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Ever since the founding of the Bank of North America in 1781, banking has played a critical role in facilitating the American Dream.1 These institutions provide indispensable monetary services, ranging from accepting deposits to offering loans. Credit is king in the United States, and without high-quality financial institutions, countless Americans would struggle to acquire vehicles, housing, and other essential items.
However, like pretty much all of the nation’s older institutions, banks have also played a significant part in America’s racist past. Racial discrimination in the banking industry has kept countless African Americans from receiving financial assistance, and remnants of this bigotry linger to this day. Black-owned banks arose as an alternative to larger institutions to provide greater access to banking services as well as an opportunity to support local communities.
Black-owned banks (i.e., depository financial institutions with 51% or more of the stock owned by Black people) didn’t exist until more than a century after the Bank of North America first opened its doors.2 Prior to the chartering of the first Black-owned bank in 1888, Congress and President Lincoln established the Freedman’s Savings Bank in 1865. As part of the Freedman’s Bureau, this institution was designed to help newly freed African Americans navigate the U.S. financial system. Despite Congress voting to close the Freedman’s Bureau in 1872, the bank continued to operate. In 1874, Frederick Douglass took over as the bank’s D.C. branch director, and he found the place to be rife with corruption and risky investments. Despite Douglass investing $10,000 of his own money in the bank in an attempt to save it, Freedman’s Savings went bankrupt later that same year.3 Although the Freedman’s Savings Bank doesn’t fit the modern criteria of a Black-owned bank, it represents a critical first step.
The first officially chartered Black-owned bank, the True Reformers Bank, was founded on March 2, 1888, by Reverend William Washington Browne. A former slave and Union Army officer, Browne was founder of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers fraternal organization. The True Reformers Bank came about when Browne and his organization faced financial hardships while trying to establish a new branch in Virginia. Unable to manage the order’s money without arousing suspicion from paranoid and prejudiced locals, Browne founded the True Reformers Bank so that the organization’s finances would be free of scrutiny from White people.
The bank opened its doors in 1889 and went from a small operation in Browne’s house to an institution strong enough to survive the financial panic of 1893. Although the True Reformers Bank continued to operate after Browne’s death in 1897, by 1900 problems were beginning to develop. Under its new president, Reverend William Lee Taylor, branches were poorly regulated, unsecured loans were made, and an embezzlement scandal cost most account holders their savings. By 1910, the State Corporation Commission had ordered the bank to be closed.4
As the story of the True Reformers Bank was playing out, other Black-owned banks were also getting their start in the U.S. The Capitol Savings Bank of Washington, D.C., opened its doors in Oct. 17, 1888, roughly six months before the True Reformers Bank.4 Capitol Savings also managed to survive the the financial panic of 1893, though it later closed in 1902.5 Between 1888 and 1934, more than 134 Black-owned financial institutions were founded, predominantly located in southern states. Their numbers dwindled during the Great Depression, leaving nine by 1930. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement that a resurgence took place, raising their numbers to 50 by 1976. But by 1988, the savings and loan crisis had wiped out 35 Black-owned banks.6 The start of the most recent decline came in 2001, during the early 2000s recession, which rapidly accelerated once the Great Recession began.7 Today—including credit unions—there are 38 Black-owned financial institutions left.8
“You can’t separate Black history from American history,” says Tyrone Ross, community director of Altruist, a software platform provider for financial advisors. “We’ve always been well adept and versed in financial education and the ability to be entrepreneurs. It’s just been stripped from us. So it’s OK to write these articles—or have panels or whatever—but let’s start with the history first so people go, ‘Oh, crap. It really was stripped from them, and they’re just trying to get it back.'”
In 2016, the net worth of a White family was nearly ten times higher on average than that of a Black family. This is a result of inequality, discrimination, racism, and differences in power and opportunity compounding throughout America’s history.9 It also is why the diminishing number of Black-owned banks is especially of concern, given the role these institutions play in fighting modern-day systemic racism in the financial sector.
