America doesn’t want unity. It wants absolution without restitution
Renee Graham, Boston Globe
Throughout his campaign, and especially during his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden stressed the need for unity. “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses,” he said. “It is time for our better angels to prevail.”
Abraham Lincoln first summoned “the better angels of our nature” in his inaugural speech in 1861. A month later, the Civil War began; we’ve been waiting ever since for these rumored apparitions of our nation’s inherent goodness to prevail.
America has never wanted unity. It prefers absolution over restitution.
When this nation’s leaders speak of unity, that often means, “We need to move on,” even though unchecked trauma leaching from one generation to another prohibits any such thing. For many of us, especially Black and brown people, unity is a five-letter word for “Shut up and get over it.” That is how this nation regards calls for repair of systemic disenfranchisement.
Unity first requires dismantling white supremacy, the scaffolding of every American ill from systemic racism to police violence. It demands recompense for those whose lives it has stalled, even crushed. It insists on a sharp understanding of how to eradicate the most virulent preexisting condition — racism — that has inevitably led to disproportionate COVID-19 deaths in Black, brown, and Indigenous communities.
Before accord, there must be an accounting — otherwise, it’s like leaving a tick’s head embedded beneath the skin. The problem is less visible, but the host body remains sick and unsound.
In his speech, Biden seemed to speak very specifically about the horrors imposed these past four years. (And they aren’t over.) Of course, what we witnessed during the Trump years was an amplification of the racism and other hatreds that plagued this country long before a failed businessman became a failed president.
“Every day we hear about how society is splitting apart — a polarized Congress, a fragmented media market, a persistent schism among Americans over social issues. But really, how bad are the divisions?” Bob Cohn (now president of The Economist), wrote in The Atlantic.His conclusion: “Pretty bad.”
That was seven years ago. Trump did not create the divisions; he exploited the hell out of them.
About 10 millionmore people voted for Trump in the 2020 election than in 2016. Again, most of them are white. This I believe: They want to be feared, not understood, and their only definition of unity is aligning against anyone who doesn’t think like them. They’re willing to tear this nation apart with baseless, anti-democracy conspiracies to slake one man’s flimsy ego and their own relevance in an increasingly multiracial, multicultural nation.
Fox News is even chiding Democrats for lobbing “angry rhetoric at those who have worked with and for, and even those who simply support, Trump.” For the president’s propaganda network, achieving unity is a burden to be borne only by those who oppose the president. I don’t hear many Trump supporters reckoning with why they still support the worst president in modern American history.
For its entire existence, America has mostly walked away. From nearly 250 years of Black people in bondage to the genocidal “Trail of Tears” that forced thousands of Indigenous people from their lands in the 1800s; from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre during which white people killed hundreds and destroyed that Oklahoma city’s “Black Wall Street” to every barbarity the current administration concocted to punish those who sought only a better life, this nation continually opts for historical amnesia over atonement.
As the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted, “We can’t skip justice and get to peace.” Nor can we get there without equality.
Scars of this catastrophic presidency will lie alongside festering wounds long untended. There’s no shortcut to unity, a challenge in a nation that would rather be comfortable than truthful. This unfinished democracy will never be whole until all of its practitioners abandon the collective silence that cloaks their complicity. To move toward unity, white supremacy must first be demolished. America has shown no serious inclination to do that, and more than 72 million Trump voters serve as damning proof.
For the sake of this country, I wish Biden every success. I hope he understands that unity is not self-achieving. The most arduous labor must be done by those who have inflicted or benefited from the pain of so many others. Until then, do not ask me to forgive all this nation is too eager to forget.
What Joe Biden should say about white supremacy – The Boston Globe
The results of the Nov. 3 election indicate that a small majority of Americans no longer want a white nationalist to run this country. This is a great relief, especially to the millions of people of color who have been the target of some of the worst racial attacks since the Jim Crow era. From profanity-laced diatribes about Black countries, the Muslim ban, and caging children, to the murderous vigilantes Trump has inspired in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Kenosha his administration has been a spectacle of white supremacy. Voting Trump out of office, however, is only one step in confronting America’s ongoing racial crisis.
There are numerous calls for the nation to unify and heal its divisions, but how can that occur without confronting the racial chasm that has been the most consistent source of conflict since the country began?
The start of the Biden-Harris administration would be the ideal time to attempt something that has never been done before, which is to name, confront, and end white supremacy.
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The following is a speech that President-elect Joe Biden could deliver during the first week of his presidency:
“I ultimately made the decision to run for president because of what occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 and how my predecessor characterized both those who oppose racism and those who promote it as ‘very fine people.’ Like many Americans, I was sickened by the divisive direction in which the country was headed. In the past year, with the horrific killing of George Floyd, many other incidents of racial violence, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, I have spoken out against systemic racism and pledged that my administration is committed to challenging it.
“In recent weeks, however, I have become aware that the situation of racial injustice that the nation faces is even more urgent and complex than I had previously believed. I now understand that what we face is not merely racial discrimination or even systemic racism, but institutionalized white supremacy.
“Although seldom acknowledged and purposefully hidden, systemic white supremacy has shaped America’s economy, politics, social relations, and culture from the very beginning. The nation’s origin story embodies it. This land was stolen from Indigenous people through genocide and removal, and its wealth was built by labor stolen from enslaved Africans. Those events have massive repercussions to this day, especially when we look at the high rates of poverty and unemployment in Indigenous, Black, and brown communities.
