But how can anyone in 2020 lead on this issue? Chapter 3 of Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father, talks about his awakening to the existence of systemic racism. In Chapter 8 he introduces us to his discovery of the fatalism from decades of frustrated hopes and promises denied that led to an ennui in Black communities as the industrial economy changed. Barack Obama’s book was first published in 1995, 25 years ago! Few people took his talk about systemic racism to heart.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
Now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had to travel a rocky road to immortality. Initial reviews ranged from positive to condescending to downright hostile, as many in the African American literary community bristled at Hurston’s rejection of the Harlem Renaissance and W.E.B. Du Bois’ Uplift agenda. A decades-long wilderness period in which both the novel and its author fell into obscurity ended with the establishment of several Black Studies programs in universities across America in the 1970s and 1980s. This, coupled with a growing black feminist movement, spearheaded by activist writers like Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, helped create a space in which Hurston’s work could be rediscovered. Walker’s 1975 essay, ‘Looking for Zora,’ in which she chronicled her search for Hurston’s unmarked grave, was a particularly significant part of this effort.
83 years on from its publication, we take look back at some of the original reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“Whether or not there was ever a town in Florida inhabited and governed entirely by Negroes, you will have no difficulty believing in the Negro community which Zora Neale Hurston has either reconstructed or imagined in this novel. The town of Eatonville is as real in these pages as Jacksonville is in the pages of Rand McNally; and the lives of its people are rich, racy, and authentic. The few white characters in the book appear momentarily and incidentally. The title carries a suggestion of The Green Pastures, but it is to this extent misleading; no religious element dominates this story of human relationships … The only weak spots in the novel are technical; it begins awkwardly with a confusing and unnecessary preview of the end; and the dramatic action, as in the story of the hurricane, is sometimes hurriedly and clumsily handled. Otherwise the narration is exactly right, because most of it is in dialogue, and the dialogue gives us a constant sense of character in action. No one has ever reported the speech of Negroes with a more accurate ear for its raciness, its rich invention, and its music.”
“Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction … Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes. Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears … The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’ the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”
“This is Zora Hurston’s third novel, again about her own people–and it is beautiful. It is about Negroes, and a good deal of it is written in dialect, but really it is about everyone, or least everyone who isn’t so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory … The story of Janie’s life down on the muck of Florida Glades, bean picking, hunting and the men shooting dice in the evening and how the hurricane came up and drove the animals and the Indians and finally the black people and the white people before it, and how Tea Cake, in Janie’s eyes the ‘son of Evening Son,’ and incidentally the best crap shooter in the place, made Janie sing and glitter all over at last, is a little epic all by itself. Indeed, from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible.”
“It isn’t that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better. In execution it is too complex and wordily pretty, even dull—yet its conception of these simple Florida Negroes is unaffected and really beautiful … Through these chapters there has been some very shrewd picturing of Negro life in its naturally creative and unself-conscious grace … If this isn’t as grand as it should he, the breakdown comes in the conflict between the true vision and its overliterary expression. Crises of feeling are rushed over too quickly for them to catch hold, and then presently we are in a tangle of lush exposition and overblown symbols; action is described and characters are talked about, and everything is more heard than seen. The speech is founded in observation and sometimes wonderfully so, a gold mine of traditional sayings…But although the spoken word is remembered, it is not passed on. Dialect is really sloppy, in fact…And so all this conflict between the real life we want to read about and the superwordy, flabby lyric discipline we are so sick of leaves a good story where it never should have been potentially: in the gray category of neuter gender, declension indefinite.”
“And now, Zora Neale Hurston and her magical title: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s story should not be re-told; it must be read. But as always thus far with this talented writer, setting and surprising flashes of contemporary folk lore are the main point. Her gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humor keep her flashing on the surface of her community and her characters and from diving down deep either to the inner psychology of characterization or to sharp analysis of the social background. It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly — which is Miss Hurston’s cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplication!”
For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.
James Baldwin, New York, September 17, 1946.Photograph by Richard Avedon / © the Richard Avedon FoundationT
Yet there was something deeper than these changes, and less definable, that frightened me. It was real in both the boys and the girls, but it was, somehow, more vivid in the boys. In the case of the girls, one watched them turning into matrons before they had become women. They began to manifest a curious and really rather terrifying single-mindedness. It is hard to say exactly how this was conveyed: something implacable in the set of the lips, something farseeing (seeing what?) in the eyes, some new and crushing determination in the walk, something peremptory in the voice. They did not tease us, the boys, any more; they reprimanded us sharply, saying, “You better be thinking about your soul!” For the girls also saw the evidence on the Avenue, knew what the price would be, for them, of one misstep, knew that they had to be protected and that we were the only protection there was. They understood that they must act as God’s decoys, saving the souls of the boys for Jesus and binding the bodies of the boys in marriage. For this was the beginning of our burning time, and “It is better,” said St. Paul—who elsewhere, with a most unusual and stunning exactness, described himself as a “wretched man”—“to marry than to burn.” And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.
People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards. Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people. Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked; Negroes who were neither doltish nor servile did not feel that they were doing anything wrong when they robbed white people. In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.
It turned out, then, that summer, that the moral barriers that I had supposed to exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society. I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic. I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
For when I tried to assess my capabilities, I realized that I had almost none. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had been dealt, it seemed to me, the worst possible hand. I could not become a prizefighter—many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously. The only other possibility seemed to involve my becoming one of the sordid people on the Avenue, who were not really as sordid as I then imagined but who frightened me terribly, both because I did not want to live that life and because of what they made me feel. Everything inflamed me, and that was bad enough, but I myself had also become a source of fire and temptation. I had been far too well raised, alas, to suppose that any of the extremely explicit overtures made to me that summer, sometimes by boys and girls but also, more alarmingly, by older men and women, had anything to do with my attractiveness. On the contrary, since the Harlem idea of seduction is, to put it mildly, blunt, whatever these people saw in me merely confirmed my sense of my depravity.