Consider redlining. This unethical and illegal practice is used to block off access to important services for residents of certain neighborhoods based on their race or ethnicity. Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 were both intended to eliminate redlining, this kind of discrimination is still seen today. For instance, 68.1% of loans made between 2012 and 2018 for housing purchases in Chicago went to predominantly White areas; 8.1% went to predominantly Black areas. Banks also lent more money to predominantly White neighborhoods than they did to every predominantly Black neighborhood combined. This disparity is even starker when looking at individual lenders, with JPMorgan Chase lending 41 times more money in White neighborhoods than Black ones.10
Chicago is far from the only place where redlining occurs. In 2018, People of Color in 61 cities were more likely to be denied home loans than White residents.11 And if homeowners aren’t moving into—and investing in—a neighborhood, it means capital isn’t flowing into the community, which leads to poverty and crime having an inescapable presence in the area.10
“One in five Black Americans now is unbanked. When you look at our poverty rates, our lack of ownership, lack of home ownership, that all goes back to economic empowerment,” Ross explains. “Economic empowerment starts with banking.”
To understand why Black-owned banks matter, it’s critical to recognize the role banks play in financial life. A common service banks provide is access to a checking account, allowing for the safe storage of an individual’s funds, typically in exchange for a minimal fee. In addition to accepting monetary deposits, banks also furnish loans for both individuals and businesses looking to finance crucial purchases, in addition to mortgages for real estate purchases. Many banks also issue credit cards, which are valuable tools for building the credit history necessary to receive most loans.
Outside of providing financial services, a number of banks have also launched programs on financial literacy for low- and moderate-income communities.12 It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine thriving in the modern economy without taking advantage of the aid that a bank can provide. And if access to these types of services is constantly denied to certain groups, it’s easy to see how these groups may face more financial difficulties than others.
Black-owned banks offer an alternative for residents who have been consistently discriminated against by other financial institutions. They have typically provided more money to borrowers living in low- and moderate-income (LMI) census tracts in the last 14 years than other banks. Black-owned banks are also more willing to tolerate higher levels of risk than alternative institutions. In 2016, 67% of mortgages made by Black-owned banks were either FHA mortgages—which typically serve riskier borrowers—or mortgages held “in portfolio,” meaning they are liable to the risk of the borrower defaulting.13
Additionally, Black-owned banks tend to focus their lending on small businesses, non-profits, and Black homebuyers. As of 2018, all Black-owned banks are community banks; these institutions are dedicated to supporting the economies of the communities in which they serve. Even during difficult times, Black-owned banks have stuck by their customers. During the 2007–2008 financial crisis, despite a 69% drop in all mortgage lending to Black borrowers, the number of mortgages Black-owned banks provided rose 57%.14
“So there’s lack of lending, there’s lack of funding, there’s lack of access to the ability to acquire assets and build wealth,” says Ross. “The Black community has for years been afraid of banking with traditional institutions. A lot of them live in banking deserts where there are no banks, which is also why you have credit unions, check cashing places, and payday loans.”
Without Black-owned banks, countless vulnerable consumers could be forced to rely on high-interest loans from pawn shops and payday lenders for their financing. What’s more, Black-owned banks provide customers not just access to the financial resources they need, but the chance to invest in the financial health and wellbeing of their community and fellow Americans.
“I think we have a responsibility now to realize that—if you really want to be grassroots, and you really want to help Black Americans—get that money in Black banks and then have those Black banks fund the people,” Ross says.
Not everyone sees Black-owned for-profit banks as the solution. Critics argue that true financial justice requires institutions that are entirely separate from a financial system rooted in racism and exploitation.15
“I’ve been very critical of for-profit Black banks and the capitalist logic that governs them,” says Prof. Guy Mount, assistant professor of African American history at Auburn University. “In my opinion, member-owned credit unions and nonprofit co-ops are the way forward for Black communities hoping to not only survive within capitalism, but build a viable Black economic alternative to it.” In fact, that choice is currently available to consumers. Of the 38 Black-owned financial institutions in the U.S.—all listed below—19 are credit unions.
Other critics have taken this concept even further. In The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap, Mehrsa Baradaran, professor of law at University of California Irvine School of Law, posits that those in power have pushed the idea of Black-owned banks as a diversionary tactic whenever the African American community demanded more direct solutions to the racial wealth gap. For instance, although the Freedman’s Bank remains a critical facet of Black history, the Freedman’s Bureau originally proposed providing newly freed slaves with an allotment of land—they received a bank instead.16
More recently, when civil rights leaders began calling for a redistribution of wealth, President Nixon co-opted the rhetoric of that same movement to create a civil rights platform centered around “Black capitalism.” He wasn’t the only president to support the idea of banking over financial support. President Clinton introduced legislation with the aim of promoting “community empowerment” via banking. Across party lines, Presidents Bush and Obama supported and upheld Clinton’s infrastructure. President Trump has also made similar promises during his time in office.17
Baradaran further argues that—as it is nearly impossible for a segregated community to keep its wealth entirely self-contained—Black-owned banks may actually facilitate the flow of money out of African American communities and into the White economy.18
Prof. Mount sees it the same way: “By emerging themselves within a White-governed capitalist marketplace, Black banks are facilitating the very extraction of wealth from the communities they purport to serve,” he says.