“I know that some folks may not like the term systemic white supremacy because they see it as an attack on white people. I wondered about that too, but I found out that it does not primarily refer to individual attitudes or behaviors, but to a powerful, entrenched system that consistently disadvantages people of color and privileges whites.
“When we talk about racism, we usually focus on race relations, how different kinds of people do or do not get along. Challenging individual bigotry is critical, but we have a much larger task. We need to look at the impact of systemic white supremacy on all aspects of American life.
“These are only a few examples of how discriminatory policies and practices make the words ‘land of opportunity’ sound hollow to far too many hard-working people of color. It is time to stop playing around the edges of this problem and to fix it.
“Here are some of the actions my administration will take in the first one hundred days:
▪ I will appoint a racial justice czar who will oversee all governmental actions to address systemic white supremacy. One of their duties will be to determine the feasibility of launching a comprehensive set of interventions on the scale of the Marshall Plan to eradicate white supremacy. My current proposals for advancing racial equity in the economy, criminal justice, and health care could become core components of this larger initiative.
▪ We will examine how our foreign policy and military interventions have promoted white supremacist and xenophobic agendas and will develop more just ways to interact with the global community.
“What I have outlined here are only the first steps to righting historic wrongs that have held back this nation for centuries. I will not be able to do any of this without your open-hearted participation and support. It will not be easy, but I believe that when we end racial injustice once and for all, we will become the vibrant, inclusive democracy that America was meant to be.”
This is the kind of speech that I would like Biden to give, but I do not expect that he will. It is possible that his extensive plans for increasing racial equity through economic opportunity could havean impact if fully implemented. I continue to hold onto a larger vision that challenges all of us to look at the reasons we have been stuck in this racial nightmare for more than 400 years and what we finally need to do to change it.
We can take comfort that during this perilous time we have grown tenacious grass-roots movements in opposition to violent policing, economic inequality, white supremacy, and more. As always, it is the people on the ground speaking out and doing the day-to-day work of organizing that will push America closer to freedom.
I wrote the following essay, “Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson,” in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, but it could have been written today—two days into a still unsettled presidential election; two days of witnessing frenzied, nail-biting, soul-searching Democrats wondering what happened to the blue wave and why 68 million people actually voted for Trump; two days of threats from the White House that they will fight in the courts and in the streets before giving up power. And today Cedric Robinson, pioneering scholar of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” would have celebrated his eightieth birthday.
Today Cedric Robinson would have celebrated his eightieth birthday. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
The lessons I took from Cedric in the aftermath of Trump’s election still stand: our problem is not polling, or the failure of Democrats to mobilize the Black and Latinx vote (they came out, often at great risk to their health and safety), or a botched effort to reach working-class whites with a strong, colorblind class-based agenda. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
But before reviving the tired race-versus-class debate, pay attention: Robinson was making an argument about racial regimes as expressions of class power and how racism undergirds class oppression. As I quoted Robinson before: “White patrimony deceived some of the majority of Americans, patriotism and nationalism others, but the more fugitive reality was the theft they themselves endured and the voracious expropriation of others they facilitated. The scrap which was their reward was the installation of Black inferiority into their shared national culture. It was a paltry dividend, but it still serves.” (The emphasis is mine.)
What we’ve seen is the consolidation of a racial regime based—as are all racial regimes—on “fictions” “masquerading as memory and the immutable.” Trump is saving white suburban women from Black rapists and drug dealers who want to take their Section 8 vouchers out to gated communities. He’s protecting our borders from “illegals” who have no claims whatsoever to this white man’s country. He’s shielding the nation from wicked critical race theorists and Howard Zinn with “patriotic education.” He responds to the assault on white supremacist mythologies by defending Confederate monuments. He dispatches federal military forces to crush antiracist protests and declares Kyle Rittenhouse a patriot for killing two unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters. And he dusts off the tried and true strategy of labeling all challengers to the regime “communists and socialists.” (When Biden brags “I beat the socialists!” and “I am the Democratic Party,” he plays right into the regime’s fictions—he is the neoliberal moderate taking back the country from rioters, fascists, and socialists.)
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. President Obama presided during the killing of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—ad infinitum. It was the mass rebellion against the lawlessness of the state—in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, in New York, in Los Angeles, and elsewhere—that prompted Trumpian backlash.
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity.
The massive vote for Trump and his fascist law-and-order rhetoric should also be seen as a backlash to a movement. Some of us believed Black Spring rebellion in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery signaled a national reckoning around racial justice. But rather than reverse the rewhitening of America, our struggles catalyzed and concretized the racial regime’s explicit embrace of white power. Once again, an unstable ruling class drapes itself in white sheets, puts on its badge and brings out its guns. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity. And in the face of a global pandemic, joblessness, precarity, and an economy on the verge of collapse, this paltry dividend still serves.
If we’d paid attention, we wouldn’t have expected a Biden landslide or a blue wave ripping the Senate from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell grip. It is not a coincidence that Louisville is on fire over the murder of Breonna Taylor and countless others who died at the hands of police in McConnell’s state. Kentucky has always been a battleground. California is too, and we’re not necessarily winning. Voters just defeated affirmative action, rent control, and the labor rights of gig workers. And despite some important victories, California delivered a lot of votes to Trump. We need to face the fact that our entire country, and the world, is a battleground. Trump and McConnell have succeeded in packing the Supreme Court with reactionaries. Trump’s backers still run the Senate. Gun-toting men and women in red hats stand outside vote-tabulating centers, threatening to do whatever is needed to secure a Trump victory. They yell “stop the count.”