It is certainly sad that the awakening of one’s senses should lead to such a merciless judgment of oneself—to say nothing of the time and anguish one spends in the effort to arrive at any other—but it is also inevitable that a literal attempt to mortify the flesh should be made among black people like those with whom I grew up. Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared. Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary. He does not know what the boundary is, and he can get no explanation of it, which is frightening enough, but the fear he hears in the voices of his elders is more frightening still. The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them. I defended myself, as I imagined, against the fear my father made me feel by remembering that he was very old-fashioned. Also, I prided myself on the fact that I already knew how to outwit him. To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. As for one’s wits, it is just not true that one can live by them—not, that is, if one wishes really to live. That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.
The summer wore on, and things got worse. I became more guilty and more frightened, and kept all this bottled up inside me, and naturally, inescapably, one night, when this woman had finished preaching, everything came roaring, screaming, crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I have ever had in my life—up to that time, or since. I had not known that it was going to happen, or that it could happen. One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate counties, tearing everything down, tearing children from their parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved. The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night. Over me, to bring me “through,” the saints sang and rejoiced and prayed. And in the morning, when they raised me, they told me that I was “save.”
Well, indeed I was, in a way, for I was utterly drained and exhausted, and released, for the first time, from all my guilty torment. I was aware then only of my relief. For many years, I could not ask myself why human relief had to be achieved in a fashion at once so pagan and so desperate—in a fashion at once so unspeakably old and so unutterably new. And by the time I was able to ask myself this question, I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.
I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher—a Young Minister—and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons—for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy. It had to be recognized, after all, that I was still a schoolboy, with my schoolwork to do, and I was also expected to prepare at least one sermon a week. During what we may call my heyday, I preached much more often than that. This meant that there were hours and even whole days when I could not be interrupted—not even by my father. I had immobilized him. It took rather more time for me to realize that I had also immobilized myself, and had escaped from nothing whatever.
He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for. It happened, as things do, imperceptibly, in many ways at once. I date it—the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress—from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski. By this time, I was in a high school that was predominantly Jewish. This meant that I was surrounded by people who were, by definition, beyond any hope of salvation, who laughed at the tracts and leaflets I brought to school, and who pointed out that the Gospels had been written long after the death of Christ. This might not have been so distressing if it had not forced me to read the tracts and leaflets myself, for they were indeed, unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it. People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell. I was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been written by men, and translated by men out of languages I could not read, and I was already, without quite admitting it to myself, terribly involved with the effort of putting words on paper. Of course, I had the rebuttal ready: These men had all been operating under divine inspiration. Had they? All of them? And I also knew by now, alas, far more about divine inspiration than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into my own visions, and how frequently—indeed, incessantly—the visions God granted to me differed from the visions He granted to my father. I did not understand the dreams I had at night, but I knew that they were not holy. For that matter, I knew that my waking hours were far from holy. I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done. The fact that I was dealing with Jews brought the whole question of color, which I had been desperately avoiding, into the terrified center of my mind. I realized that the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave. This had nothing to do with anything I was, or contained, or could become; my fate had been sealed forever, from the beginning of time. And it seemed, indeed, when one looked out over Christendom, that this was what Christendom effectively believed. It was certainly the way it behaved. I remembered the Italian priests and bishops blessing Italian boys who were on their way to Ethiopia.
Again, the Jewish boys in high school were troubling because I could find no point of connection between them and the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords and grocery-store owners in Harlem. I knew that these people were Jews—God knows I was told it often enough—but I thought of them only as white. Jews, as such, until I got to high school, were all incarcerated in the Old Testament, and their names were Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Job, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was bewildering to find them so many miles and centuries out of Egypt, and so far from the fiery furnace. My best friend in high school was a Jew. He came to our house once, and afterward my father asked, as he asked about everyone, “Is he a Christian?”—by which he meant “Is he saved?” I really do not know whether my answer came out of innocence or venom, but I said, coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.” My father slammed me across the face with his great palm, and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing. I wondered if I was expected to be glad that a friend of mine, or anyone, was to be tormented forever in Hell, and I also thought, suddenly, of the Jews in another Christian nation, Germany. They were not so far from the fiery furnace after all, and my best friend might have been one of them. I told my father, “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and walked out of the house. The battle between us was in the open, but that was all right; it was almost a relief. A more deadly struggle had begun.
Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the “Elmer Gantry” sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier, and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert. I knew how to work on a congregation until the last dime was surrendered—it was not very hard to do—and I knew where the money for “the Lord’s work” went. I knew, though I did not wish to know it, that I had no respect for the people with whom I worked. I could not have said it then, but I also knew that if I continued I would soon have no respect for myself. And the fact that I was “the young Brother Baldwin” increased my value with those same pimps and racketeers who had helped to stampede me into the church in the first place. They still saw the little boy they intended to take over. They were waiting for me to come to my senses and realize that I was in a very lucrative business. They knew that I did not yet realize this, and also that I had not yet begun to suspect where my own needs, coming up (they were very patient), could drive me. They themselves did know the score, and they knew that the odds were in their favor. And, really, I knew it, too. I was even lonelier and more vulnerable than I had been before. And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born. Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto? Perhaps I might have been able to reconcile myself even to this if I had been able to believe that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven I represented. But I had been in the pulpit too long and I had seen too many monstrous things. I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Cadillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant every body. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main—I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too—unless, of course, there was also in Heaven a special dispensation for the benighted black, who was not to be judged in the same way as other human beings, or angels. It probably occurred to me around this time that the vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live. And this did not apply only to Negroes, who were no more “simple” or “spontaneous” or “Christian” than anybody else—who were merely more oppressed. In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain. And the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves.
