.
Part of that heightened risk has to do with African-Americans’ disproportionate exposure to air pollution. Such pollution has been linked to chronic health problems, including asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease (SN: 9/19/17). In an April 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sampson and fellow Harvard sociologist Robert Manduca showed that poor African-American neighborhoods have higher levels of lead, air pollution and violence than poor white neighborhoods (SN: 4/12/19).
Researchers are still sorting out how neighborhood stressors contribute to poor health. But even if the causes aren’t always clear, research suggests that helping people move to better neighborhoods can improve health. For instance, a 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that for African-American adults, moving out of racially segregated neighborhoods was linked to a drop in blood pressure (SN: 5/15/17).
3. African-Americans have less access to medical care and often distrust caregivers.
Inequities in access to health care, including inadequate health insurance, discrimination fears and distance from clinics and hospitals, make it harder for many African-Americans to access the sort of preventive care that keeps chronic diseases in check.
According to a December 2019 report from The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York City and Washington, D.C., African-Americans are still more likely to be uninsured than white Americans. And African-Americans who are insured spend a greater fraction of their income on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, about 20 percent, than the average American, who spends about 11 percent.
Census data show that about 20 percent of African-Americans live in poverty compared with 10 percent of white Americans. As a result, African-Americans have been disproportionately hurt by some states’ decisions not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Expanded Medicaid has been linked to a reduced likelihood of deaths from cardiovascular disease (SN: 6/7/19) and a reduction in the racial health gap between white and black babies (SN: 4/23/19).
Lack of preventive care means that African-Americans are more likely than other racial groups in the United States to be hospitalized or rehospitalized for asthma, diabetes, heart failure and postsurgery complications, researchers reported in 2016 in the Annual Review of Public Health.
African-Americans can also face hidden biases to care. For instance, an algorithm used to determine which patients should receive access to certain health care programs inadvertently prioritized white patients over African-American patients (SN: 10/24/19), researchers reported in October 2019 in Science. That disparity arose because the algorithm used health care spending as a proxy for need, but African-Americans often spend less on health care because they are less likely to go to a doctor. In part that may be because African-Americans have a long-standing distrust of the medical establishment due to events such as the Tuskegee experiment (SN: 3/1/75), in which hundreds of African-American men with syphilis were denied treatment for decades.
“These long-standing structural forms of discrimination that African-Americans have faced in the [United States] are manifesting in what we’re seeing with COVID right now,” says epidemiologist Kiarri Kershaw of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Even so, more can be done to identify communities that might be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and improve their odds of coping with the pandemic, Sampson says. For example, “look at a map of incarceration, lead risk and violence in Chicago [and] you’ll basically see a map of COVID deaths,” he says. Those kinds of proxies could provide a road map to identifying at-risk communities and targeting resources to them, such as greater access to COVID-19 testing, distribution of masks and mobile clinics to provide care.
The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.
But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.
To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.
The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time.
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.
“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Baptist’s book came out in 2014, the same year that essays like the Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and protests like the Ferguson Uprising would call attention to injustices in wealth and policing that continue to affect black communities — injustices that Baptist and other academics see as being closely connected to the deprivations of slavery. As America observes 400 years since the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia, these deprivations are seeing increased attention — and so are the ways America’s economic empire, built on the backs of the enslaved, connects to the present.
I recently spoke with Baptist about how cotton slavery transformed the American economy, how torture, violence, and family separations were used to maximize profits, and how understanding the economic power of slavery impacts current discussions of reparations. A transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?
Edward E. Baptist
One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.
And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.
Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.
But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.
The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.
The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.
So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US. . . .”
Read the full interview here: Source: How slavery became the building block of the American economy – Vox