Even with a Biden victory, the failure of the blue wave will be attributed in part to a certain kind of identity politics—Black and Latinx voter turnout less than what was expected—or to the militancy of antiracist protests, or to left-leaning candidates who scared off white moderates by pushing for single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal. We should not see these as problems for legitimate Democrats. We’ve been witnessing authentic small-d democracy in action. In the streets we’ve seen a movement embrace Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, queer feminism, and a horizontal leadership model that emphasizes deliberative, participatory democracy.
We have an electoral college, battleground states, and voter suppression because the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy.
This is the democracy Cedric Robinson insisted we embrace. He reminded us that the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy, a theory of so-called enlightened governance that excludes the popular classes. This is why we have an electoral college, why we have battleground states, and why voter suppression was built into our country’s DNA. As I wrote three years ago, “today’s organized protests in the streets and other places of public assembly portend the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past five years, the insurgencies of the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations have warned the country that unless we end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of black and brown people, we are headed for a fascist state.”
We’re already here. And there is no guarantee that a Biden-Harris White House will succeed in completely reversing this trend. Nor should we expect presidents and their cabinets to do this work. That would put us back where we started—with tacit acceptance of the principles of anti-democracy.
Cedric’s words from exactly twenty years ago still haunt: “For the moment . . . an unelected government has seized illegal powers. That must be opposed with every democratic weapon in our arsenal.”
Happy Birthday, Dr. Robinson.
March 6, 2017
Cedric Robinson was fond of quoting his friend and colleague Otis Madison: “The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient.” Robinson used the quote as an epigraph for a chapter in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007), titled, “In the Year 1915: D. W. Griffith and the Rewhitening of America.” When people ask what I think Robinson would have said about the election of Donald Trump, I point to these texts as evidence that he had already given us a framework to make sense of this moment and its antecedents.
Robinson’s work—especially his lesser-known essays on democracy, identity, fascism, film, and racial regimes—has a great deal to teach us about Trumpism’s foundations, about democracy’s endemic crises, about the racial formation of the white working class, and about the significance of resistance in determining the future.
But the question is always this, at least when we talk about Black movements — relevant to whom? For what purpose? Where is the strategy other than demanding to stay alive, and then going into electoral politics as a moderate to progressive Democrat?
Lincoln Center under construction, after the demoltion of the historically black neighborhood of San Juan Hill. Image: NYPL
When James Baldwin visited San Francisco in 1963 to film a documentary about U.S. racism, he encountered neighborhoods in turmoil: the city was seizing properties through eminent domain, razing them, and turning them over to private developers. Part of a massive, federal urban renewal program, nearly 5,000 families—no fewer than 20,000 residents, the majority of them people of color—were being displaced from rental homes, private property, and businesses in the Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin spoke to a Black teenager who had just lost his home and watched as his neighborhood was destroyed. He told Baldwin: “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Soon after, Baldwin would say: “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods.
That young man was one of millions of Americans, disproportionately of color, who lost homes and communities through the federal urban renewal program. In discussing its human costs—colossal in scope and yet profoundly intimate—Baldwin helped popularize a phrase common in Black neighborhoods: urban renewal meant “Negro removal.” To steal people’s homes, Baldwin understood, was to shred the meaning of their citizenship by destroying their communities. And “the federal government,” he said, “is an accomplice to this fact.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre and redlining have pierced the popular consciousness in recent years as ways that, through murder and markets, Black communities were destroyed. Curiously, urban renewal has so far remained on the margins of these discussions. Yet that program, in operation between 1949 and 1974, constituted one of the most sweeping and systematic instances of the modern destruction of Black property, neighborhoods, culture, community, businesses, and homes. At its peak in the mid-1960s, urban renewal displaced a minimum of 50,000 families annually—a 1964 House of Representatives report estimated the figure at more like 66,000.
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced. And, while we tend to remember urban renewal as a big-city program, pursued by titans such as Robert Moses in New York, the vast majority of projects were carried out in cities of 50,000 residents or fewer. These were small cities such as Greenville, North Carolina, where 207 families of color and 11 white families were displaced; Tupelo, Mississippi, where 217 families of color and 31 white families were displaced; and Demopolis, Alabama, where 55 families of color and 7 white families were displaced. Urban Renewal was spread as widely as today’s marches for social justice.
Today, as racially disparate rates of eviction, police violence, and capital flight raise urgent questions about the right to live in safe, thriving communities, a more complete reckoning with urban renewal’s record of destruction is necessary. Fortunately, because urban renewal was federally funded, Washington collected data about how projects unfolded; these records also allow us to reconstruct the many costs of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent comprehensive digital mapping project which I helped spearhead at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it’s now possible for the first time to visualize how hundreds of urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of Americans. While private–public practices such as redlining help explain the staggering racial wealth gap, the history of urban renewal, though no less materially devastating, involved kinds of theft that are more difficult to quantify—thefts that amount to the destruction of entire lifeworlds. And, the political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today. Like redlining, profit— in this case, returns derived from boosting property taxes— continues to define the state’s interest in destabilizing Black neighborhoods.
The political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today.