When James Baldwin visited San Francisco in 1963 to film a documentary about U.S. racism, he encountered neighborhoods in turmoil: the city was seizing properties through eminent domain, razing them, and turning them over to private developers. Part of a massive, federal urban renewal program, nearly 5,000 families—no fewer than 20,000 residents, the majority of them people of color—were being displaced from rental homes, private property, and businesses in the Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin spoke to a Black teenager who had just lost his home and watched as his neighborhood was destroyed. He told Baldwin: “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Soon after, Baldwin would say: “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods.
That young man was one of millions of Americans, disproportionately of color, who lost homes and communities through the federal urban renewal program. In discussing its human costs—colossal in scope and yet profoundly intimate—Baldwin helped popularize a phrase common in Black neighborhoods: urban renewal meant “Negro removal.” To steal people’s homes, Baldwin understood, was to shred the meaning of their citizenship by destroying their communities. And “the federal government,” he said, “is an accomplice to this fact.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre and redlining have pierced the popular consciousness in recent years as ways that, through murder and markets, Black communities were destroyed. Curiously, urban renewal has so far remained on the margins of these discussions. Yet that program, in operation between 1949 and 1974, constituted one of the most sweeping and systematic instances of the modern destruction of Black property, neighborhoods, culture, community, businesses, and homes. At its peak in the mid-1960s, urban renewal displaced a minimum of 50,000 families annually—a 1964 House of Representatives report estimated the figure at more like 66,000.
At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced. And, while we tend to remember urban renewal as a big-city program, pursued by titans such as Robert Moses in New York, the vast majority of projects were carried out in cities of 50,000 residents or fewer. These were small cities such as Greenville, North Carolina, where 207 families of color and 11 white families were displaced; Tupelo, Mississippi, where 217 families of color and 31 white families were displaced; and Demopolis, Alabama, where 55 families of color and 7 white families were displaced. Urban Renewal was spread as widely as today’s marches for social justice.
Today, as racially disparate rates of eviction, police violence, and capital flight raise urgent questions about the right to live in safe, thriving communities, a more complete reckoning with urban renewal’s record of destruction is necessary. Fortunately, because urban renewal was federally funded, Washington collected data about how projects unfolded; these records also allow us to reconstruct the many costs of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent comprehensive digital mapping project which I helped spearhead at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, it’s now possible for the first time to visualize how hundreds of urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of Americans. While private–public practices such as redlining help explain the staggering racial wealth gap, the history of urban renewal, though no less materially devastating, involved kinds of theft that are more difficult to quantify—thefts that amount to the destruction of entire lifeworlds. And, the political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today. Like redlining, profit— in this case, returns derived from boosting property taxes— continues to define the state’s interest in destabilizing Black neighborhoods.
The political and economic forces that made urban renewal seem like a good idea at the time continue to shape the precarity of neighborhoods of color today.
As the United States emerged from World War II, many cities faced a housing crunch. Whites policed the racial boundaries of their neighborhoods, often violently. And so as greater numbers of African Americans migrated north in search of manufacturing jobs and to escape the South’s more formal system of Jim Crow, Black neighborhoods quickly became overcrowded. Residents were often subjected to exorbitant rents in derelict housing owned by slumlords. Families and friends boarded together. Others sublet rooms to meet extortionate rents. Segregated neighborhoods in northern cities became so crowded that many schools operated in two shifts—half of the students went in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. “Blight” was the term policymakers used to describe the worsening conditions structured by these national practices of urban segregation.
Meanwhile, city budgets teetered on the edge of fiscal cliffs, from which they had only just clawed their way back up. The economic exuberance of the 1920s had produced an urban and suburban “land boom,” as the Wall Street Journal put it—the overheated, last gasp of a period “of great and extended prosperity.” Cities fueled this speculation by taking on staggering levels of debt to support the infrastructure that made private property profitable. Net annual additions to municipal debt between 1923 and 1931 averaged over $845 million (or more than $13.5 billion in 2020 dollars), or enough, as one contemporary analyst accurately predicted, “to keep municipal finance in a turmoil for two decades or more.”
When the bottom fell out of the stock market, the consequences quickly ricocheted through urban land markets and city budgets. Property values plummeted, and tax delinquency skyrocketed. In the Great Depression, some 1,200 local or county governments defaulted or went bankrupt.
The New Deal helped stabilize the situation. Later, defense conversion and contracting in World War II injected desperately needed capital into cities. But cities still held considerable debt, and the New Deal’s public works agenda was not without its own considerable costs—while federally subsidized labor constructed many bridges, libraries, schools, and sewage plants, these public assets had also become new line items on municipal budgets. Moreover, as the Depression shuttered factories and the Great Migration brought new residents, officials worried that property tax revenues would never rise to meet these new burdens.
As early as the late 1930s, New Dealers were increasingly concerned that city budgets were fiscal time bombs that threatened to explode the entire progressive project. And they saw that local governments were already using New Deal works programs to remedy the situation. As Mabel Walker, an urban analyst, noted in 1938, in New York City, federally subsidized works projects had begun “siphoning off [the] slum population,” constructing affordable housing “in cheaper areas,” and might even facilitate the delivery of cleared land to “higher income groups” and “business and industry.” The result, she wrote, was “in effect a gigantic subsidy or bonus handed out to property holders in these slum areas” who could never have assembled enough private capital to reset urban land markets themselves. By 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia estimated the city had torn down or gutted nearly 9,000 buildings. In Philadelphia federal support for clearance subsidized the demolition of 8,328 structures, releasing land with an estimated value of $11.5 million.