While the number of Black-owned financial institutions may have declined from their peak, they cumulatively have a not-insignificant presence.68 Taken together, the 38 Black-owned banks in the U.S. have approximately $5.135 billion in assets. And although 28 states have no Black-owned financial institutions within their borders, several organizations have a presence across the U.S. because of their partnerships with major ATM networks. Additionally, of the 38 Black-owned financial institutions in the country, exactly half are not-for-profit credit unions.8
The majority of Black-owned institutions offer both traditional brick-and-mortar branches and online/mobile services. Even OneUnited Bank, originally an Internet-only bank, now has multiple physical locations across the U.S.69 19 Ensuring online accessibility is a smart move considering that, in 2017, approximately 17.7% of African-American consumers were more likely to use mobile banking as their primary method of accessing their accounts.70 Currently, Columbia Savings and Loan is the sole institution without any online or mobile banking services.66
Below: a list of Black-owned banks and credit unions in the U.S., in alphabetical order.
Founded in 1946, the Hospital Authority Credit Union was created to provide financial services to employees of Grady Hospital. In 1991, the organization became known as 1st Choice Credit Union.71
Alamerica Bank was originally organized by a group of prominent Birmingham, Ala., community leaders on Jan. 28, 2000. Alamerica achieved operational profitability after six months of operation.76
The Broadway Federal Bank is a subsidiary of Broadway Financial Corporation, a bank holding company located in Los Angeles, Calif. Formerly known as the Broadway Federal Savings and Loan Association, founded in 1946, the original building was destroyed by a fire on April 30, 1992. In Dec. 1995, the organization was converted from a federally chartered mutual savings association to a federally chartered stock savings bank, hence the new name.81
Founded in 1999, the Brookland Federal Credit Union is a not-for-profit financial cooperative that provides financial services to members of Brookland Baptist Church and their immediate family members.85 If you join Brookland Federal, you and your family have a lifetime membership.86
The Carver Federal Savings Bank was founded in 1948 to serve African American communities with limited access to mainstream financial services. The majority of its branches and ATMs are located in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.92
Established on Feb. 23, 1927, the Georgia Savings and Realty Corporation was a small, private bank as well as a real estate investment and management company. In 1947, the original institution was converted to a state bank and became known as the Carver Savings Bank. By 1962, Carver had become a full-service commercial bank, thus its name was changed once more to the Carver State Bank.99
In 1904, the One Cent Savings Bank became the first minority-owned bank in Tennessee. The institution’s name was changed to the Citizens Savings Bank & Trust Co. in 1920. Citizens Bank is the oldest, continuously operating Black-owned bank in the U.S.108
Since 1921, the Citizens Trust Bank was created to serve the African American citizens of Atlanta. Today the organization plays an active role in providing sponsorship support for multiple community organizations.112
Columbia Savings & Loan has served Milwaukee’s inner city, particularly its minority population, since 1924. 66
Founded in 1976, the Commonwealth National Bank is a full-service nationally chartered commercial institution. Commonwealth is the sole bank headquartered in Mobile, out of the 45 banks doing business there. In addition to being the only Minority Depository Institution (MDI) in Mobile, it is one of two in Alabama.118
In 1966, the Community Owned Federal Credit Union was founded to provide low-income communities in Johns Island and part of Charleston with financial services typically denied to them by mainstream institutions. Membership has since grown to include the entire Charleston area.124
Founded in 1928, the Credit Union of Atlanta remained stable and secure throughout the Great Depression. Any profits earned are used to secure better rates for the institution’s members.128
Originally chartered in 1952 as Mount Sinai Baptist Church Credit Union, Faith became a Community Development Credit Union (CDCU) in 1991. In 1989, the credit union became the sole provider of financial services when the savings and loans closed in local minority neighborhoods. Faith attained self-sufficiency a year after acquiring its community charter.137