As the United States emerged from World War II, many cities faced a housing crunch. Whites policed the racial boundaries of their neighborhoods, often violently. And so as greater numbers of African Americans migrated north in search of manufacturing jobs and to escape the South’s more formal system of Jim Crow, Black neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded. Residents were often subjected to exorbitant rents in derelict housing owned by slumlords. Families and friends boarded together. Others sublet rooms to meet extortionate rents. Segregated neighborhoods in northern cities became so crowded that many schools operated in two shifts—half of the students went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. “Blight” was the term policymakers used to describe the worsening conditions structured by these national practices of urban segregation.
Meanwhile, city budgets teetered on the edge of fiscal cliffs, from which they had only just clawed their way back up. The economic exuberance of the 1920s had produced an urban and suburban “land boom,” as the Wall Street Journal put it—the overheated, last gasp of a period “of great and extended prosperity.” Cities fueled this speculation by taking on staggering levels of debt to support the infrastructure that made private property profitable. Net annual additions to municipal debt between 1923 and 1931 averaged over $845 million (or more than $13.5 billion in 2020 dollars), or enough, as one contemporary analyst accurately predicted, “to keep municipal finance in a turmoil for two decades or more.”
When the bottom fell out of the stock market, the consequences quickly ricocheted through urban land markets and city budgets. Property values plummeted, and tax delinquency skyrocketed. In the Great Depression, some 1,200 local or county governments defaulted or went bankrupt.
The New Deal helped stabilize the situation. Later, defense conversion and contracting in World War II injected desperately needed capital into cities. But cities still held considerable debt, and the New Deal’s public works agenda was not without its own considerable costs—while federally subsidized labor constructed many bridges, libraries, schools, and sewage plants, these public assets had also become new line items on municipal budgets. Moreover, as the Depression shuttered factories and the Great Migration brought new residents, officials worried that property tax revenues would never rise to meet these new burdens.
As early as the late 1930s, New Dealers were increasingly concerned that city budgets were fiscal time bombs that threatened to explode the entire progressive project. And they saw that local governments were already using New Deal works programs to remedy the situation. As Mabel Walker, an urban analyst, noted in 1938, in New York City, federally subsidized works projects had begun “siphoning off [the] slum population,” constructing affordable housing “in cheaper areas,” and might even facilitate the delivery of cleared land to “higher income groups” and “business and industry.” The result, she wrote, was “in effect a gigantic subsidy or bonus handed out to property holders in these slum areas” who could never have assembled enough private capital to reset urban land markets themselves. By 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia estimated the city had torn down or gutted nearly 9,000 buildings. In Philadelphia federal support for clearance subsidized the demolition of 8,328 structures, releasing land with an estimated value of $11.5 million.
Federal leaders struck on the idea of using urban renewal to harness this haphazard redevelopment of cities and turn it into a more coherent, national program of planning, redevelopment, and housing. They also recognized that the federal government’s budget overwhelmingly depended on capital generated in cities in the form of confiscatory, progressive corporate and personal income tax rates. As one of urban renewal’s federal designers put it, short of “a nation-wide overhauling of our traditional arrangements for taxation and public expenditures,” “it seems only fair that the federal government should aid the local governments to the extent necessary to cover their urgently needed outlays.” Federally subsidized slum clearance and redevelopment could put cities back on the path to fiscal independence—and the federal government wouldn’t have to share much of its precious income tax revenue.
Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment.
World War II delayed the initiative, but the Housing Act of 1949 set aside significant financing to enable cities to build public housing and to demolish neglected, overcrowded neighborhoods, and antiquated or abandoned industrial properties. As in a number of New Deal programs, the subsidies would be offered in the form of bonded debt, which, after cities delivered a matching share, the federal government would retire. The goal with such a convoluted system of finance was to get capital moving through private financial institutions and to plausibly deemphasize the role of the national government. These were local programs.
This growing mishmash of priorities was a hallmark of midcentury liberalism, which forged cross-cutting relationships with many different interest groups. Some policymakers, for instance, worked closely with real estate interests and business groups and their allies in city halls. Together they hungered for the potential bonanza of private redevelopment and city property tax yields. Others were aligned with progressive public housing advocates or worked closely to cultivate the support of African American community leaders. When he signed the 1949 bill, a signature piece of his Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman heralded a new front in the war for civil rights: securing a decent home for all Americans. Early on, Black clergy and civil rights activists were among the initiatives’ most hopeful supporters.
Congress soon confronted the reality that few local governments were pursuing the program. Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment. But the act’s regulations mandated that housing projects were to be prioritized.
Rather than amend the legislation to offer greater incentives for housing, a revised version of the legislation, the Housing Act of 1954, created the federal Urban Renewal Administration, ceding to the interests of commercial lobbyists and mayors. The act loosened housing mandates and so unleashed a goldmine of federally financed business-oriented clearance and development.
Many of the developments that resulted are among their city’s most iconic. New York City’s Lincoln Square, anchored by Lincoln Center, displaced at least 4,000 families, many of whom were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. (One imagines some of those residents had been displaced from Puerto Rico, too, where the federal government funded renewal projects in some 30 municipalities, displacing at least 10,000 families.) Pedro Quinones protested displacement by joining a movement called Save Our Homes. As he correctly understood, the program “has come to New York to ‘clean up’ minority groups.” But “we are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. . . . We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants to have what are called ‘better class people’ there.”