Federal leaders struck on the idea of using urban renewal to harness this haphazard redevelopment of cities and turn it into a more coherent, national program of planning, redevelopment, and housing. They also recognized that the federal government’s budget overwhelmingly depended on capital generated in cities in the form of confiscatory, progressive corporate and personal income tax rates. As one of urban renewal’s federal designers put it, short of “a nation-wide overhauling of our traditional arrangements for taxation and public expenditures,” “it seems only fair that the federal government should aid the local governments to the extent necessary to cover their urgently needed outlays.” Federally subsidized slum clearance and redevelopment could put cities back on the path to fiscal independence—and the federal government wouldn’t have to share much of its precious income tax revenue.
Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment.
World War II delayed the initiative, but the Housing Act of 1949 set aside significant financing to enable cities to build public housing and to demolish neglected, overcrowded neighborhoods, and antiquated or abandoned industrial properties. As in a number of New Deal programs, the subsidies would be offered in the form of bonded debt, which, after cities delivered a matching share, the federal government would retire. The goal with such a convoluted system of finance was to get capital moving through private financial institutions and to plausibly deemphasize the role of the national government. These were local programs.
This growing mishmash of priorities was a hallmark of midcentury liberalism, which forged cross-cutting relationships with many different interest groups. Some policymakers, for instance, worked closely with real estate interests and business groups and their allies in city halls. Together they hungered for the potential bonanza of private redevelopment and city property tax yields. Others were aligned with progressive public housing advocates or worked closely to cultivate the support of African American community leaders. When he signed the 1949 bill, a signature piece of his Fair Deal agenda, President Harry S. Truman heralded a new front in the war for civil rights: securing a decent home for all Americans. Early on, Black clergy and civil rights activists were among the initiatives’ most hopeful supporters.
Congress soon confronted the reality that few local governments were pursuing the program. Local government officials and their private sector partners were much less interested in creating public housing than they were in commercial redevelopment. But the act’s regulations mandated that housing projects were to be prioritized.
Rather than amend the legislation to offer greater incentives for housing, a revised version of the legislation, the Housing Act of 1954, created the federal Urban Renewal Administration, ceding to the interests of commercial lobbyists and mayors. The act loosened housing mandates and so unleashed a goldmine of federally financed business-oriented clearance and development.
Many of the developments that resulted are among their city’s most iconic. New York City’s Lincoln Square, anchored by Lincoln Center, displaced at least 4,000 families, many of whom were recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. (One imagines some of those residents had been displaced from Puerto Rico, too, where the federal government funded renewal projects in some 30 municipalities, displacing at least 10,000 families.) Pedro Quinones protested displacement by joining a movement called Save Our Homes. As he correctly understood, the program “has come to New York to ‘clean up’ minority groups.” But “we are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. . . . We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants to have what are called ‘better class people’ there.”
Other projects underwrote the emergence of the “meds and eds” economy that fuel so many cities today. The University of Chicago displaced more than 4,000 families in a series of projects. Clearance and construction of Oklahoma City’s University Medical Center displaced at least 700, disproportionately African American families. And Detroit’s massive Medical Center displaced around 2,000 families, again disproportionately of color. That campus now anchors the city’s fashionable Midtown neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania spurred projects that displaced more than 700 African American families and a thriving Black business district. That community, called Black Bottom, had been owned or occupied by African Americans since at least the Civil War. Many of its men were Union Army veterans.
“We are living there very happily, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Japanese-Americans and other minorities. We don’t want these communities broken up, but the city wants ‘better class people’ there.”
Just counting families displaced, however, misses important dimensions of what made this so devastating. While they may not have been thriving in the terms that counted on municipal balance sheets, and while many residents were in dire economic straits, the informal, unplanned mix of public and private, business and culture often amounted to thriving communities. In New York, for instance, more than 600 businesses sat within the Lincoln Square project footprint, businesses that defined the commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood: diners and luncheonettes, candy stores and beauty parlors, a “Chinese goods” store, photography studios, a detective agency, and a funeral parlor.
For displaced businesses, federal law authorized a $2,500 reimbursement for “moving and fixtures” (the ceiling was ultimately abolished, but payments were still at local officials’ discretion). But business owners protested that the figure was a pittance compared to the costs associated with moving, reopening, and lost revenue in the meantime. Small businesses operated on vanishingly slim margins. One pharmacist estimated the cost of relocating and reopening was more like $20,000. Many displaced businesses simply closed down. These dynamics played out in small cities such as Rome, Georgia, too. Callie Martin had owned and operated Let’s Eat Café in the city’s cleared Black neighborhood. After packing up, moving, and reopening, she was barely scraping by. “I was able to give work to two people,” she told the local paper in 1971. “But now I’m just working by myself and not really making ends meet.” Renewal “really caused me to lose a decent living.” Hubert Holland, who lost his barber shop was clearer: “The way I see it, they destroyed the Negro businesses, what little they had.” Two years after clearance, just four of Rome’s 16 displaced Black businesses had reopened. As of 1963, some 39,399 businesses were reported to have been displaced through urban renewal alone (the federal highway program displaced thousands more). Urban renewal would run for another 11 years.
The vast majority of families displaced were renters: a 1968 study found that two thirds of all “relocatees” and three quarters of non-white families displaced were renters. While their landlords—slumlords in many cases—would be compensated for the loss of their property (and some quite handsomely), very often the families that actually lived in these buildings were not. Instead, federal statutes entitled these citizens to “relocation assistance”—vague guidelines that local authorities assist displaced families with finding temporary housing. The legislation “authorized” local governments to offer up to $300 in relocation grants to displaced families. That figure was raised to $500 in 1964, the first year that relocation funds and rental assistance were included elderly individuals. But in many cities, “relocation assistance” simply amounted to flyers with lists of local real estate brokers.
