Black Family Seeks Return of Its Beach Resort Land Near L.A. – The New York Times

This could also be titled, “How Imminent Domain was used as a tool to steal Black land ownership”.
Janice Graham

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a plot of land on the Southern California coast.

It was an oceanside lot in an area dotted with sunny blossoms of evening primrose and purple clusters of lupine. The land, made accessible by red trolley cars that trundled to and from the growing metropolis of Los Angeles, was ripe for development.

The Bruces and their son, Harvey, came from New Mexico and were among the first Black people to settle in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach. They built a resort where other Black families could swim, lounge, eat and dance without being subject to racist harassment.

The harassment came anyway, and the resort thrived despite it. But city officials shuttered the enterprise by condemning the land in 1924, claiming to need it for a public park. The Bruces fought the move through litigation, but failed. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.

Nearly a century later, their descendants are still seeking restitution.

“I just want justice for my family,” said Anthony Bruce, 38, a descendant of the Bruces who lives in Florida and has childhood memories of visiting the California land his relatives once owned.

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times
Visitors to Bruce’s Beach in 1920.
Credit…Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection – UCLA

“It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally,” said Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, a relative of the Bruces who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.

“What we want is restoration of our land to us,” he said, “and restitution for the loss of revenues.”

While the city is not seriously considering the possibility of monetary restitution — officials have said public funds cannot legally be used to pay such claims — property restoration is now on the table. Last week, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said she was open to returning the land to the family, ABC7 Eyewitness News reported. The land has been owned by the county since the 1990s and is now the site of a training center for lifeguards.

“This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property,” Ms. Hahn said in an emailed statement. She added, “I want the county to be part of righting this wrong.”

Both Mr. Bruce and Mr. Shepard said that restitution was about more just than their family. They pointed to the long history of racism in the United States, and to stories of Black people being robbed of their land or the fruits of their labor.

“We’ve been stripped of any type of legacy, and we’re not the only family that this has happened to,” Mr. Shepard said. “It’s happened all over the United States.”

Charles and Willa Bruce on their wedding day.
Credit…Anthony Bruce

Manhattan Beach has been reckoning with the story of the Bruces’ shuttered resort for years. A park there was renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in 2007, and the city erected a plaque to tell the family’s story.

But the plaque credits a white landowner, George Peck, with making it possible for the Bruce family to settle there. It omits reports of Mr. Peck’s attempts to obstruct Black beachgoers’ paths to the shore.

“We definitely need to change the plaque,” said Kavon Ward, 39, an organizer and resident of Manhattan Beach. “But that’s not going far enough for me. We need to figure out how to get this land back to the family it was stolen from.”

Last year, amid nationwide demonstrations prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Ms. Ward, who is Black, arranged a picnic at Bruce’s Beach to celebrate Juneteenth.

“I started thinking about the generational wealth that was stripped from that family,” she said. “It happened everywhere around this nation. We keep getting up, but why do we have to keep getting kicked down? Why? For me, it was time for reparations.”

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian based in Los Angeles, wrote about the Bruces and other families in a book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.”

“Many people only think about African-American civil rights through economic and political power,” Dr. Jefferson said. “They sometimes forget about the fact that recreation was a big part of the struggle.”

When Willa and Charles Bruce first opened their property to visitors in 1912, it had a small stand that sold food and fizzy drinks. By 1923, the property had a lodge and a beachside cafe, with space upstairs for dancing. Mr. Bruce was often out of town, working as a dining car chef on trains to Salt Lake City. It was Ms. Bruce who bought the property and handled much of the business at the resort.

“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Ms. Bruce told The Los Angeles Times in 1912. “But I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

Willa Bruce, left, with her daughter-in-law and her sister in Manhattan Beach in the 1920s.
Credit…California African American Museum

Margie Johnson and John Pettigrew in Manhattan Beach in 1927.

Credit…LaVera White Collection of Arthur and Elizabeth Lewis

The Bruces made their investment in the era of Jim Crow, amid a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities across the United States and campaigns of white supremacist terror and lynchings that drove millions of African-Americans away from the South. There was less violence against Black people in California at the time, but discrimination was rampant.

Still, the resort at Bruce’s Beach appeared to prosper. Black-and-white photographs from the era captured beachgoers wearing bathing suits and bright smiles, couples lounging in the shade and families playing in the surf.

In time, a small community of Black landowners bloomed around the resort. According to Dr. Jefferson’s book, these included George Prioleau, a formerly enslaved retired Army major whose family developed a duplex along the shore; Mary Sanders, a caterer from Canada who was known as a skilled entrepreneur; and John and Bessie McCaskill, who hosted elaborate beachside breakfasts.

But some white neighbors and city officials were intent on dismantling the community. Black visitors to the beach endured harassment, slashed tires and arbitrary regulations. The California Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper, reported that the Ku Klux Klan was active along the California shoreline during the 1920s.

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

And in 1924, the city condemned the Bruces’ property, claiming eminent domain in order to use the land as a park. The couple, both of whom were in their 60s, eventually moved to Los Angeles.

The land they left behind would not be developed as a public park for more than three decades.

Tourists continued to visit Bruce’s Beach after the resort was shuttered. So did members of the N.A.A.C.P., who participated in a “swim-in” to assert their right to the sea in 1927, according to Dr. Jefferson’s book. Several Black beachgoers were arrested that year.

As the decades passed, Manhattan Beach grew to become an affluent city of about 35,000 people, a vast majority of whom are white. According to 2010 census data, less than 1 percent of the population is Black.

In October, Manhattan Beach convened a task force of 13 residents to come up with recommendations for the city to right historical wrongs. Next week, the City Council will meet to discuss those recommendations, which include changing the plaque, erecting an art installation and issuing an apology.

“That’s fine,” Ms. Ward said. “But there are things they could address if they were thinking creatively — if there really was a will to become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place.” She suggested that officials consider forward-looking measures like a commitment to affordable housing.