The story of the Faith Cooperative Credit Union is a tale of two different organizations. St. John Federal Credit Union was founded in 1959. It became known as the Faith Cooperative Credit Union after it was integrated with the Friendship-West Baptist Church’s vision of a micro loan bank.143
On May 8, 1935, six individuals were convinced to deposit $50 to acquire a federal credit union charter, resulting in the founding of the Florida A&M College Employees Federal Credit Union. By 1953, the organization renamed to Florida A&M University Federal Credit Union due to its location on the FAMU campus.149
Having been in business since May 11, 1970, the First Independence Bank has served the Detroit Metropolitan area for 50 years. First Independence is the sole African American‐owned bank headquartered in Michigan, in addition to being one of two banks headquartered in Detroit.154
The School Workers Federal Credit Union was founded by a group of educators in Feb. 14, 1941. Originally, the institution that eventually became First Legacy Community only offered a savings and loan program; today it offers a much wider selection of financial services.160
In 1934—after working closely with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago—13 African-American men founded Illinois Service Federal to provide a savings and loan association for Black Chicagoans. The institution was acquired by Groupe Ndoum in 2016, which led to its name change to GN Bank in 2018.163
The Greater Kinston Credit Union was founded in 1952 and provides a variety of loans and deposit accounts.167 Persons who live, work, worship, or attend functions in the Lenoir, Greene, Jones, Craven, and Pitt counties are eligible for membership.168
The Hill District Federal Credit Union got its start in 1970 and has provided financial services to its members for 50 years.57 Citizens who live, work, or worship in the Hill District—as well as members of an organization that provides economic assistance in the same area—are eligible to join this institution.172
Originally chartered on Oct. 11, 1935, the Howard University Employees Federal Credit Union provides financial services to employees of Howard University and their family members.175 Those who join Howard University Employees FCU have a lifetime membership.176
Industrial Bank first opened on Aug. 20, 1934, and is one of the larger Black-owned banks in the U.S.181 In addition to a wide variety of financial services, Industrial Bank also offers free financial education programs.182
Liberty Bank was originally chartered in New Orleans in 1972. After acquiring the United Bank and Trust Company in 2009, its service grew across the Greater New Orleans area. Liberty Bank is the second-largest Black-owned bank in physical footprint, with branches in eight states.8
Founded in 1907 by nine businessmen, the Mechanics & Farmers Bank is a state-chartered commercial bank. By 1935, M&F Bank became the first lending institution in North Carolina to receive FHA certification. Mechanics & Farmers merged with Fraternal Bank & Trust in 1921 and acquired Mutual Community Savings Bank in 2008.191
It received its Federal Charter on Oct. 21, 1997. The Mount Olive Baptist Church Federal Credit Union is a faith-based, not-for-profit financial institution.196 Mount Olive Baptist Church members and their immediate families are eligible to join this organization.197
Officially chartered on Sept. 22, 2008, the Oak Cliff Christian Federal Credit Union is a Christian-based financial institution sponsored by the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. Members, employees, students, or family of the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship (and its subsidiaries) are eligible to join the organization.204
Founded in 1986, the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Federal Credit Union is open to members of the fraternity, including its chapters, districts, and other related organizations, and their families, in addition to employees of both the fraternity and credit union itself.209 210
OneUnited Bank is the first online-only Black-owned bank and the largest Black-owned bank in the U.S. Originally founded in 1968 as Unity Bank and Trust Company, OneUnited has financed over $100 million in loans thus far, predominantly in low- to moderate-income communities.69 214
“Everyone is talking about OneUnited Bank now, but what they’re not focusing on with OneUnited Bank is they’re heavily engaged in financial education and financial literacy in the cities that need it most,” Tyrone Ross, community director of Altruist, explains. “So I feel like right now, when you support OneUnited, again you get those end roads into their programs they already have instituted to provide access to financial education and financial literacy.”