Because of baked-in local discretion, thousands and thousands of those who were displaced never received any financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them; as a result, displacement records constitute one of the archival silences of urban renewal. In one Cleveland neighborhood, 717 families’ homes were razed to clear land for industrial redevelopment. Of them, 224 moved to “unknown” locations (they were likely living with friends and family); 57 moved into other forms of “substandard” housing; and 301 still lived, as the city’s Black paper reported, “in the midst of abandoned housing.” Across a number of Cleveland’s renewal programs, officials admitted not knowing what had become of another 1,194 families.
Thousands of those who were displaced never received financial assistance. Cities made little attempt to keep track of those who were displaced because if they didn’t know where people went, they couldn’t compensate them.
The transfer of wealth, capital, and land from these communities to large business interests and developers only scratches the surface of the damage done by urban renewal. Ties of kinship and community were shattered. The loss of a sense of “rootedness” was devastating. Grady Abrams, who was displaced from the Five Points neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, recalled the traumatic experience of his lost community. “It is one thing to leave your home, your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner.” He testified to the lasting trauma: “It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. In fact, my neighbors and I lost relationships forever. There is nothing of the past now in Five Points that I can show my grandchildren and great grandchildren that was part of my past. Nothing at all.”
All of these issues were known to federal administrators. As one 1965 report found, thanks to urban renewal, “Nonwhites have been forced into already crowded housing facilities, thereby spreading blight, aggravating ghettoes, and generally defeating the social purpose of urban renewal.” Displaced citizens, another report found, “are faced with having to reconstruct their lives. . . . They must terminate relationships and break routines that—especially for the elderly—have been equated with life itself.” These were connections to tradition, community, and history that the built environment makes manifest—the millions of memories and attachments we make to each other through spaces like street corners and schools, bars and barber shops.
As we try to reconstruct these histories, so far we only have comprehensive family displacement data for the years 1950–66. These figures dramatically undercount families of color because in many places Latin and Caribbean communities were counted as white, as in the Lincoln Center project and a number of clearance projects in California. Moreover, the government only counted families for displacement purposes, because they were the primary displacees entitled to the paltry and frequently underdelivered relocation assistance grants. Non-elderly single people and nonconforming households—by which officials meant gay and lesbian families and those in which unmarried women and men cohabitated—were not entitled to relocation assistance. They literally didn’t count.
Rather than solve urban decay, urban renewal often exacerbated the problems. Many projects took years to complete. In the state of New York, it took an average of 8 years to develop a project; in New York City the average was 13 years. Those who stuck around their old neighborhoods often lived among boarded-up and vacated buildings or vacant lots. Not surprisingly, crime, which often hadn’t been much of a problem before, frequently took hold. Once optimistic Black residents—who had hoped to take their relocation checks out to the suburbs or use them to secure new homes in their old neighborhoods—couldn’t wait to get out. As one Black property-owner in Cleveland put it, “I’d move tonight if the city will buy my property. I’m ready to get out.” But in Cleveland, as in other cities, the local urban renewal office often intentionally delayed purchasing properties. In the mid-1960s, the federal Civil Rights Commission found that city officials allowed targeted properties to fall into further disrepair in order to secure a lower purchasing price ahead of demolition.
As historian Arnold Hirsch found in his landmark study of midcentury Chicago, clearing out African Americans was often the entire point: as the Chancellor of the University of Chicago put it, the program would act as “an effective screening tool” and as a way of “cutting down the number of Negroes” in the neighborhood surrounding the elite institution. That said, communities of color, immigrants, and the elderly were not alone in shouldering the costs of urban renewal. Many working-class white communities were devastated as well. While white families had more options for neighborhoods where they could move, and greater access to traditional mortgages, the loss of community and history reverberated across the color line.
“It is one thing to leave your neighborhood on your own, to be forced out is a different manner. It was, to me, the closest thing to death I can think of. There is nothing of the past now that I can show my grandchildren.”
In Boston, the majority of families displaced to build the city’s new West End and brutalist Government Center complex—nearly 70 percent—were white. Though even that figure suggests that nonwhite Bostonians were disproportionately displaced: as of 1960, they were still less than 10 percent of the city’s population. Still, the sheer number of white families displaced in Boston, more than 7,000, is staggering. And, as in Black neighborhoods, class played an important role in leading officials to choose certain communities—those with fewer resources and less political clout suffered greater losses. In Brooklyn, for instance, white, middle-class gentrifiers successfully blocked or modified key aspects of Robert Moses’s redevelopment plans for Brooklyn Heights and neighborhoods farther south. In the process, they also taught city planners about the potential value to be gained through preservation and gentrification. From these clashes emerged new, subtler and more recognizably modern forms of urban renewal: code enforcement, historical zoning, targeted policing.
In total, at least 550 square miles of U.S. cities were razed through urban renewal. The scale of displacement in big cities was staggering. Washington, D.C.’s Southwest projects displaced more than 4,000 families. The Lubbock, Texas, Coronado project forced out nearly 1,300 families and, federal data shows, managed not to touch a single white family. The country’s single largest project in terms of dislocation was Cincinnati’s Kenyon-Barr, which displaced at least 4,953 families—4,824 of which were African American. However, the intimacy of clearance in small city renewal projects was no less devastating. Communities that had lived and worked beside each other were ripped apart. Tiny Danville, Kentucky—population 9,010 in 1960—cleared out its lone Black residential and commercial district, displacing businesses and at least 48 families of color. When violence erupted in smaller cities in Georgia—Augusta in 1970 and Rome in 1971—a younger generation of African Americans in these communities signaled that discriminatory policing and displacement continued to define their second-class citizenship.