At the county level, officials are expected to meet with Bruce family descendants next week to discuss handing over the property, which could also involve monetary restitution or an agreement to lease the land from the family.

But Mr. Shepard said the city that condemned the land should be the one to make amends.

Los Angeles County “is talking about restoring the land to us,” he said. “But the restitution and punitive damages, Manhattan Beach is going to have to pay. We’re going to keep up with them until we get it.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

“Aligning Black Policy Priorities Into the Game of Electoral Politics” ::: S.C. Professor Emeritus, Willie Legette :: Sat., March 6, 2021 :: 10 pm ET

Transforming Truth to Power, One Broadcast At a Time

“Aligning Black Policy Priorities Into the Game of Electoral Politics”

Professor Willie Legette

Political Systems Analyst and Organizer

 

Saturday, March 6, 2021 ∞ 10 pm EST ∞ LIVE

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ABOUT THIS EPISODE 

The coalition Democrats brought together in 2020 was enough to beat Trump—but it’s insufficient for the long-term fights ahead. If 2020 was, as Biden put it, a fight “for the soul of the nation,” the next task for the progressives is even harder: build a multiracial working-class majority big enough to win a transformative agenda that lifts America out of 2020s roiling crises and truly transform people’s lives. That’s how progressives win for the next generation.

We talk with Professor Willie Legette, political analyst, as to how we might resolve the conflicts and problems of voting for who we “like”, votes that are often divorced from policies that address our political, economic, and community needs. Are we voting electoral race politics and needing class-basis policies? Just how does the “Black vote” calculate? Though we think of ourselves as on a winning team, are we winning? Is there credence to what we call “ the Black vote”? What does it mean? A whole new way of thinking is required. That and a “resistance campaign” against voter suppression.

With his co-author, Adolph Reed, Legette writes that “The disjunction between candidate choices and issue concerns reflects how people are accustomed to making their short-term electoral calculations and how they understand the issues that affect their lives. People take different criteria to candidate selection than to their estimations of the issues that most concern them. In part that is the result of decades of bipartisan neoliberal hegemony in which electoral politics has been drained of serious policy differences. For more than forty years neither Republicans nor Democrats have sought to address Americans’ decreasing standard of living and increasing economic insecurity. Both parties have subordinated voters’ concerns to the interests of Wall Street and corporations. Therefore, in states like South Carolina Democratic party politics is fundamentally transactional, where people are habituated to making electoral choices based on considerations like personal relationships or more local concerns that do not center so much on national policy issues. In effect politics—or at least electoral politics—has been redefined as not the appropriate domain for trying to pursue policies that address people’s actual material concerns like health care, education, jobs, and wages, or housing.

Legette asserts that a narrow view of politics was on display regarding the “black vote” in particular in the runup to the 2016 South Carolina primary when Congressmen James Clyburn (D-SC), John Lewis (D-GA), and Cedric Richmond (D-LA) denounced calls for free public higher education as “irresponsible” because “there are no free lunches.” When Clyburn endorsed Biden in 2020, he took a swipe at Medicare for All, another issue with strong black American support, indicating that the choice this year is Biden vs. Medicare for All. (It may be worth noting that Clyburn, between 2008 and 2018, took more than $1 million from the pharmaceutical industry.)”

“. . . is not the election of a president but the transformation of the country into a place that is more egalitarian, just, and humane, a society where poverty is not possible and where real freedom is enjoyed by all… The kind of popular pressure we need to advance some of the best of Sanders’s platform—free higher education, postal banking, public works, a single-payer health care system, stronger financial regulation, and so on—cannot be built in an election cycle.” – Cedric Johnson, Jacobin magazine,” Fear and Pandering in the Palmetto State”

Johnson problematizes that “black politics” as a framework for understanding either black Americans’ electoral behavior or their class and political interests. He points out that “voting for a presidential candidate… is only a proxy for political interests, which are again multifaceted and shifting.” Black politics, in fact, is a historically specific phenomenon, as Johnson argues elsewhere. It is a label attached to the racialized black interest-group politics that consolidated after the great victories of the 1960s. It is thoroughly a class politics that rests on a premise—and one asserted with increasing intensity as class differences among black Americans become clearer in political debate—that all black Americans converge around a racial agenda defined arbitrarily by political elites and others in the stratum of freelance Racial Voices. We talk with Professor Legette about these assertions and more. As well, I continue to ask where is the Black political infrastructure to move us either in or out of the game?

ABOUT Professor Legette

Willie Legette is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, South Carolina State University; Lead Organizer, Medicare for All-South Carolina; Labor Party candidate for SC Senate;

Common Dreams contributor; journalist and activist.

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“The History of Black Political Movements in America” ::: Four-Week Lecture Series ::: An OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special :::

An OUR COMMON GROUND Black History Month 2021

Special

“A History of Black Political Movements”

A Four-Week Lecture Series

Presenter, Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Each Session: Thursdays 8- 10 pm EST ::: February 4, 11, 18, 25, 2021

LIVE & InterActive: http://bit.ly/OCGTruthTalk

The Black Power movement grew out of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT that had steadily gained momentum through the 1950s and 1960s. It was not a formal movement, however, the Black Power movement marked a turning point in Black-white relations in the United States and also in how Black people saw themselves. Both movements were hailed as significant struggles of Blacks to achieve full equality. They were complex events that took place at a time when society and culture were being transformed throughout the United States, and its legacy reflects that complexity. But what of the legacy political movements that occurred right after the Emancipation of slavery? We need to know and understand the networks that compose the many Black struggles and movement that brought us to our current political struggles.

This course of study will review the history of the many Black struggle movements and events that brought us to the election of Barack Obama resistance that brings us to the white supremacy insurrection and riots on January 6, 2021. We hope that you will join us.

Series SCHEDULE

February 4, 2021

   Session 1: Overview of significant historical Black political movements and events.