Since 2004, the South Side Community Federal Credit Union has offered access to credit and savings services for its members, in addition to financial education.220 221 Individuals are eligible for membership if they live, work, worship, attend school, or belong to an organization that is within Chicago’s South Side.222
With more than 80 years of service, Southern Teachers & Parents Federal Credit Union provides personalized financial services to its members.229 Those eligible for membership include alumni, employees, parents, and students of Southern University; employees in Assumption, East Baton Rouge, Lafourche, and West Feliciana parishes; employees in Thibodaux and the Lafourche Parish Juvenile Justice Facility; and their family members.230
Originally chartered in 1942 as the Teachers Credit Union, St. Louis Community Credit Union offers both financial services and several programs to support consumers in the local community.236 Individuals who live or work in St. Louis City, Franklin, and St. Louis county in Missouri as well as the St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, and Jersey counties in Illinois are eligible for membership, in addition to their families.237
Originally opening its doors in Sept. 1982, the Harbor Bank of Maryland offers banking and other financial services, primarily in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Harbor Bank was also the first community bank in the U.S. to have an investment subsidiary and the first to receive funding from Fannie Mae via the Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) program.246
Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union originally opened its doors on July 21, 1996, to help its members achieve economic empowerment. Membership in Toledo’s first community development credit union is available for individuals who live, work, worship, perform volunteer services, or participate in associations headquartered in the central city community, in addition to their families.251
In the first 10 years after its founding in 1946, Tri-State Bank of Memphis made more than $10 million in first mortgage loans on homes, representing home ownership for more than 2,000 African American families. Tri-State has also played a critical part in the civil rights movement, including hosting local sit-ins in the bank’s boardroom, providing bail money for protesters, and providing $60,000 in loans to help save the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, from foreclosure in 1982.254
Originally founded in 1992, United Bank of Philadelphia offers personalized banking services in the Greater Philadelphia area to both individuals and businesses.257 By providing financing to small businesses in urban areas, United Bank supports their growth and allows them to create jobs with livable wages, thus improving the economic condition of those working in the local community.258
The bank was founded in 1963 and chartered in 1985. “In February 1989, through a series of transactions and diligent efforts, it was acquired from Bay Bancshares by local minority leaders,” the bank’s history reports. Unity focuses on helping to rebuild the community with an emphasis on commercial loans and mortgages. It also works closely with civic organizations and agencies, such as the NAACP and the Third Ward Redevelopment Council.262
Urban Upbound was founded in 2004, to provide five integrated programs to individuals living in public housing and and other low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.267 The Urban Upbound Federal Credit Union offers affordable financial services to its members.268
Authority to establish the Virginia State College Federal Credit Union was granted on Oct. 19, 1938. On May 22, 1979, the organization’s board of directors voted to change the name to the Virginia State University Federal Credit Union.271
READ MORE AT: https://www.investopedia.com/bla
By Char Adams Feb 6, 2020
When he wasn’t helping some 600 slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, David Ruggles was running a bookstore. In 1828, Ruggles opened a grocery store in New York City and later, as he became involved in the burgeoning abolitionist movement, opened a reading room and a bookstore for Black Americans. It was the nation’s first Black-owned bookstore.
In a building in what is now known as the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, Ruggles sold anti-slavery works and later published the Mirror of Liberty, known as the nation’s earliest Black magazine. This made him especially concerning to slavecatchers and anti-abolitionists, because not only was Ruggles facilitating escapes via the Underground Railroad, but he was also disseminating politically problematic works. Still, he ran a boarding house, reading room, and the bookstore through riots and attacks before leaving New York in 1839. He was repeatedly beaten and jailed for his efforts.
Born a free man, Ruggles was an ardent advocate for abolition. He even helped free Frederick Douglass from slavery by hiding Douglass in his own home. With Ruggles gone from New York, though, his store was no more. But its legacy lived on: His business was the first in a long tradition of Black-owned bookstores with ties to Black political liberation.
“Black bookstores have continuously been hubs for the community to simply be with one another.”
Before Ruggles, the community’s need for Black literature was largely met by Black bibliophiles like him who went to great lengths to collect books, periodicals, and newspapers by Black writers that focused on Black life. Their goal was to make Black literature available to the Black community in reading rooms at a time when Black people were routinely told no books by or about them existed.
Today’s brick-and-mortar Black bookstores continue the legacy of the space that Ruggles created. Black bookshops, owned and operated by Black people, cater to the community with written works by and for Black readers. Many shops also feature a variety of writings by non-Black authors. For all their transformation over the centuries, though, Black bookstores have continuously been hubs for the community to simply be with one another.
Historically, Black independent booksellers have been viewed as the keepers of Black culture. And just as Ruggles’s store allowed him to purvey abolitionist works, many Black bookshops have been closely tied to political movements of their day. Because of this, the stores have long been sites of liberation — and government interest.
“They felt he was running some type of movement here because he was promoting Black culture.”