Throughout, local and federal officials kept their eyes on the bottom line: property values and property tax revenues. As the commissioner of the federal Urban Renewal Administration testified before Congress, the leading rationale for the program had “always been to sustain and increase the capacity of cities to meet rising needs for essential public facilities and services”; “private enterprise could not do it alone”; and “the impact of urban renewal upon taxable values is particularly important.” Local officials enthusiastically ratified these commitments. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley expected the city’s tax harvest on renewed land to rise from $2.3 million to $4.8 million. The massive Southwest, Washington, D.C., renewal project—estimated to displace some 2,500 black families—was expected to produce nearly $5 million in tax revenue annually against less than $600,000 prior to clearance. Even Tiny Calexico, California, population 7,900 in 1960, situated on the California–Mexico border, predicted a nearly fourfold uptick in property tax yields on its renewed land, from $4,400 to $16,400.
Many projects failed, leaving cities under pressure to boost property values through aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the DOJ found that Ferguson’s harsh policing of Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue.
Yet, for many cities, these forecasts were dead wrong. Many projects failed to materialize, often removing otherwise “productive” properties from the tax rolls. The result has been even greater pressure on municipal governments to boost property values and tax yields, goals they have often pursued through greater borrowing and aggressive policing tactics. In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the city’s harsh policing of its Black residents was the result of a systemic effort to raise revenue. The recent allegations that Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police was tied to a special police squad—“Place Based Investigations”—makes the linkage between policing, municipal revenue creation, and redevelopment even clearer. According to attorneys for Taylor’s family, the warrants associated with narcotics investigations were meant to address one of the “primary roadblocks” to a multimillion-dollar redevelopment initiative. As the attorneys put it, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.”
The young man James Baldwin spoke with in San Francisco understood that the fullest expressions of identity and citizenship rest on the most intimate foundations—the spaces of home and community through which our lives take on meaning, a neighborhood to which we might return, memories created and that come rushing back. Returning to such spaces enables us to rediscover our roots, collapsing, for a moment, the distance between past and present. Urban renewal robbed generations of these formative spaces—and much more besides.
As today’s movements for social justice grapple with state-sanctioned violence on communities of color, we must also be alert to the fact that policing is but one branch of the local state. While the audacity and scale of urban renewal was exceptional, the structural conditions and fiscal-political logics that created it are still with us. Indeed, today’s austerity and municipal debt only increases urban budgetary pressures, which helps explain why cities led by Black mayors and councils are as likely as any other to pursue aggressive displacement and redevelopment schemes. These powerful dynamics also help explain why city officials resist calls for defunding the police: they guard present property values and are one among a number of tools for producing the property values of the future. Focusing on policing alone, then, misses this broader picture—of urban real estate, the fiscal bases of city governance, and capitalism. Producing flourishing Black communities today means addressing all of these forces at once.
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IN THE SPRING OF 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.
Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”
Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.
Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.
Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.”
By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”
They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.
LAND WAS AN IDEOLOGICAL PRIORITY for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.
The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners.
A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”
By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.
Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”
Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”
BEAUFORT IS A QUAINT TOWN, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.
Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.
Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.
Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”
In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.
Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”
Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me.
Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.
Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”
In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.
Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers.
THE REELSES KNEW that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”
This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.
In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”
FOR YEARS, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”
The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed.
When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.
The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.
In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions.
Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.
In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.
Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”
At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.
By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.”
ONE OF THE MOST PERNICIOUS legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.
When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.
On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000.
The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)
Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”
Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”
Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?”
Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.
Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.
The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”
In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said.
Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”
Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.
Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.
Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.”
Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.
Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”
THE REELS BROTHERS were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.
In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.”
An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.
When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”
Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.
Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.
A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law.
The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.
After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”
Worried about protecting heirs’ property owners? We made a list of ways that families can protect themselves and describe legislative reforms that experts have proposed.
The Reels brothers grew up on waterfront land that their great-grandfather bought one generation after slavery. Their family has lived there for more than a century. But because it was passed down without a will, it became heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. Without a clear title, these landowners are vulnerable to laws that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. One attorney called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”
What can heirs’ property owners do to protect their land?
Plan for the future. Write a will or prepare a transfer on death deed to help pass a clear title to the next generation.
Pay your property taxes. Visit your tax assessor’s office and make sure that your taxes are paid and that the address of the person responsible for coordinating bills is up to date.
Write a family tree. Find out the names on the deed for your land and lay out each generation of heirs that has followed. You can use legal documents from the county, like birth certificates and marriage licenses, as well as family letters, obituaries, information from genealogy websites and records from family reunions.
Create a paper trail to prove your ownership. If you inherited your property without a will or formal estate proceedings, many states allow for an affidavit of heirship to be filed in the property records to establish your ownership. The rules of when and how an affidavit can be filed vary by state.
Consolidate the ownership. Consider asking other heirs if they would be willing to transfer their interest in the property to those with the closest ties to the land. In many states, this can be done through a gift deed.
Manage the co-ownership. Talk to a lawyer you trust about your options, like creating a family LLC or land trust.
Track your expenses. If you pay for expenses on the property, like improvements to the homes or taxes, keep track of them. If a partition sale is started, you may be able to receive a larger share of the proceeds.
What laws affect heirs’ property owners?
Fourteen states have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which expands heirs’ rights in partition actions and can help heirs’ property owners gain access to Department of Agriculture programs. States where this has not passed include North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The 2018 Farm Bill created a lending program that, if funded by Congress, would support local organizations providing legal assistance to heirs’ property owners.