  • Black Politics and the Reconstruction Era

  • Black Politics of the Jim Crow Era

  • Black Politics creating the Civil Rights Era

  • Black Political development during the Black Power Era

      Reading Recommendations

      Timeline References

February 11, 2021

   Session 2: Review of Syllabus Examine why certain sources are most helpful to us to understand the continuum and projection of history forming new                               generations of struggle. How history informs strategic directions of each of the major movements.

February 18, 2021

   Session 3: Black political diversities and ideologies. Examining class, economics, religion, spirituality, art, gender, sexuality, and how they have factored in                         Black movement history.

February 25, 2021

    Session 4: Practical Strategies for 21st Century Black and Peoples’ movements.

 

About Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Chair, Department of Politics, former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientist community in the United States, 2009-2011. 

Professor James Lance Taylor is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.

He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco from 2012-2015, and Faculty Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.

Professor Taylor is currently writing and researching a book with the working title, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and California Black Politics. He expects the book to be completed with a 2018-2019 publication range. The book is a study of the Peoples Temple movement and African American political history in the state of California.

His teaching and research scholarly interests are in religion and politics in the United States, race and ethnic politics, African American political history, social movements, political ideology, law and public policy, Black political leadership, and the U.S. Presidency. He lives with his family in Oakland, California.

 

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An FBI Agent Went Undercover to Study White Supremacists. He’s Now Speaking Out About Racist Police. – Mother Jones

One Capitol Police officer was caught taking a selfie with a member of the white supremacist mob that overtook the US Capitol last week. A second officer has been suspended for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and directing insurrectionists around the building rather than handcuffing them. The storming of the Capitol has revived concerns about the ties between police and white supremacists, in part because officers arrested far more Black Lives Matter protesters this summer than they did Trump supporters who broke into the legislative building with weapons, at least one Confederate flag, and bundles of zip ties.

It wasn’t just on-duty cops who raised eyebrows: Off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the mob itself, with some flashing their badges and identification cards as they rushed through the doors, according to an on-duty DC Metro Police officer who saw them. “If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms,” the officer wrote later on Facebook, according to Politico.

Police departments around the country are now investigating officers who are suspected of attending the rally in DC, or were caught posting racist messages on social media. Days after the attack, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced a bill that would require a commission to examine whether Capitol Police officers have white supremacist ties.

For some experts, these investigations are far too little, too late: Police departments and federal agencies have long understood that certain cops are connected to racist groups, and have largely looked the other way. “We’ve known for decades that there are racial disparities in every step of the criminal justice process, from who gets stopped to who gets arrested to who police use force against to how they get charged,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now studies white supremacist infiltration of police departments as a fellow at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank. “It’s treated as implicit bias or structural bias without an acknowledgment that there’s a lot of explicit bias driving these disparities.”

As an FBI agent in the 1990s, German went undercover with white supremacist and militia groups to thwart their bomb plots. At the time, the Justice Department warned him to be careful about sharing details of his investigations with cops, because some of them had ties to white supremacist groups themselves. Even so, in the decades since then, he says the FBI has not prioritized investigating those police officers and getting them off the streets, allowing them to continue their jobs. I caught up with German this week to ask how law enforcement agencies have fallen short in identifying and firing racist officers, and what they should be doing now, in the wake of the Capitol siege, to root them out.

Do we know roughly how many cops have ties to white supremacists? 

Unfortunately we don’t have a sense of the scope of the problem because no entity has made it their mission to identify the scope. But the FBI regularly warns its agents who are investigating white supremacists and far-right militants that the subjects of those investigations will often have active links to law enforcement, and that they need to alter their methodology to protect the integrity of their investigations. Those were warnings I received in the 1990s when I worked these cases, and they appear in published leaked FBI materials, including the 2015 counterterrorism policy guide.

When you say FBI agents alter their methodologies, do you mean they’re not supposed to collaborate as much with police while investigating white supremacists? 

Exactly. The counterterrorism policy guide recommends that the FBI put the subjects of these investigations on a watch list with what’s called the silent-hit function; if a police officer pulls over the subject of your investigation, a silent-hit function would not tell the officer that he’s interacting with someone who’s the subject of a terrorism investigation.

If the FBI knows this is a problem of such significance that it has to alter its methodologies of investigating cases, I would argue it also has to have a strategy to protect the public from these white supremacists and far-right militants who carry a badge. The fact that they don’t even document who these police officers are shows an inexcusable lack of attention to their mission to enforce the civil rights laws of this country as well as the counterterrorism laws.

In 2006, the FBI warned that for decades, white supremacist groups had been attempting to “recruit” police officers. Can you talk about the history of this?

It’s important to understand that the United States was founded as a white supremacist nation, so our laws enforced white supremacy, so those who were sworn to enforce the law were enforcing white supremacy. After slavery ended, you had Jim Crow. After the civil rights era, you still had sundown towns, where the police enforced unwritten rules about who could stay in town past dark. To imagine there was somehow a miraculous event that cured the police of that problem is foolish.

The most egregious are examples where police officers were actually members of white supremacist groups and would go to public events representing themselves as police officers. And their membership was known to law enforcement for years and unaddressed, and it was only when the public learned about it that the police department took action.

We do so little examination of police violence in this country, but we know it disproportionately targets people who are Black or brown. How much of that is driven from actual white supremacist ideology rather than isolated incidents that happen on the job is something the Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate.

What kind of recruitment techniques do white supremacist groups use with police?

Having spent time as an FBI undercover agent, I think the term [“recruit”] doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. It’s not so much that this group will put a pamphlet together and make a recruiting pitch and approach officers. In many cases, these are people who grew up affiliating with white supremacists. One guy went to work as a prison guard, one guy went to work in factories, and the other guy went to work as a police officer. And they are just carrying on attitudes and associating with the same people they associated with when they weren’t a police officer.

Are there any police departments that have tried themselves to root out racist cops, and any that did a good job?