Some of the earliest business owners to follow Ruggles’s example were Lewis Michaux, an outspoken activist who owned the famous National Memorial African Bookstore, a Harlem landmark that opened in the 1930s, and Alfred and Bernice Ligon of the Aquarian Book Shop in Los Angeles, which operated as early as the 1940s and was a stopping place for writers like Maya Angelou and Alex Haley. In the 1960s, more than a century after Ruggles ran his store, the daughter of Dawud Hakim, the owner of Hakim’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, heard her father talk about the FBI agents perched outside his shop.
“People used to stand across the street from the store and take pictures,” Yvonne Blake tells Mic about her father’s store. “They felt he was running some type of movement here because he was promoting Black culture.”
In 1968, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered FBI outposts across the country to investigate Black bookstores and their owners as part of COINTELPRO, the infamous counterintelligence program that worked to combat the Black Power movement. Each office was ordered to spy on “Black extremist and/or African-type bookstores” to determine whether they served as secret meeting places or hubs for Black extremists.
Some 140 miles away from Hakim’s Bookstore, veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major direct-action civil rights organization formed in the early 1960s, were having their own run-ins with federal law enforcement at the Drum and Spear Bookstore in Washington, D.C. The store quickly became a target for federal law enforcement because of its links to prominent Black activists like Stokely Carmichael. Judy Richardson, an early member of SNCC who worked in the bookstore, recalls a pair of FBI agents visiting the shop.
“It was so obvious who they were,” Richardson tells Mic. “These two white guys, they always looked the same. Very buttoned up, standard-issue shoes. They were buying up Mao’s ‘[Little] Red Book’ and all of the revolutionary literature … to ‘prove’ the case that we were left-wing and to minimize any support we might have in the public sphere. It was an attempt to smear us.”
“They were tracking us,” she continues. “We all had [FBI] files.” The FBI’s monitoring of the group is well-documented, with several files made public by the FBI.
In 1971, Hakim was quoted calling the operation “a waste of taxpayers’ money,” per The Atlantic. “We are trying to educate our people about their history and culture,” he lamented, adding that the FBI should have been pursuing other priorities like “organized crime and dope peddlers.”
“Black bookstores are political spaces. That connection to politics was absolutely essential.”
The feds’ interest in Black booksellers spanned the country. In New York City, booksellers like Michaux and Una Mulzac of Liberation Bookstore were monitored. Edward Vaughn of Vaughn’s Bookstore in Detroit was singled out too, along with the owners of Denver’s Sundiata bookstore. Even Martin Sostre, whose Afro Asian Book Shop was located in relatively lesser-known Buffalo, New York, was under investigation for simply selling Black literature, as University of Baltimore history professor Joshua Clark Davis notes in his book From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.
“Black bookstores are political spaces,” Davis tells Mic. “That connection to politics was absolutely essential to these bookstores. So many Black activists, so many Black people who started bookstores in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the vast majority of them came out of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. You have folks who come out of movements and start bookstores. That’s a pattern that repeats itself.”
The late ‘60s marked a sharp increase in Black independent bookstores, and the timing of the surge — during the height of the Black Power Movement — was no coincidence. Hoover was right about one thing: Black bookstores were gathering places rooted in activism. But they went far beyond politics, too. These shops catered to the community and provided a space for Black people to come and not only read, but also talk about what they read. Chester and Lillie Owens and James and Dorothy McField, two Black couples, understood this full-well when they opened The Hub in 1965 in Kansas City, Kansas. They served tea and gourmet foods to those who came to the bookstore to simply hang out, and sold African clothing and jewelry, according to Kansas City-based NPR affiliate KCUR.
“[It was about] the young people who would sit down on the floor of The Hub and read the books,” Chester Owens told KCUR in October. “[Profit] had nothing to do with it.”
The number of Black bookstores dwindled along with the Black Power Movement in the mid- to late-’70s. And the dismal economy of the decade only led to more closures. However, in the ‘90s, major Black cultural and political moments — like the Los Angeles Riots, the Million Man March, and hip-hop’s golden age — led to a sharp increase in such stores.There was a renewed interest in Black history, especially after New York’s Howard Beach killing in the late ‘80s and a series of fire-bombings at southern Black churches in the ‘90s, according to the Los Angeles Times. Major bookstore chains took notice and ramped up their African-American book offerings, the Times reported then. But the variety and culturally specific titles that the major retailers lacked, Black independent bookstores offered to literature-thirsty Black communities.