About half of the states have Transfer on Death Deed statutes, which allow families to file a simple deed that automatically transfers title to real property upon the owner’s death, without having to go through probate court. The Uniform Real Property Transfer on Death Act has been presented as a model for how such statutes can be written.
What do advocates see as the next steps in helping heirs’ property owners?
Advocates have supported a number of possible legislative initiatives, including:
Funding to support an increase in the number of legal aid lawyers who help families clear title and make estate plans, and to support local legal education on maintaining clear title.
Legislation that creates an easier route for heirs’ property owners to access FEMA and home repair programs by allowing for heirship affidavits, a simpler, less costly process than clearing a title through the courts.
Legislation that creates alternatives to the formal administration of estates when a homeowner dies without a will.
Legislation that allows heirs’ property owners to access exemptions from property taxes that are available to other homeowners.
As the world grapples with uprooting systemic racism—a conversation catapulted into collective consciousness by the death of George Floyd—it is imperative that Black economists become household names. Their work will move us through the current moment to enable a long-lasting future that upends the oppression in the Black community that subsequently harms the economic system at large.
Economics—a discipline whose core focus is exploring who gets what, where, when, and why—is of great interest to Black people, who too often find themselves on the wrong side of America’s divides in wealth and income. But they’ve faced barriers in matriculating into the profession, as Lisa Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku Agyeman noted in their recent New York Times article, “It Was a Mistake For Me To Choose This Field.” The most recent data, from 2017, show that only 3.2% of doctoral degrees in economics are awarded to Black people each year. More than 52% of Black economists experience racism and/or discrimination, according to a 2019 report by the American Economics Association, and less than half of one percent of all top economics papers across a 30-year-period explicitly address race/ethnicity.
Nearly 100 years have passed, and not much has changed, since America’s first Black economist, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander, obtained her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. She aimed to champion economic inclusion and justice, despite being denied the ability to practice as an economist in the pre-Civil Rights era. Even though she was deliberately excluded from the profession, she continued to use her economic expertise to recommend better policies for the working class such as the federal jobs guarantee, a concept embraced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that has been a foundational concept in progressive politics ever since.
Scholars Julianne Malveaux and Nina Banks have been committed to unearthing Alexander’s legacy through her speeches. Her passion for using economics to serve marginalized voices through policy is a common thread that connects the earliest work of Black economists as well as current scholars in the field. Phyllis Ann Wallace, the first woman to receive doctorate of economics at Yale University, focused on racial, as well as gender discrimination in the workplace. Abram Lincoln Harris, who published major economic studies in the 1920s and 1930s, made it a point to focus on “class analysis, black economic life, and labor to illustrate the structural inadequacies of race and racial ideologies.”
To turn the tide against blatant exclusion in their field, today’s Black economists have been keen on supporting pipeline efforts through a variety of organizations including The National Economic Association, the American Economic Association, the Committee on the Status of Minorities in the Economics Profession (CSMGEP), the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Research, and The Sadie Collective.
The list presented here, on Juneteenth, serves as a means to center and celebrate the work of Black economic experts across various specializations—both emerging and well-established. Their research and policy analysis should inform public discourse not only on how to improve the Black community’s reality, but in turn to make policy that is better for everyone. Please note: This list is certainly not exhaustive.
Each economist’s name is followed by their main area of specialization, in parentheses.
Dania Francis (Education) is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst whose work spans from the implications of educational outcomes for Black females based on the perceptions of Black girls in the classroom to economic reparations for African Americans. Her research interests include labor economics, public finance, economics of education, and racial and ethnic economic disparities.
Peter Q. Blair (Education and the Future of Work) is on the faculty in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, where he co-directs the Project on Workforce. He serves as a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the Principal Investigator of the BE-Lab, a research group with partners from Harvard University, Clemson University, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His group’s research focuses on the link between the future of work and the future of education, labor market discrimination, occupational licensing, and residential segregation.
Jhacova Williams (Race and Inequality) is an economist for the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE). In this capacity, she explores the role of structural racism in shaping racial economic disparities in labor markets, housing, criminal justice, higher education, and other areas that have a direct impact on economic outcomes. Williams’s research has focused on Southern culture and the extent to which historical events continue to impact the political behavior and economic outcomes of Southern Blacks.
Kristen Broady (Race and Inequality) is the dean of the College of Business and Barron Hilton Endowed Professor of Financial Economics at Dillard University. She is also the proprietor of KBroad Consulting. Her most recent publications include “Passing and the Costs and Benefits of Appropriating Blackness,” “Dreaming and Doing at Georgia HBCUs: Continued Relevancy in Post Racial America” and “Race and Jobs at High Risk to Automation.”
William Darity, Jr., (Race and Inequality) is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. He has served as chair of the Department of African and African American Studies and was the founding director of the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality at Duke. With well over 300 publications, Darity launched the sub-field of stratification economics in 2005. Darity’s research focuses on inequality by race, class and ethnicity, schooling and the racial achievement gap, North-South theories of trade and development, skin shade and labor market outcomes, the economics of reparations, the Atlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution, the history of economics, and the social psychological effects of exposure to unemployment. His most recent book, co-authored with A. Kirsten Mullen is From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.
Darrick Hamilton (Race and Inequality), one of the country’s leading economists examining racial disparity, will serve as the founding director of the newly created Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School. His research spans the gamut from stratification economics through economic and social policy, race, ethnicity and colorism, education, health, labor, asset and debt markets and family formation. His TED Talk, with over 1.5 million views, incited much conversation during the past presidential election season about how to end inequality in America.