The departments tend to be reactive to public outrage. Part of the problem is that most law enforcement agencies don’t have written policies specifically addressing the issue. So when the public identifies somebody who’s operating in league with a white supremacist group or far-right militant group, they end up disciplining them under broad prohibitions against engaging in public conduct detrimental to the public interest, or similarly worded policies.

Sometimes this doesn’t stand up to the due process scrutiny that’s designed to protect innocent officers from being treating unfairly. So they end up getting their jobs back after they’re fired.

What I argue is that even where the conduct is not sufficient to terminate that officer, the police department still has an obligation to mitigate the threat they pose to the community. There are plenty of jobs in police departments that don’t regularly interact with the public. Or perhaps some extra level of supervision of that officer would be warranted.

What’s the main legal barrier to firing them? Police union contracts?

Right. Or just the lack of policy, or disparate treatment, where other officers known to engage in racist behavior weren’t fired in the past, so it’s unfair to fire this officer. Often, if the police department knew about your involvement with this white supremacist group for five years but is now trying to fire you, you can argue: “I’m not being fired because of the conduct, because the department knew about the conduct; I’m being fired because the public demanded it, and that’s not appropriate.” That’s the problem with the way we have just turned a blind eye to this problem for so many decades.

Is there anything else that government can do to address this problem?

What we need is to empower prosecutors and defense attorneys. When these [white supremacist] officers are identified by the agency or by the public, that information should be provided to prosecutors and they [the officer] should be put on no-call lists or Brady lists. Today these no-call lists are lists of officers who are known to have previously engaged in some kind of dishonest conduct that a defense attorney could use to impeach their testimony. My argument is that racist behavior is one of those categories that should be available to the defense attorney. [This can] force those agents off the street.

In an ideal world, what do you think the Justice Department or FBI’s role would be in rooting out white supremacist police officers?

What I would recommend is for the Justice Department to implement a national strategy to identify these officers, document the scope of the threat, and design programs to mitigate it. It’s a matter of priorities. If the FBI heard through the grapevine that a police officer was affiliating himself with Al Qaeda or ISIS, we can be confident the FBI would react quickly. They should act just as quickly when the police officer is associated with white supremacist and far-right militant groups.

Some people have expressed the idea that we need to create a list of designated domestic terrorist groups, but that’s a silly approach because these groups change their names regularly. In other words, writing a list of groups that are banned is not going to help. Because officers can look at the list and say, “Okay, I won’t join this group, but I’ll join this other group. Or I’ll be part of a group that previously called itself the KKK but now calls itself something else.” But it’s the same people engaged in the same racist conduct. It takes an understanding of how these groups actually organize before you can write a policy.

The officers and agents within these federal, state, and local law enforcement departments know who the racists are among them. What we need to do is make sure officers who see racist misconduct or far-right militancy within law enforcement are protected when they report it. We need to strengthen whistleblower protection laws.

You wrote in a recent report about a man in Anniston, Alabama, who applied to be a police officer, and listed on his application that he was part of the League of the South, a white supremacist secessionist group. He was hired anyway. Are cops’ racist ties often that obvious? 

Yes, often it is that obvious. So it’s not that they can’t be seen, it’s that nobody is looking for them.

Update (January 15): The Capitol Police officer who wore a MAGA hat claims he put on the cap as part of a plan to save some of his colleagues who were in danger, according to a new Wall Street Journal report.

Source: An FBI Agent Went Undercover to Study White Supremacists. He’s Now Speaking Out About Racist Police. – Mother Jones

The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality – The Atlantic

The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality

QAnon Is Destroying the GOP From Within

Until last week, too many in the Republican Party thought they could preach the Constitution and wink at QAnon. They can’t.

“The violence that Americans witnessed—and that might recur in the coming days—is not a protest gone awry or the work of “a few bad apples.” It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.

If and when the House sends its article of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, I will be a juror in his trial, and thus what I can say in advance is limited. But no matter what happens in that trial, the Republican Party faces a separate reckoning. Until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon. They can’t. The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.”

Source: The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality – The Atlantic

How Oath Keepers Are Quietly Infiltrating Local Government – POLITICO

GRANBURY, Texas — In late August, the constable in a small county outside Fort Worth logged on to his Facebook account and called for the execution of a mayor nearly 2,000 miles away.

“Ted Wheeler needs to be tried, convicted and executed posthaste,” John D. Shirley wrote on Aug. 31. “He has blood on his hands, and it’s time for justice.”

What precipitated Shirley’s outburst against the mayor of Portland, Ore., was the shooting death on Aug. 29 of a member of a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer by an antifa activist. The killing was a violent escalation of clashes that had roiled Portland in the weeks since George Floyd was suffocated to death by police. Shirley said “patriots” in “socialist-controlled cities” needed to protect themselves. As the presidential election approached, he warned of “open conflict.” Twitter suspended his account shortly after, but he continued to post about violent disputes on Facebook with crescendoing alarmism.

“If you doubt these lefties won’t put you and your family against a wall and pull the trigger, then you aren’t paying attention,” Shirley said on Oct. 10. “Their hatred for you is palpable. We dare never let them regain power again.”

Since 2018, Shirley has been the constable of Hood County, a conservative, mostly white community outside of Fort Worth popular among retirees. As constable, Shirley is empowered to serve warrants and subpoenas and make arrests. It might seem odd that an elected member of law enforcement would incite violence against another democratically elected official in one of the nation’s largest cities. But Shirley was also a sworn member of Oath Keepers, which in recent months has been warning of a civil war.

Depending on whom you ask, Oath Keepers is either “the last line of defense against tyranny” or an extremist militia. They describe themselves as a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution and refuse to obey orders they consider unconstitutional. The Southern Poverty Law Center on the other hand lists Oath Keepers as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today” and has kept tabs on incidents involving members that may betray the idea that the group is just about defending the Constitution. In 2010, for example, a man in Tennessee driving a truck with an Oath Keepers logo was accused in a plot to arrest two dozen local officials.