Other projects underwrote the emergence of the “meds and eds” economy that fuel so many cities today. The University of Chicago displaced more than 4,000 families in a series of projects. Clearance and construction of Oklahoma City’s University Medical Center displaced at least 700, disproportionately African American families. And Detroit’s massive Medical Center displaced around 2,000 families, again disproportionately of color. That campus now anchors the city’s fashionable Midtown neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania spurred projects that displaced more than 700 African American families and a thriving Black business district. That community, called Black Bottom, had been owned or occupied by African Americans since at least the Civil War. Many of its men were Union Army veterans.
“We are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants ‘better class people’ there.”
Just counting families displaced, however, misses important dimensions of what made this so devastating. While they may not have been thriving in the terms that counted on municipal balance sheets, and while many residents were in dire economic straits, the informal, unplanned mix of public and private, business and culture often amounted to thriving communities. In New York, for instance, more than 600 businesses sat within the Lincoln Square project footprint, businesses that defined the commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood: diners and luncheonettes, candy stores and beauty parlors, a “Chinese goods” store, photography studios, a detective agency, and a funeral parlor.
For displaced businesses, federal law authorized a $2,500 reimbursement for “moving and fixtures” (the ceiling was ultimately abolished, but payments were still at local officials’ discretion). But business owners protested that the figure was a pittance compared to the costs associated with moving, reopening, and lost revenue in the meantime. Small businesses operated on vanishingly slim margins. One pharmacist estimated the cost of relocating and reopening was more like $20,000. Many displaced businesses simply closed down. These dynamics played out in small cities such as Rome, Georgia, too. Callie Martin had owned and operated Let’s Eat Café in the city’s cleared Black neighborhood. After packing up, moving, and reopening, she was barely scraping by. “I was able to give work to two people,” she told the local paper in 1971. “But now I’m just working by myself and not really making ends meet.” Renewal “really caused me to lose a decent living.” Hubert Holland, who lost his barber shop was clearer: “The way I see it, they destroyed the Negro businesses, what little they had.” Two years after clearance, just four of Rome’s 16 displaced Black businesses had reopened. As of 1963, some 39,399 businesses were reported to have been displaced through urban renewal alone (the federal highway program displaced thousands more). Urban renewal would run for another 11 years.
The vast majority of families displaced were renters: a 1968 study found that two thirds of all “relocatees” and three quarters of non-white families displaced were renters. While their landlords—slumlords in many cases—would be compensated for the loss of their property (and some quite handsomely), very often the families that actually lived in these buildings were not. Instead, federal statutes entitled these citizens to “relocation assistance”—vague guidelines that local authorities assist displaced families with finding temporary housing. The legislation “authorized” local governments to offer up to $300 in relocation grants to displaced families. That figure was raised to $500 in 1964, the first year that relocation funds and rental assistance were included elderly individuals. But in many cities, “relocation assistance” simply amounted to flyers with lists of local real estate brokers.
Because of baked-in local discretion, thousands and thousands of those who were displaced never received any financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them; as a result, displacement records constitute one of the archival silences of urban renewal. In one Cleveland neighborhood, 717 families’ homes were razed to clear land for industrial redevelopment. Of them, 224 moved to “unknown” locations (they were likely living with friends and family); 57 moved into other forms of “substandard” housing; and 301 still lived, as the city’s Black paper reported, “in the midst of abandoned housing.” Across a number of Cleveland’s renewal programs, officials admitted not knowing what had become of another 1,194 families.
Thousands of those who were displaced never received financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them.
The transfer of wealth, capital, and land from these communities to large business interests and developers only scratches the surface of the damage done by urban renewal. Ties of kinship and community were shattered. The loss of a sense of “rootedness” was devastating. Grady Abrams, who was displaced from the Five Points neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, recalled the traumatic experience of his lost community. “It is one thing to leave your home, your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner.” He testified to the lasting trauma: “It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. In fact, my neighbors and I lost relationships forever. There is nothing of the past now in Five Points that I can show my grandchildren and great grandchildren that was part of my past. Nothing at all.”
All of these issues were known to federal administrators. As one 1965 report found, thanks to urban renewal, “Nonwhites have been forced into already crowded housing facilities, thereby spreading blight, aggravating ghettoes, and generally defeating the social purpose of urban renewal.” Displaced citizens, another report found, “are faced with having to reconstruct their lives. . . . They must terminate relationships and break routines that—especially for the elderly—have been equated with life itself.” These were connections to tradition, community, and history that the built environment makes manifest—the millions of memories and attachments we make to each other through spaces like street corners and schools, bars and barber shops.
As we try to reconstruct these histories, so far we only have comprehensive family displacement data for the years 1950–66. These figures dramatically undercount families of color because in many places Latin and Caribbean communities were counted as white, as in the Lincoln Center project and a number of clearance projects in California. Moreover, the government only counted families for displacement purposes, because they were the primary displacees entitled to the paltry and frequently underdelivered relocation assistance grants. Non-elderly single people and nonconforming households—by which officials meant gay and lesbian families and those in which unmarried women and men cohabitated—were not entitled to relocation assistance. They literally didn’t count.
Rather than solve urban decay, urban renewal often exacerbated the problems. Many projects took years to complete. In the state of New York, it took an average of 8 years to develop a project; in New York City the average was 13 years. Those who stuck around their old neighborhoods often lived among boarded-up and vacated buildings or vacant lots. Not surprisingly, crime, which often hadn’t been much of a problem before, frequently took hold. Once optimistic Black residents—who had hoped to take their relocation checks out to the suburbs or use them to secure new homes in their old neighborhoods—couldn’t wait to get out. As one Black property-owner in Cleveland put it, “I’d move tonight if the city will buy my property. I’m ready to get out.” But in Cleveland, as in other cities, the local urban renewal office often intentionally delayed purchasing properties. In the mid-1960s, the federal Civil Rights Commission found that city officials allowed targeted properties to fall into further disrepair in order to secure a lower purchasing price ahead of demolition.
