Yesterday The New Yorker magazine published an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism on Melvin Davis and his brother Licurtis Reels and their struggle to hold onto their family’s land in Merrimon, a historically African American fishing community in Carteret County N.C., not far from where I grew up.
Until a few weeks ago, the brothers had been confined in the county jail in Beaufort, N.C., for eight years.
They had not been convicted of any crime, but a superior court judge had sent them to jail for civil contempt because they refused to stay off their ancestral lands. The brothers believed that those lands had been unjustly taken from them by legal chicanery.
Rather than accept the taking of their land, Davis and Reels became, in the words of the New Yorker, “two of the longest serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.”
On that part of the North Carolina coast, their stubborn refusal to give in has made them folk legends.
Seizing the Lands of the Poor
I was quoted in the story and I was glad to provide a little historical background to Lizzie Presser, who wrote the article as part of a collaboration between The New Yorker, a national weekly magazine started in 1925, and ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, public interest news organization dedicated to fighting abuses of power.
Through the tale of Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, Presser opens a window into a long history of corruption and unethical practices that have resulted in the taking of black families’ lands.
She focuses especially on the practice of wealthy interests manipulating “heir property” laws and using a legal statute known as the Torrens Act to take possession of black people’s land in Carteret County and other parts of the North Carolina coast.
Far and wide, in fact, unscrupulous lawyers, less-than-upright county officials and greedy land developers have used Torrens acts to take the land of black families and poor people of all colors.
In Presser’s story, she quotes a local land broker in Carteret County, saying “It’s a legal way to steal land.”
Presser also quotes an attorney explaining that the Torrens Act was a way that “rich men could seize the lands of the poor.”
Many states that passed Torrens acts in the early 20thcentury have repealed them, but North Carolina has not.
The Color of Water
Historically, the powers-that-be in Carteret County and other parts of the North Carolina coast have used the state’s Torrens Act to confiscate large amounts of farm acreage and other land from African Americans.
Such legal ploys are one of the reasons that, between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost 90 percent of their farmland in the U.S.
In her New Yorker/ProPublica article, Presser quotes me saying, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those [coastal North Carolina] counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”
That is my experience. But Presser’s article, as good as it is (and I think it’s excellent), is just the beginning.
For practical reasons, she limited her research to the Torrens acts and heir property issues, but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the taking of black property, at least historically speaking.
If I take a historical view—say, the last 120 years— and look at the region within 50 miles of Merrimon, I can immediately think of half a dozen other legal and illegal ways in which powerful interests have conspired to take vast acreages of black-owned land.
That does not even include the many well-documented ways in which Jim Crow-style laws and practices prohibited black citizens from buying coastal land in the first place. That was mainly in the first half of the 20th century.
In my 2018 series “The Color of Water,” I documented how white citizens did not allow black families to buy land in whole towns, villages and even large swaths of entire counties on much of the North Carolina coast in that time period.
As Presser points out in her New Yorker/ProPublica article, the subject of race and land ownership is especially pertinent today, when there is so much public discussion about the causes of the enduring “wealth gap” between blacks and whites in America.
As one researcher told Presser, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss”—and, I would add, you also have to understand historical efforts to prevent blacks from owning land in the first place.
I hope you’ll take a look at Presser’s story. Again, you can find it on-line at the New Yorker’s web site and at ProPublica’s web site. To me it’s tremendously timely and a must read—and an important step in coming to terms with our history and building a better future for us all.