By the time he was posting about Wheeler, Shirley had been an Oath Keeper for more than a decade, serving on the organization’s board of directors, as its national peace officer liaison, and as the Texas chapter president. But he isn’t the only elected official in Hood County affiliated with the group. One member, a newly elected justice of the peace, said in February that Oath Keepers was having a “surgence” there. Shirley has described an incoming county commissioner as an Oath Keeper.

I first learned about Oath Keepers in Hood County in March, when I received a message about the group’s growing presence there. Some residents have speculated that there are even more elected officials who are Oath Keepers, though no one else I spoke with said they belonged to the group and many denied knowing much about it at all.

Oath Keepers has made inroads across the country with thousands of law enforcement officers, soldiers and veterans. Still, it’s not common for elected officials to openly identify as members, said Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor who wrote a new book about the organization. After all, Jackson said, this is a group that, in 2014, was prepared to shoot at police who weren’t on their side during the Bundy standoff, when hundreds of armed civilians confronted federal rangers trying to impound a Nevada rancher’s cattle that had been grazing on protected land.

Daniel Peters, a left-leaning gadfly who regularly challenges conservative county commissioners, told me that Shirley’s ominous postings made him afraid for his safety. Shirley, he said, “is very openly calling for violence toward people like me.”

Mendi Tackett, a Democrat who stays at home with her kids, said she thinks there’s a “healthy number of people here who are definitely in on the ideology.” It’s concerning that active law enforcement or military personnel could be involved with the organization, she told me, but she suspects that “some of these folks are more talk than they are actual action.”

Either way, what’s happening in Hood County may represent a shift for a group that was once seen as a governmental antagonist but is now establishing itself inside the halls of the elected officialdom. And it is setting up potentially dangerous conflicts between officials with different ideas of what constitutes legitimate government authority. Over the past 10 months, Shirley has promoted protests over orders to slow the spread of Covid-19 and cast doubt on a peaceful local demonstration against police brutality. And despite their avowed neutrality, the group’s attention of late has focused on defending one individual—Donald Trump—who himself has been accused of undermining the constitutional transfer of power by refusing to concede an election he lost resoundingly.

“Our POTUS will not go down without a fight,” Oath Keepers said in a recent email blast. “He WILL NOT concede. This election was stolen from We The People. We will prevail but we need your help! Or we lose our democracy.”

Oath Keepers was formed in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. When the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, announced its debut, he wrote in a blog post that its primary mission would be “to prevent the destruction of American liberty by preventing a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship from coming to power.”

Ascertaining how widespread support is for that mission is subject to debate. In 2014, Rhodes said Oath Keepers had about 35,000 members who paid dues to the organization. This year, the Atlantic reported there were nearly 25,000 names on a membership list the magazine obtained.

But Hood County, named after the Confederate Army General John Bell Hood, could offer insight on a very local level of how the group has continued to grow in small but measurable ways across the country.

An early clue came this February at a candidate forum for local Republicans. Dub Gillum a retired state trooper who was running for justice of the peace in Hood County’s Precinct 4, said on Feb. 11 that Oath Keepers was experiencing “a resurgence—or surgence—in Hood County.”

When I reached out to Gillum he told me he did not remember saying that there was a “surgence” of Oath Keepers in Hood County. “Personally,” he said, “I do not see a ‘surgency’ of Oath Keepers in Hood County but rather a resurgence of patriotism.”

Gillum said he started following Oath Keepers on Facebook in 2010, when the social media platform suggested it to him as a group he might like. The Oath Keepers’ mission resonated with him. It felt like a reaffirmation of the oath he took when he became a state trooper in 1990. Oath Keepers was a networking resource for him when he was a trooper, he said, but he’s never attended any of the group’s events. He doesn’t consider himself “active” in the organization.

About a week later, on Feb. 20, Hood County News, the local newspaper, reported that Oath Keepers, “one of the nation’s largest anti-government militia groups,” was scheduled to hold a rally on Feb. 24 at the Harbor Lakes Golf Club in Granbury, the county seat named for another Confederate general that has twice won recognition as the “Best Historic Small Town in America.”

Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who once worked for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, was supposed to lead the rally for “all Oath Keeper candidates running in the primary.” The event was also billed as a swearing-in for anyone who wanted to take the “Oath to the Constitution” for the first time.

But the next day, the paper reported that the meeting was canceled after the golf club backed out, saying the event was “misrepresented in the planning” and that the rally’s agenda was “unbeknownst to Harbor Lakes.”

Still, on Feb. 22, a post on the website Hood County Today written by Nathan Criswell, the county’s former Republican Party chair, declared “Oath Keepers emerge in Hood.” A local chapter would soon be operational in the county under John Shirley’s leadership, Criswell said.

On Feb. 25, an “insider’s perspective” of Oath Keepers written by the constable was published on the site. Shirley said he had first heard about Oath Keepers in 2008 and reached out to Rhodes before the group was even officially formed. Shirley “was immediately fascinated with the idea of peace officers and soldiers rededicating themselves to their oaths and to the Constitution,” he wrote.

He defended Oath Keepers as a “nonpartisan organization almost exclusively dedicated to teaching first responders and soldiers to respect their oaths, know what the Constitution says and how that knowledge applies to their jobs.” Descriptions of the group as a “right-wing,” “racist,” “anti-government” militia were “ad hominem attacks” lacking evidence, he said.

But some residents were alarmed by a scene that unfolded outside a local gym a couple months later. By then, the coronavirus pandemic had hobbled communities across the state and Governor Greg Abbott had ordered gyms, among other businesses, to shut down. Lift the Bar Fitness in Granbury followed that direction, at least for a while. By April, David Todd Hebert, who owns the gym with his wife, had grown impatient with what he considered an unconstitutional mandate from ”King Abbott.” They decided to reopen the gym even if it meant going to jail.

