For generations, black landowners in the South relied on informal agreements, instead of wills, to keep property in the family. In a new article from investigative news outlet ProPublica, reporter Lizzie Presser investigated the story of a Carteret County family’s land loss and how African Americans across the country lost about 90% of their farmland between 1910 and 1997. Host Anita Rao talks with Lizzie Presser about the political, economic and emotional cost of black landholders losing their family property.
In Carteret County, North Carolina, a speculator bought land without the consent of the family living on the property. Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis spent eight years in jail for refusing to leave the land their great-grandfather had bought in the early 1900s. Mitchell Reels, the Reels brothers’ grandfather, didn’t trust local courts, so he left no will to his family. His family’s 65 acres became heirs’ property, meaning his descendants inherited the land as an interest, like stock in a company. Presser found other cases where “dozens or even hundreds of family members co-own a piece of land.”
“It's very much a legacy of Jim Crow,” Presser explains. “There was good reason for black families to be suspicious of white Southern courts under Jim Crow. And many just decided to live with this kind of alternative form of land ownership where they were avoiding the courts.”
As a result of this distrust, heirs’ property constitutes more than a third of Southern black-owned land, amounting to an estimated 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion.
Speculators and developers can exploit the shared ownership of heirs’ property.
“One of the most pernicious ways that we see this playing out is with partition actions,” says Presser. She found that, in some cases, a land speculator bought out shares of heirs’ property from relatives who did not even live on the property. (In one case in Bertie County, a speculator bought the interest of an elderly man who suffered from dementia.) “And once they've bought into this kind of co-ownership, they can go to the court and ask for a sale of the entire property.”
The Reelses still living in Carteret County spent forty years fighting in courts to maintain control over their great grandfather’s land. But, Presser laments, “The people who live on the land or have the closest ties to the land have almost no way to protect their property.”
The brothers refused to leave and were subsequently arrested. Their arrest resounded through the local community. “Melvin in particular has created a local economy on that shore … he became a very successful shrimper. And he brought in a ton of money to the area … he was teaching the men in the neighborhood how to work the water, and he was paying women in the neighborhood how to prepare the catch,” says Presser.
So, when the brothers were arrested and the docks they’d used for decades were declared the property of Adams Creek Associates, “that meant that a lot of the men who Melvin had taught to work on the water, couldn't shrimp anymore and couldn't go crabbing. They couldn't feed their community.”
The heirs’ property loophole disenfranchises landholders in other ways. Presser explains, “oftentimes you can't gain access to federal home improvement loans or certain USDA programs or even FEMA funding because you can't use your land as collateral.”
In an area affected by hurricanes and sea level rise, many coastal landholders regularly rely on these funds for new roofs or to rebuild agricultural drainage canals. Other states have revised property laws to give more rights to the people actually living on the land, “but North Carolina has been a holdout and has refused to reform the system, even though it's been brought to the attention of the legislature many times since 2009.”
Presser read over a decade’s worth of Carteret County court records and she’s careful to note that it’s more than just the value of the property that’s stripped from black families due to heirs’ property law. Cultural and family history are also lost. She found one case in which “families lost their land to a partition sale that was started by PCS Phosphate, the largest phosphate mine in North Carolina. They testified that their ancestors had been enslaved on that property, and that they had a family cemetery they didn't want to lose.”
And yet, the law remains stacked against these informal titles and land continues to be bought without consent. Until North Carolina addresses this vulnerability, Presser has recommendations for heirs’ property holders: “They should write a will, they can make family trees and start to track down every single living descendant since the last deed holder, and they can also talk to lawyers about clearing their title, and also consolidating ownership like an LLC.”
For many, this information comes too late. Across the South, the vulnerability of heirs’ property holders has already been taken advantage of. Presser estimates that “lost land for African Americans has amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wealth” and is “a major contributor to the racial wealth gap.”
In April of this year, the Reels brothers were released. The court ordered them not to return to the land that was bought, writes Presser. “The legacy of Jim Crow has lived on, and we have turned a blind eye.”
Corrections: The original article stated that the docks used by the Reelses was declared the property of Aldonia Farms. The docks are the property of Adams Creek Associates. The original article stated that a speculator bought the interest from the Reelses' uncle, who suffered from dementia. The elderly man suffering from dementia was an unrelated heirs' property case in Bertie County.