“It was a vehicle for people looking for new ideas and thoughts from a Black or African-centered perspective.”
Akbar Watson, director of the Boynton Beach, Florida-based Pyramid Books, launched his shop in 1993 after he and his friends grew tired of having little access to books by Black writers and about Black life, academia, and culture.At the time, he says, “reading was hot.”
“It became political,” Watson tells Mic of his store. “I didn’t start [the store] to become political, but I was housing [books] with universal issues that catered toward Black people. It was a vehicle for people looking for new ideas and thoughts from a Black or African-centered perspective. The customers demanded that. It quickly became political because it was part of the business. It’s what people wanted.”
The number of Black bookstores peaked with at least 200 in the mid-‘90s, Davis says, before plummeting over the years to just 54 in 2014, according to the African American Literature Book Club. The number slightly recovered to reach 70 in 2016, per the database. When you put those numbers in context, you realize how precarious the situation was for Black bookstores: The Open Education Database notes that independent bookstores overall endured a precipitous drop too, thanks to the rise of Amazon and major chains — from more than 4,000 independent stores in the early ‘90s to just 1,900 by 2011.
But now, yet another revolutionary political climate has resulted in a new wave of Black-owned bookstores, even as brick-and-mortar bookstores struggle in the shadow of online titans like Amazon. Today, the African American Literature Book Club estimates that about 120 Black-owned bookstores are operating in the U.S.
“People are realizing bookstores offer something special,” Davis says, crediting “everything from Obama’s second term and Trayvon Martin to Black Lives Matter and Black Twitter” for drawing increased attention to racism and injustice and fueling an uptick in interest in Black life.“Black bookstores are uniquely positioned to serve citizens who want to learn more about Black history and culture or learn about racism,” Davis says.
Of course, the books are part of the appeal, too. The latest increase in Black bookstores may also be due in part to the “huge number of excellent new Black authors,” Davis says. Writers like Tressie McMillan Cottom, Brittney Cooper, Roxane Gay, and Kiese Laymon have produced works that fly from the shelves and spark meaningful conversations, Davis says, and Black bookstores have long been a stopping place for Black writers promoting their work.
“Whatever the country is going through, the Black community is feeling it 17 times harder.”
Still, bookstore ownership is known as one of the most challenging plights in retail. Many of the stores still in existence have relied on monetary help from their communities. Blake, who still runs her father’s store in Philadelphia, has turned to crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe to keep the doors open. Other shops, like Seattle’s Life Enrichment Bookstore, have done the same.
This was also the case for Noëlle Santos, the owner of The Lit. Bar in the Bronx, New York. Despite having no bookselling (or retail) experience, she stepped in to fill a void after the neighborhood’s only bookstore — a Barnes & Noble — closed. She used her social media prowess and several pop-up shops to establish the Lit. Bar name before opening the store in 2019.
“Whatever the country is going through, the Black community is feeling it 17 times harder,” Santos tells Mic. “It’s not that we lack the talent — we lack the investments. We have to go out and get it.”
Santos’s shop includes a wine bar, and she additionally holds offsite events and even provides textbooks for nearby schools. Her model is similar to the one that held up Black bookshops in decades past. Just as Lit. Bar provides a space for the community to gather, so does Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Philadelphia (owned by Marc Lamont Hill), WORD in Brooklyn, and many more.
While we enjoy this most recent wave of Black bookstores, it’s hard not to wonder whether some new pressure — political, social, or economic — will once again diminish their number. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that these shops are as resilient as the people who occupy them. Santos, for example, sees her business not as an entry in history but as an investment in what’s to come.
“I never thought about making my mark on history. That never registered,” she says. “I’m thinking about the future and how much impact I can make.”
Clara Brown was a pioneer, a community leader, a philanthropist, and the first African American woman to live in Denver, Colorado. At the age of 56-years old, she became a real estate investor who established a successful laundromat chain during the Colorado Gold Rush in the 1800s.
he was born as a slave in Virginia in 1800, but in 1856 she obtained her freedom because her master died and his will stipulated her freedom. Her family had been split up and sold off one by one to different owners, so Clara decided to search for them – especially her 4 children. She headed west, moving from state to state while working as a cook and laundress.