The gym announced on Facebook that members could finally come back even though Abbott’s executive order was still in effect. Someone commented that the police better “bring a lot of guns” if they were planning to stop them, Hood County News reported.

When Lift the Bar Fitness opened on April 28, about 10 Oath Keepers turned up “to make sure that we stayed open,” Hebert told me. They were friendly, he said, and they’d heard he was going to get arrested. They wanted to document any violations of his constitutional rights.

Hebert didn’t get arrested. In fact, he said, no officers showed up. But the story started to spread through the county. I heard that armed Oath Keepers prowled the parking lot and scared off city police officers who arrived to shut down the gym. In one telling, there was a near shootout between the cops and the Oath Keepers, Shirley and Stewart Rhodes among them.

“That didn’t happen,” said Matt Mills, the county attorney who also stopped by the gym that day and confirmed that both Shirley and Rhodes were there. But even if Granbury officers had arrested Hebert, it’s unlikely the case would have gone anywhere. Mills has refused to prosecute anyone who violates the governor’s orders, which he also considers unconstitutional.

Mills is not an Oath Keeper, he said, and he told me he didn’t know much about them. But the organization continued to extend itself to conservatives in the deeply red county, where Republicans hold every elected office.

On May 2, a group called Hood County Conservatives announced on Facebook that Scott London, a former New Mexico sheriff, would be “speaking about the New Organization (The Oath Keepers in Hood County)” at their upcoming meeting at the county courthouse.

Oath Keepers showed up to Black Lives Matter protests at the courthouse the following month. The events, held on June 6-7 in spite of some reported threats directed at one of the demonstration’s teenage organizers, were peaceful. But from their perch in the impressive limestone building that anchors the county’s charming downtown square, Shirley and two other constables asked Sheriff Roger Deeds whether the county had any riot shields, Deeds said.

It didn’t, perhaps because the county of about 60,000 people didn’t need them. But a couple weeks later the commissioners court accepted a donation of eight riot shields to be used by the sheriff’s office, Shirley and another constable, Chad Jordan. The agenda for the June 23 commissioners court meeting said the shields were donated by Scott London. Dub Gillum told me Oath Keepers had paid $1,000 for the “needed tactical equipment.”

Like several elected officials and most residents I spoke with in Hood County, Deeds, who once belonged to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and last year backed a successful effort to declare the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” was aware of Oath Keepers but said he wasn’t too familiar with the organization. He said he isn’t a member and doesn’t think any of his deputies are either, though some folks in town suspect otherwise. His office also has never coordinated with Oath Keepers, he said, but he doesn’t “believe they’re bad people by any means.”

David Fischer, the county’s Republican Party chair, told me he knows some people in Hood County are Oath Keepers but said it’s “not an issue in this county — we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t come up very much. … I’m aware there are Oath Keepers here, but that’s all I know.”

When I asked him about some of the things Shirley has said on social media—about leftists murdering people, and that Ted Wheeler should be executed—he laughed.

“Constable Shirley is kind of outspoken,” he said. “He’s an elected official so nobody can do anything to him.”

Shirley, who has described Hood County leaders as “RINOs & closet authoritarians,” doesn’t get along with the other officials and thinks the commissioners court is “out to get him,” Fischer said. The constable’s comments also aren’t representative of the Republican Party in Hood County, Fischer said — “not at all.” The GOP chair said Shirley hasn’t even interacted with the party since he was elected.

In September, around the time Shirley’s Twitter account was suspended, Twitter also banned the accounts of Stewart Rhodes and Oath Keepers under its violent extremism policy. Oath Keepers had tweeted that there would be “open warfare against the Marxist insurrectionists by election night, no matter what you do” and that “Civil War is here, right now.”

As Election Day neared, both Republicans and Democrats in Hood County feared violence was looming across the United States. Smoking a cigarette outside the county’s early voting site after casting a ballot for Trump in late October, J.W. Williams said he was bracing for another civil war. He was sure there would be conflict, and that leftists would start it.

“You want to defund the police?” he said. “Better not, because the police are the only things keeping us from doing what we want to do.”

Shirley, meanwhile, warned that antifa and Black Lives Matter activists would cause mayhem every election cycle unless Democrats were “stopped cold.” Hood County did its part, voting for Trump by about 64 percentage points and electing every other Republican on the ballot by comfortable margins.

By the end of the week, it was clear that despite the county’s efforts, Trump had lost, even if he refused to concede. The kind of unrest that Shirley had predicted didn’t materialize, but the president marshaled his supporters around a new cause — overturning what he called a rigged election.

There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud but an avalanche of misinformation about the election has fueled falsehoods about hundreds of thousands of trashed Trump ballots and election officials tampering with votes cast for him. Some Republicans have called on the president to accept the election results. Shirley is not among them.

Until Trump does concede, Shirley said, “we fight.”

The morning after the election, Shirley wrote on Facebook that his previous speculations that Americans were experiencing a psychological operation had been “putting it lightly.”

“We’re living in evil times, folks,” he said. “Buckle up.”

He started to use new hashtags: #StopTheSteal and then #StopTheCoup. He continued to claim that Trump had won the election.

“YOU CAN FEEL IT IN YOUR BONES,” he said on Nov. 7. “THIS WAS TAKEN FROM US ILLEGALLY. THE ONLY WAY WE LOSE IS IF WE DON’T FIGHT. LEAVE IT ALL ON THE FIELD. IT’S TIME TO SEPARATE THE WINTER SOLDIERS FROM THE SUNSHINE PATRIOTS.”

Shirley called Bill Gates the “master manipulator of the heist” and shared posts from Steve Bannon, who was permanently suspended from Twitter after suggesting FBI Director Christopher Wray and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci should be beheaded.

The constable traveled to Washington for the so-called Million Maga March on Nov. 14, and later described wading through the rally to keep “his fellow countrymen safe.” When he posted a photo from the event, he boasted there was no violence.