Trevon Logan (Economic History) is the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Economics at The Ohio State University. As the youngest president of the National Economic Association to date, he specializes in economic history and applied demography. He obtained his PhD in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Willene Johnson (International Economics) is president of Komaza, Inc., a consulting firm that offers instruction and advice on economic and financial development, including microfinance, security sector resource management, and the role of economics in conflict management. Johnson has worked extensively in Africa, where she was first a volunteer teacher and more recently the U.S. executive director at the African Development Bank. She worked for twenty years in the Federal Reserve System, where her assignments included both research and operational responsibilities in international financial markets.
Peter Blair Henry (International Economics) is a former dean of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he is now the William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Business. He’s the author of TURNAROUND: Third World Lessons for First World Growth. His research interests include international finance, emerging markets, international economic policy, globalization & trade, and macroeconomics.
Susan Collins (International Economics) is the interim vice provost at the University of Michigan. She joined the Michigan faculty in 2007, serving as the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy until 2017. Before coming to Michigan, she was on the economics faculty at Georgetown University and Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (where she retains a nonresident affiliation). She is an international economist whose research interests center on understanding and fostering economic growth in industrial, emerging market, and developing countries.
Sandile Hlatshwayo (International Economics) has research interests in the areas of international trade, international finance, and macroeconomics. She is an economist at the International Monetary Fund, where she helps identify and evaluate global risks through predictive modeling, text-based analytics, and strategic foresight tools (e.g., scenario planning). She also sits on the board of Black Professionals in International Affairs and serves as an inaugural member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Individuals in the Economics Profession.
Ebonya Washington (Public Finance), a professor at Yale University, specializes in political economy. Her work explores the formation of political attitudes and how marginalized populations use the political system to attain economic needs. In a recent paper she turns her lens on her own profession, asking what economists can do to increase racial and ethnic diversity in their ranks.
Damon Jones (Public Finance) is an associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. He conducts research at the intersection of three fields—public finance, household finance, and behavioral economics—and focuses on topics of inequality. He was a post doctoral fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (2009–2010) and is a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Julianne Malveaux (Public Finance) has long been recognized for her progressive and insightful observations. As a labor economist, Malveaux has been described by Cornel West as “the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the country.” Her contributions to the public dialogue on issues such as race, culture, gender, and their economic impacts are shaping public opinion in 21st century America. She is the 15th president of the historically Black all women’s school Bennett College. Her notable works include writings on race, class, and Black women’s economics.
William Spriggs (Labor Economics) is the former assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. He currently serves as the chief economist to the AFL-CIO and has been professor of economics at Howard University since 2012. Spriggs’s economic expertise lies in workforce issues, labor, tax and public policy. Prior to his position at AFL-CIO, he led economic policy development at several think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Urban League. He has also held roles at the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.
Ellora Derenoncourt (Labor Economics) is an economist with research interests in labor economics, economic history, and inequality. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Industrial Relations Section in the Department of Economics at Princeton University. In July 2020, she will join the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and the Goldman School of Public Policy.
Michelle Holder (Labor Economics) is an assistant professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. Prior to joining the John Jay faculty, she worked as an economist for a decade in both the nonprofit and government sectors. Her research focuses on blacks and women in the American labor market, and her economic policy reports have been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Amsterdam News, and El Diario. Her first book, African American Men and the Labor Market during the Great Recession, was released in 2017.
Valerie Wilson (Labor Economics) is the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color. Prior to joining EPI, Wilson was an economist and vice president of research at the National Urban League Washington Bureau. She has written extensively on various issues impacting economic inequality in the United States—including employment and training, income and wealth disparities, access to higher education, and social insurance.
Lisa Cook (Macroeconomics) is a professor in the Department of Economics and in International Relations at Michigan State University. Among her current research interests are economic growth and development, financial institutions and markets, innovation, and economic history. She was a National Fellow at Stanford University and served in the White House as a Senior Economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. She also served as President of the National Economic Association and is currently Director of the American Economic Association Summer Program.
Fanta Traore is an MPP and MBA candidate at Yale University. She co-founded the Sadie Collective, which addresses the underrepresentation of Black women in economics and related fields. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @TheFantaTraore.
Proud to note that of these 5 are OUR COMMON GROUND Voices (guest on our broadcast).
Drs. Lisa Cook,William Darity, Darrick Hamilton,Peter Blair Henry, Willene Johnson and William Spriggs.
Racism and discrimination have choked economic opportunity for African Americans at nearly every turn. At several historic moments, the trajectory of racial inequality could have been altered dramatically. Perhaps no moment was more opportune than the early days of Reconstruction, when the U.S. government temporarily implemented a major redistribution of land from former slaveholders to the newly emancipated enslaved. But neither Reconstruction nor the New Deal nor the civil rights struggle led to an economically just and fair nation. Today, systematic inequality persists in the form of housing discrimination, unequal education, police brutality, mass incarceration, employment discrimination, and massive wealth and opportunity gaps. Economic data indicates that for every dollar the average white household holds in wealth the average black household possesses a mere ten cents.
In From Here to Equality, William Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen confront these injustices head-on and make the most comprehensive case to date for economic reparations for U.S. descendants of slavery. After opening the book with a stark assessment of the intergenerational effects of white supremacy on black economic well-being, Darity and Mullen look to both the past and the present to measure the inequalities borne of slavery. Using innovative methods that link monetary values to historical wrongs, they next assess the literal and figurative costs of justice denied in the 155 years since the end of the Civil War. Finally, Darity and Mullen offer a detailed roadmap for an effective reparations program, including a substantial payment to each documented U.S. black descendant of slavery. Taken individually, any one of the three eras of injustice outlined by Darity and Mullen–slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day discrimination–makes a powerful case for black reparations. Taken collectively, they are impossible to ignore.