Brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were jailed for eight years after refusing to leave the land their great-grandfather bought a hundred years ago in Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. As ProPublica reports, their story illustrates how Reconstruction-era laws and practices continue to dispossess African American families of their land.
The Reels Family Story
Mitchell Reels purchased 65 marshy acres along Silver Dollar Road in 1911, when he was a generation removed from slavery. He farmed watermelons, beets, and peas; churches held tent revivals on the waterfront; and it was the county’s only beach for Black families during the Jim Crow era. When he died in 1970 without a will, the land became heirs’ property: each of his descendants got an interest or share in the property.
In 1978, one of those descendants tried to take the most valuable parcel of land through a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he or his tenant had occupied the land continuously and publicly for years against the owner’s wishes. Under a law called the Torrens Act, he only had to persuade a lawyer, appointed by the court and paid by him, to grant his claim. The Reels family provided evidence against this claim, but the lawyer granted it anyway.
The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret County, where it has long been used by big business to acquire land for development. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told ProPublica. One lawyer told ProPublica that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” The law is still on the books in North Carolina.
The Reels family did not know they had lost the rights to their land, and they missed the one-year deadline to appeal. The new owner sold the land to developers.
In 1986, a partner at a real-estate investment company bought the waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels continued to live on the land, building a house and a club and running a shrimping business, but in 2004, the owner obtained a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the property. The Reels family appealed the order but were told they’d missed the deadline to challenge the Torrens decision.
In 2011, when the brothers refused to leave their family land, they were jailed for civil contempt and spent the next eight years in jail, even though they had not been charged with or convicted of a crime. In February, Melvin and Licurtis, now 72 and 61, were released on the condition that they do not step foot on the property where they lived their entire lives. ProPublica reports they are “two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.”
A Legacy of Racial Injustice
Black families at the end of the Civil War recognized the need to own their own land. Despite the federal government’s failure to deliver on promises of millions of acres of public land for freed people, African Americans (who made up 10 percent of the population) comprised 14 percent of Southern farm owners by 1920.
White people immediately retaliated, launching an era of racial terror that succeeded in forcing Black families to flee their land in droves.
At the same time, the legal system developed an insidious mechanism to dispossess Black people of their land: heirs’ property. Heirs’ property owners do not qualify for federal loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs cannot obtain private financing or federal home-improvement loans because they cannot use their land as collateral. And they generally are not eligible for disaster relief. ProPublica reports that an estimated $165 million in recovery funds were never claimed after Hurricane Katrina because of title issues.
For the few heirs who realize how vulnerable their property rights are, clearing a title is often unaffordable because it requires tracking down every living heir.
In coastal areas attractive to developers, heirs’ property owners have seen thousands of acres auctioned off in tax sales because they couldn’t afford to pay inflated property taxes. The NAACP in 1992 accused local officials of pushing out Black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island, by raising property taxes 700 percent in a single decade. In nearby Hilton Head, heirs’ property holdings have fallen from several thousands acres to an estimated 200.
Heirs’ property owners often lose their land through partition actions. The law allows speculators to buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how small his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Courts gained authority to order partition sales in the 1860s, and in recent decades, many have ordered such sales, which are often quick, poorly advertised, and at below-market prices. Heirs not only lose their land but also have to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized heirs’ property as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”
Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90 percent of their farmland, amounting to losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars. As ProPublica reports, land loss is a major contributor to the racial wealth gap: the median wealth among Black families is about a tenth of that of white families.
Today, heirs’ property comprises more than a third of Southern Black-owned land — an estimated 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion.
Fourteen states have passed legislation to reform this system by giving family members the first option to buy, sending most sales to the open market, and mandating that courts consider factors like the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value before ordering a partition sale. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has resisted reforms.
Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs, and establishes a lending program for heirs’ property owners to help them clear titles and develop succession plans. So far, no federal funding has been allocated for those loans.