“ANTIFA was too scared of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers,” he said. “They actually hid behind a police line at SCOTUS.”

Despite the overheated posts flying on social media, Hood County, outwardly at least, looks like a lot of small American towns. People’s kids play sports together and their parents watch amicably from the sidelines, even if they disagree about politics. Hebert, the gym owner who worked in law enforcement in Louisiana, said “it’s got some small-town politics but it’s not that kind of county, even as close as it is to Fort Worth.”

Chris Coffman, city manager of Granbury, said that while there was polarization on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, “by and large people love each other here. They get along with each other, help each other.”

In some ways, though, the community’s facade as a tourist town and one of the best places to retire feels misleading, said Adrienne Martin, chair of the Democratic Party. “There’s a lot of ugly stuff underneath the surface that nobody talks about, that nobody deals with.” Her husband grew up in Granbury and he doesn’t recognize it anymore, she said. “It used to be a little quaint small town. Now it’s Trumpville.”

Dozens of flags supporting the president snap in the wind across the county, and Trump campaign signs line the roads. Robert Vick, the Democratic state Senate candidate, told me that one of his campaign signs was shot up with bullet holes. He worried about Shirley’s rhetoric, and in what ways it could inspire people who read and believe it. He pointed to the alleged militia plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as an example. Recent court filings claim that the men accused had drawn up a Plan B to take over the Michigan Capitol and stage a weeklong series of televised executions of public officials.

After I was alerted to Shirley’s posts earlier this year, I reached out to him for comment several times. He never responded to me directly but in October, he posted a letter addressed to POLITICO on his Facebook page.

“You attempt, in vain, to smear the Oath Keepers by trying to link constitution loving patriots to hate groups while in the same breath tell people ANTIFA isn’t violent and isn’t an organized terrorist group,” he said. “Shame on you. Your lies do nothing but further expose you for the frauds & conmen most Americans already know you are. Your sad attempt at pushing the loony left into a civil war will fail. Trump is going to win, and then we’ll see how our government will choose to deal with insurrectionists.”

Jack Wilson, an incoming county commissioner who was endorsed by Governor Abbott, also declined to talk when I reached him by phone. Wilson is a firearms instructor who has worked as a reserve sheriff’s deputy and attracted national attention when he shot and killed a gunman at a church on Dec. 29, 2019. At the time, Shirley tweeted his admiration, calling Wilson a hero.

“And more than that he’s an #OathKeeper,” Shirley said. “He’s served his nation and communities most of his life. Hood County is lucky to count him among our citizens.”

But on Nov. 24, Shirley announced on Facebook that he was stepping back from the organization.

“I’ve decided to retire from being an active member in Oath Keepers,” he said. “I’ve been part of that organization for 10 years and it’s time to let other younger patriots take up the mantel.”

He added that he was taking a “much needed break from social media,” and that he may be back at some point.

“I’m currently of the opinion that all social media was designed to be or has become weaponized,” he said.

I tried to ask Shirley about his decision to retire as an active member of Oath Keepers but he didn’t respond to my questions.

His account briefly appeared to be deactivated. But his silence lasted only about a week. Since then, he’s posted more than 30 times, a mix of claims about the election and debunked misinformation. He’s recently shared posts about 200,000 votes supposedly hijacked from Trump in Georgia and suitcases full of fraudulent ballots there. On Dec. 7, he shared an email from Scott London to Granbury City Council members and Hood County commissioners discouraging them from pursuing or enforcing any new coronavirus restrictions, and reminding them of their oaths to the Constitution.

“We are the #DigitalConstitutionalMilitia. Our weapons of war are FB posts, Tweets, YouTube Videos, TikTok,” Shirley said back in November. “It’s up to US to do OUR part of this existential battle for the soul of #America. Patriots… You have your orders.”

Source: How Oath Keepers Are Quietly Infiltrating Local Government – POLITICO

Why You Really Can’t Fight City Hall, At Least Over the Police – POLITICO

In the early morning hours of January 28, 2000, a Black police officer named Cornel Young Jr. —“Jai” to those who knew him—was off duty, dressed in plain clothes, and waiting on a steak sandwich from an all-night diner in a rough section of Providence, Rhode Island. A fight broke out at the front of the restaurant and quickly spilled outside. Someone brandished a gun. Young jumped into action, shouting “Police!” as he rushed through the diner and drew his weapon. Within seconds, he would be bleeding in the snow outside the restaurant, shot multiple times by two white, uniformed officers from his own department. Within hours, he would be dead.

Those are the basic facts, and the sadness of them transcends politics. If Black lives matter and blue lives matter, as they all most assuredly do, the killing of patrolman Cornel “Jai” Young was doubly tragic.

But the tragedy does not end there. As an attorney who has litigated civil rights cases, I can tell you that the tragedy of Jai Young’s story actually ends in a courtroom, some six years after his death, when the city of Providence slipped through a gaping chasm in federal civil rights law—one that has largely escaped scrutiny in the current national push for racial justice reform. It’s called the Monell Rule, and it’s why cities and police departments are rarely held accountable for the actions of police officers.

To learn more about her case, I recently reached out to Leisa Young, Jai’s mother, who fought the city of Providence in court for the better part of five years. She is an impressive woman: a bright, successful, former single mother who lifted herself out of poverty while raising an exceptional son. The pain of his death has hardened with time, the way scar tissue fills a wound that once might have been fatal. When she speaks of Jai now, Leisa’s voice does not crack, though she tends to change the subject.

The story she tells is awash in irony. Jai had entered the police force to change it, and he died, Leisa believes, because of the very problems he wanted to fix. Growing up, Jai had not been immune to the racial profiling so often experienced by young Black males. But his father—from whom Leisa had long since been divorced—was a police officer, and through him Jai developed an interest in community-based police reforms. By joining the force, Jai hoped to change what he saw as a militaristic approach to policing, especially in low-income neighborhoods like the one where he eventually died.