As historian Arnold Hirsch found in his landmark study of midcentury Chicago, clearing out African Americans was often the entire point: as the Chancellor of the University of Chicago put it, the program would act as “an effective screening tool” and as a way of “cutting down the number of Negroes” in the neighborhood surrounding the elite institution. That said, communities of color, immigrants, and the elderly were not alone in shouldering the costs of urban renewal. Many working-class white communities were devastated as well. While white families had more options for neighborhoods where they could move, and greater access to traditional mortgages, the loss of community and history reverberated across the color line.
“It is one thing to leave your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner. It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. There is nothing of the past now that I can show my grandchildren.”
In Boston, the majority of families displaced to build the city’s new West End and brutalist Government Center complex—nearly 70 percent—were white. Though even that figure suggests that nonwhite Bostonians were disproportionately displaced: as of 1960, they were still less than 10 percent of the city’s population. Still, the sheer number of white families displaced in Boston, more than 7,000, is staggering. And, as in Black neighborhoods, class played an important role in leading officials to choose certain communities—those with fewer resources and less political clout suffered greater losses. In Brooklyn, for instance, white, middle-class gentrifiers successfully blocked or modified key aspects of Robert Moses’s redevelopment plans for Brooklyn Heights and neighborhoods farther south. In the process, they also taught city planners about the potential value to be gained through preservation and gentrification. From these clashes emerged new, subtler and more recognizably modern forms of urban renewal: code enforcement, historical zoning, targeted policing.
In total, at least 550 square miles of U.S. cities were razed through urban renewal. The scale of displacement in big cities was staggering. Washington, D.C.’s Southwest projects displaced more than 4,000 families. The Lubbock, Texas, Coronado project forced out nearly 1,300 families and, federal data shows, managed not to touch a single white family. The country’s single largest project in terms of dislocation was Cincinnati’s Kenyon-Barr, which displaced at least 4,953 families—4,824 of which were African American. However, the intimacy of clearance in small city renewal projects was no less devastating. Communities that had lived and worked beside each other were ripped apart. Tiny Danville, Kentucky—population 9,010 in 1960—cleared out its lone Black residential and commercial district, displacing businesses and at least 48 families of color. When violence erupted in smaller cities in Georgia—Augusta in 1970 and Rome in 1971—a younger generation of African Americans in these communities signaled that discriminatory policing and displacement continued to define their second-class citizenship.
Throughout, local and federal officials kept their eyes on the bottom line: property values and property tax revenues. As the commissioner of the federal Urban Renewal Administration testified before Congress, the leading rationale for the program had “always been to sustain and increase the capacity of cities to meet rising needs for essential public facilities and services”; “private enterprise could not do it alone”; and “the impact of urban renewal upon taxable values is particularly important.” Local officials enthusiastically ratified these commitments. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley expected the city’s tax harvest on renewed land to rise from $2.3 million to $4.8 million. The massive Southwest, Washington, D.C., renewal project—estimated to displace some 2,500 black families—was expected to produce nearly $5 million in tax revenue annually against less than $600,000 prior to clearance. Even Tiny Calexico, California, population 7,900 in 1960, situated on the California–Mexico border, predicted a nearly fourfold uptick in property tax yields on its renewed land, from $4,400 to $16,400.
Many projects failed, leaving cities under pressure to boost property values through aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the DOJ found that Ferguson’s harsh policing of Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue.
Yet, for many cities, these forecasts were dead wrong. Many projects failed to materialize, often removing otherwise “productive” properties from the tax rolls. The result has been even greater pressure on municipal governments to boost property values and tax yields, goals they have often pursued through greater borrowing and aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city’s harsh policing of its Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue. The recent allegations that Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police was tied to a special police squad—“Place Based Investigations”—makes the linkage between policing, municipal revenue creation, and redevelopment even clearer. According to attorneys for Taylor’s family, the warrants associated with narcotics investigations were meant to address one of the “primary roadblocks” to a multimillion-dollar redevelopment initiative. As the attorneys put it, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
The young man James Baldwin spoke with in San Francisco understood that the fullest expressions of identity and citizenship rest on the most intimate foundations—the spaces of home and community through which our lives take on meaning, a neighborhood to which we might return, memories created and that come rushing back. Returning to such spaces enables us to rediscover our roots, collapsing, for a moment, the distance between past and present. Urban renewal robbed generations of these formative spaces—and much more besides.
As today’s movements for social justice grapple with state-sanctioned violence on communities of color, we must also be alert to the fact that policing is but one branch of the local state. While the audacity and scale of urban renewal was exceptional, the structural conditions and fiscal-political logics that created it are still with us. Indeed, today’s austerity and municipal debt only increases urban budgetary pressures, which helps explain why cities led by Black mayors and councils are as likely as any other to pursue aggressive displacement and redevelopment schemes. These powerful dynamics also help explain why city officials resist calls for defunding the police: they guard present property values and are one among a number of tools for producing the property values of the future. Focusing on policing alone, then, misses this broader picture—of urban real estate, the fiscal bases of city governance, and capitalism. Producing flourishing Black communities today means addressing all of these forces at once.
Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery.
The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.
By Lizzie PresserPhotography by Wayne Lawrence
This story was co-published with The New Yorker.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
IN THE SPRING OF 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.
Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”
Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.
Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.
Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.”
By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”
They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.
LAND WAS AN IDEOLOGICAL PRIORITY for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.
The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners.
A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”
By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.
Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”
Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”
BEAUFORT IS A QUAINT TOWN, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.
Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.
Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.
Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”
In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.
Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”
Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me.
Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.
Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”
In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.
Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers.
THE REELSES KNEW that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”
This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.
In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”
FOR YEARS, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”
The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed.
When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.
The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.
In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions.
Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.
In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.
Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”
At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.
By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.”
ONE OF THE MOST PERNICIOUS legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.
When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.
On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000.
The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)
Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”
Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”
Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?”
Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.
Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.
The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”
In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said.
Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”
Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.
Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.
Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.”
Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.
Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”
THE REELS BROTHERS were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.
In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.”
An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.
When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”
Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.
Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.
A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law.
The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.
After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”
Worried about protecting heirs’ property owners? We made a list of ways that families can protect themselves and describe legislative reforms that experts have proposed.
This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.
Lizzie Presser covers health and healthcare policy at ProPublica. She previously worked as a contributing writer for The California Sunday Magazine, where she wrote about labor, immigration, and how social policy is experienced.
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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.
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.
“Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.
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. . . .”
Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap
Dr. William Darity‘s congressional testimony lays a path to fix historic inequity that produces unequal outcomes for blacks
(The following is testimony by William Darity Jr., on the proposed Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act before the 116th Congress 2019–2020 on June 19, 2019)
By William Darity Jr.
The time has come for the United States, finally, to lay to rest the issue of what has been called, variously, the Slave Problem, the Colored Problem, the Negro Problem, the Black Problem, and the African-American Problem. The country can ill afford to remain stranded in the mire of injustice, perpetually refusing to resolve the fundamental, historic national dilemma facing all Americans. For too long, the nation has refused to take steps to solve an unethical predicament of its own making — the problem of the unequal status of black and white Americans.
A policy of reparations is a set of compensatory policies for grievous injustice. The three goals of a reparations plan should be 1. acknowledgement 2. redress and 3. closure.
1.Acknowledgement is the admission of responsibility for the atrocity (or atrocities) by the culpable party, incorporating an apology. The admission must also be accompanied by a guarantee to make restitution in as rapid a fashion as possible.
2.Redress is the provision of restitution, typically in the form of monetary compensation — as it has been in the cases of Germany’s reparations program on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and the United States’ reparations program on behalf of Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II.
3.Closure means the agreement by the victimized community and the culpable party that the debt has been paid. The victims would make no further group-specific claims on the culpable party, unless new atrocities took place.
A plan for black reparations in the U.S. must fulfill specific principles, and those principles must inform, organically, the deliberations of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations for African-Americans. In addition to the three central aims of a reparations program described above — acknowledgement, redress and closure — there are six principles that must be met: 1. With respect to black reparations, the U.S. government is the culpable party that must meet the obligation of awarding restitution to those eligible for reparations. 2. The government is culpable for not providing compensation over the course of 150 years since the end of the Civil War for enslaved blacks, their heirs and their descendants. 3. The government also is culpable for maintaining the legal and authority framework that sanctioned slavery, legal segregation and continues to permit ongoing racist practices. 4. Eligibility for reparations for African-Americans must apply specifically to those black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. 5. Black reparations must be designed, at minimum, to eliminate the racial wealth gap. 6. Black reparations also must include a systematic plan to maintain historical memory of the conditions that motivated the inauguration of the program of restitution.
With respect to the claim for black reparations, the U.S. stands as the culpable party. The current text of HR40 makes note of “[t]he role which the federal and state governments of the U.S. supported the institution of slavery in constitutional and statutory provisions,” “the federal and state laws that discriminated against formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present,” and “other forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed African slaves and their descendants who were deemed U.S. citizens from 1868 to the present, including redlining, educational funding discrepancies, and predatory financial practices.” Indeed, to the extent that federal laws and their enforcement take precedence over both state government and private- sector actions, the failure of the federal government to prohibit discriminatory actions by non-federal entities reinforces the national responsibility for making restitution.
Moreover, the federal government abandoned the opportunity to provide immediate compensation to those persons formerly enslaved upon emancipation. The freedmen had been promised allotments of at least 40 acres of land. There is some ambiguity whether this was intended to be 40 acres per family of four or per individual, but even if we take the more conservative condition — 40 acres per family — the allocation would have amounted to 40 million acres for the four million persons who were newly emancipated. This allocation never took place, and in the subsequent 150 years there has been no act of restitution for the formerly enslaved or their descendants. This is not because the descendants of slavery have been silent on this score. It is because their efforts to this point, actively, have been opposed and blocked. The commission to be established under HR40 represents an opportunity, finally, to develop a reparations program that will address the nation’s unmet obligations.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself.
The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself. Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era). Third are the legacy effects of slavery and Jim Crow, compounded by ongoing racism manifest in persistent health disparities, labor market discrimination, mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), black voter suppression, and the general deprivation of equal well-being with all Americans. Therefore, it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment — both slavery and post-slavery, both Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow — on black descendants of American slavery. It is precisely that unique community that should be the recipients of reparations: black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S.
Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era).
In a 2003 article written with Dania Frank Francis, and, more recently, in work written with Kirsten Mullen, we have proposed two criteria for eligibility for black reparations. First, an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. Second, an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years prior to the onset of the reparations program or the formation of the study commission, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro or African-American. The first criterion will require genealogical documentation — but absolutely no phenotype, ideology or DNA tests. The second criterion will require presentation of a suitable state or federal legal document that the person declared themselves to be black.
These criteria rule out blacks who are post-slavery immigrants to the U.S., whose own ancestors are likely to have been subjected to enslavement and colonialism elsewhere. Indeed, they may have substantial claims for reparations themselves, but not from the U.S. government. For example, Nigerians (and Nigerian-Americans) have, in my estimation, a claim for reparations against the United Kingdom; similarly, Haitians (and Haitian-Americans) have a comparable claim for reparations against France. However, legitimate claimants for black reparations from the U.S. government must be those Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here after having been forced immigrants, rather than voluntary immigrants. This is a unique segment of the nation’s black population; it is the segment that will be eligible for black reparations in America.
In our forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for black Americans in the 20th Century, Kirsten Mullen and I have identified the immense racial wealth gap as the prime indicator of the cumulative effects of the full trajectory of harms thrust upon black Americans. Wealth, the difference between the value of what one owns and what one owes, must not be confused with income. Wealth is more important than income, at least, insofar as higher levels of wealth are protective against unanticipated losses in income due to unemployment or financial emergencies. Wealth is insurance against economic anxiety and economic disruption for individuals and families. Wealth expands opportunity and possibility for those with larger amounts.
Today, black Americans constitute approximately 13 to 14 percent of the nation’s population, yet possess less than 3 percent of the nation’s wealth. A core objective of the reparations program must be to move the black American share to at least 13 to 14 percent. Reparations designated specifically for black American descendants of slavery must be enacted and implemented to achieve that aim, moving black wealth, roughly, from less than $3 trillion to $13 to $14 trillion.
While closure is one of the imperatives of any reparations program, arriving at closure does not mean forgetting the record of atrocities. Thus, a key dimension of a black reparations program must be the development and application of a rigorous curriculum, fully integrated into public school instruction at all grade levels, telling the story of America’s racial history, in all of its complexity, accurately.
The foregoing six principles should be guidelines that structure the charge of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans. In addition, there are several revisions to HR40 that I view as essential to yield the strongest legislation to launch the commission. The window that is relevant to the American black claim for reparations is 1776 to the present, not 1619 to the present, as the bill currently reads. Since the eventual claim for legislative redress must be made on the U.S. government, the beginning date must be associated with the founding of the republic, not the landing of enslaved persons at Jamestown. Furthermore, the array of atrocities that occurred between 1776 and the present are of sufficient magnitude that the case is not weakened by discounting the colonial period.
In its current form, the longevity of the commission is not specified in HR40. I recommend the commission completes its report, inclusive of a detailed prescription for legislation to enact a reparations program for black Americans, within 18 months of its impaneling. … President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known colloquially as the Kerner Commission) issued its report with recommendations a mere seven months after impaneling.
… it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment
I also recommend, like the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the commission on reparations proposals commission should be appointed exclusively by the Congress. The commission appointees should be experts in American history, Constitutional law, economics (including stratification economics), political science and sociology. These appointees must have expert knowledge on the history of slavery and Jim Crow, employment discrimination, wealth inequality, health disparities, unequal educational opportunities, criminal justice and mass incarceration, media, political participation and exclusion, and housing inequities. The commission also should include appointees with detailed knowledge about the design and administration of prior reparations programs as guidelines for structuring a comprehensive reparations program for native black Americans.
In addition, the commissioners should not receive payment to minimize the prospect that personal aggrandizement will influence the proceedings. However, there should be a paid professional staff, and the commissioner appointees’ reasonable expenses should be met. In essence, they (nor any organization to which they belong) should not receive a salary, honorarium, or the equivalent for performing this critical national service.
There are also some sections of HR40 that merit revision for accuracy. For example, Section 2 (a) of the legislation notes that many more than four million persons were enslaved in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865, since not all persons enslaved over that interval still were living at the end of the Civil War. It is valid to say there were about four million persons emancipated when the Civil War ended, but they were not the total number of persons subjected to American slavery.
And Section 3.b. (2) indicts the U.S. government for blocking repatriation of formerly enslaved blacks to the African continent. Arguably, the exact opposite is true, particularly given the United States’ role in the creation of Liberia. Even Abraham Lincoln advocated black repatriation until the later years of the Civil War. Alleged obstacles to repatriation are not a justification for black reparations. The core of the claim for reparations is a declaration for the establishment of full citizenship rights and compensation for the sustained denial of liberty for black descendants of American slavery. Of course, it will be their prerogative if some black recipients of reparations choose to use their funds to migrate to their preferred country in Africa, or elsewhere.
Finally, in addition, the commission’s report must detail the long and cumulative trajectory of atrocities visited upon black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. and their ancestors, and it must provide a well-designed comprehensive program for reparations that will address the following specifics: criteria for eligibility for reparations and assistance for potential claimants to establish their eligibility, criteria for establishing the size of the reparations fund, details on how the reparations fund will be disbursed (and toward what ends), details on how the reparations program will be administered and monitored, and benchmarks for gauging the long-term success of the program and administrative modification, if needed.
William Darity Jr. is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.
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