Leisa tells me that one of the cops who shot her son had been his classmate at the police academy and might have recognized him if he had only paused an instant before shooting: “Out of uniform, in that neighborhood, Jai was just another target.”

When asked about the city’s handling of her son’s case, Leisa responds with exasperation—the type of chronic emotional fatigue known only to those unfortunate souls who have spent years fighting a more powerful and highly motivated enemy. You can’t fight city hall, they say. Most people know the phrase; Leisa Young has lived it.

From the very beginning, the city circled the wagons. Just two days after Jai’s death, the mayor of Providence declared in the local press that race had not been a factor in the shooting. In a televised interview, a high-ranking officer predicted the two shooters would be exonerated by the department’s internal investigation, which was just barely underway. Meanwhile, Leisa says, city officials worked privately to convince her that Jai was somehow at fault in his own death because he had been pointing his firearm sideways, “like a thug.” Recalling the accusation now, Leisa dismisses it with a laugh that is somehow charming and bitter at the same time: “Where would he have learned that? In thug school?”

The 2003 verdict has never been overturned, and in the eyes of the law, the violation of Jai Young’s civil rights is an unassailable fact. That verdict almost certainly would have ended the case if Leisa had been suing a trucking company over a traffic accident, or a chemical company over a cancer-causing pesticide. But hers was a civil rights lawsuit against a city government, and though she still does not understand what it means or why, she would spend the next two years trying to overcome something called the Monell Rule.

I first learned about the Monell Rule in 2013, shortly after I accepted my first civil rights case. I had been practicing business law in Texas for 15 years when a friend asked for my help in a case involving threats and extortion by a small-time city government. It was not my area of the law, so I immersed myself in legal research, and it wasn’t long before I encountered this little-known legal rule that, despite its obscurity, plays a massive role in virtually every federal civil rights lawsuit against a city or county government. One case led to another, and I have been fighting the Monell Rule ever since.

To understand it, one must go back briefly to the end of the Civil War, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had just been ratified, promising civil rights to emancipated slaves and other citizens. The 1871 law—also known as the Third Enforcement Act—was designed to provide a mechanism for enforcing these constitutional guarantees and it authorizes individual citizens to bring private lawsuits for civil rights violations committed by police and other persons cloaked in the authority of state or local governments. Today, among lawyers, this law is known simply as “Section 1983,” and it remains one of the most important civil rights statutes in the country.

In 1961, in a case called Monroe v. Pape, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that city governments were exempt under Section 1983. The Monroe case involved horrific allegations of racial abuse at the hands of 13 Chicago police officers who had allegedly broken into a Black couple’s apartment and forced them to stand naked in front of their children as they beat the father with a flashlight, degraded him with racial slurs and ransacked the apartment. The Supreme Court ruled that the officers could be sued under Section 1983, but the city of Chicago could not.

Unsurprisingly, the Monroe decision was met with heavy criticism, and the Supreme Court eventually reversed itself—sort of. In Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, the high court ruled that cities are accountable under Section 1983, but only if the civil rights violation was caused by “official policy” of the city government. The court’s reasoning was based on a strained reading of the 1871 law, and has been often criticized ever since, but the rule established in Monell has nonetheless survived and evolved.

Today, “official policy” can be proven in multiple ways, but the gist is always the same: the civil rights violation must have been caused by a deliberate policy choice made at the highest levels of a city government, or by a pattern of institutional neglect so pervasive and consistent that it constitutes “deliberate indifference” by city policymakers. It is a very high bar, and clearing it often depends on facts and concepts that are inherently elusive.

The Monell Rule is unique to civil rights litigation and exists nowhere else in the legal world. If, for example, an Amazon delivery driver were to negligently cause a traffic accident while on the job, Amazon would ordinarily be liable for the victim’s injuries; there would be no need for the victim to prove that Jeff Bezos or Amazon’s board of directors had caused the accident through their corporate policies or their “deliberate indifference” to the rights of potential accident victims. In the civil rights context, however, that is essentially what the Monell Rule requires. In simplest terms, the Monell Rule is a barrier to government accountability. It puts legal distance between city governments and their employees, allowing cities to avoid responsibility for the on-the- job conduct of their own police officers.

As a practical matter, the Monell Rule blocks the only pathway by which civil rights victims can hold police departments accountable. Victims of police violence have three basic avenues to justice: criminal prosecution of the individual officers involved; a civil lawsuit against the same officers; or a civil lawsuit against the municipality that employs them. The first two avenues have their own unique challenges, such as the high burden of proof in criminal cases, or the qualified immunity standard that protects individual police officers from liability in civil suits. But the first two avenues—even where successful—punish only the individual officers. It is only the third avenue that has the potential to impact municipal police departments as a whole, and the Monell Rule blocks that avenue like a barricade.

Source: Why You Really Can’t Fight City Hall, At Least Over the Police – POLITICO

Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.

Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery.

Licurtis Reels, left, and Melvin Davis.

The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.

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reels-land

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.”

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The waterfront that borders the 65-acre tract.

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.

Swimmers at the beach on Silver Dollar Road.

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.”


Gertrude’s yard, near the trailers of relatives.

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.”

Gertrude in her living room overlooking the shoreline.

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.

Melvin’s club, Fantasy Island, still stands on the 13-acre plot that the Reels lost.

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.

A palm tree and colored lights inside Fantasy Island.

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.

Claud Wheatly III at his office.

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.

Billy Freeman on a pier that remains in his family’s possession.

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?”

Mansions on land once owned by Freeman’s family.

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.

A house that Melvin built, now wrecked, near the waterfront.

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.”

Debris on the beach.

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.”

Melvin, left, and Licurtis, on his mother’s porch, with his former house behind him.

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.

Pine trees by the shore.

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.”


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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.

Design and production by Jillian Kumagai and Agnes Chang.