After not being able to successfully find her family, Clara decided to settle in Colorado in a town outside of Denver called Central City. There, she opened a laundry business for gold miners. In addition, she collected whatever gold dust came out of the miners’ pockets and made extra money by cooking and cleaning for them as well.
Clara was known for her generosity in the community; She denied herself any luxuries, and chose instead to help fund non-profit causes such as the construction of a local church.
Over time, Clara expanded her laundry business to several locations, and invested her earnings into real estate and mines. When she died, she owned quite a bit throughout the state of Colorado – building lots in Denver, houses in Central City, and mines in Boulder, Georgetown and Idaho Springs.
Blacks give 25% more of their income annually than white households, according to a report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Though research is limited in this area, it also states “nearly two-thirds of African-American households donated to organizations and causes, totaling $11 billion each year”. In other words, blacks are one the largest group of givers in the country. Financial contributions from the black community have been well-noted and consistent for generations, with “tithing” being an intricate part of black giving and the values of community and mutuality embedded in African traditional values carried over by slaves.
After losing her job, Tracey Webb, founder of Black Benefactors, based in Washington D.C., started the giving circle organization in 2007 to create a collective “black giving” experience. Webb shares how black philanthropists can have influence on the causes they care about and how to do it.
Maryann Reid: What is a giving circle and is it different from being a philanthropist?
Tracey Webb: A giving circle is a group of individuals that pool their monies for charitable causes and decide together where to give it away. Studies have shown that giving circle members are more likely to volunteer, give more, and give more strategically. The root meaning of the word philanthropy literally means, love of mankind. It doesn’t mean wealth or a large donation. Giving circle members are philanthropists
Reid: What from your personal experience made you start Black Benefactors?
Webb: My journey began when I lost my job as a nonprofit director. I couldn’t raise the funding needed to keep the organization open. I made a vow to myself that I would help other black nonprofit founders and leaders, but at the time, I didn’t know how. The concept of giving circles was introduced to me a few years earlier, so I began to research them in my spare time. Upon learning, more about how they worked, I realized it would be the perfect way to accomplish my goal of funding black led nonprofits. I came up with the name Black Benefactors to clearly show who the funding is for, and who makes the funding possible. Our giving circle members are the benefactors, which is a person who gives money to a cause. I’ve had members tell me that they didn’t see themselves as benefactors or philanthropists before, but now they do.
Reid: What’s the first step someone should take if they want to become a philanthropist?
Webb: Since 2014, BB has hosted dinner series events featuring black philanthropists who share their giving story. A common theme among all speakers on their approach to philanthropy can be used as a first step–they identified a focus area for their giving. Usually it was influenced by their interests, or a cause they were personally affected by. One of our past speakers, Reggie Van Lee, is an art collector who established a scholarship for performing arts students at Howard University. He combined his love for the arts and philanthropy.
Reid: What is a project that your giving circle participated in and that you’re excited about?
Webb: We launched a capacity building project this year to help strengthen black led nonprofits in the D.C. area. Through partnerships with local funders and a consulting firm, our grantee partners and grant applicants can receive in-kind support to strengthen their infrastructure. Our first workshop was held in partnership with the D.C. office of “Blacks at Bain” of Bain & Company, a global consultancy firm, on board development, and a second workshop was held with the Beckner Advancement Fund, a social justice funder based in D.C.
Reid: Tell me about the very first grant you awarded. What was that like?
Webb: Our first grants totaling $9,000 were awarded in 2009. It was very moving for me because behind that first grant was years of planning, research, recruiting, meetings and fundraising. To be able to award a grant that was from us, for us was the best feeling in the world. I continue to experience that feeling with each grant cycle. Our grantees have shared with us that receiving a grant from black donors is impactful and for some, the first time. I’m proud to say that with each grant cycle, we’ve increased our total grant awards.
Reid: Why is now an important time for blacks to give?
Webb: Now is an important time to support a giving circle like ours because there are initiatives to increase funding and resources to black led businesses, but what about black-led nonprofits? Only 3% of national foundation funding is allocated to these organizations, which are often underfunded, if funded at all, and under-resourced. Because of this reason, we aim to fill this critical gap in resources by funding black-led nonprofits at the highest level possible each grant cycle instead of awarding several small grants.
Reid: How can someone start giving if they only have $500? Is that enough?
Webb: Absolutely. In fact, two of our past grants were in the amount of $500 for the purchase of wish list items. To get started, if there’s a giving circle in your community, consider donating to one or more of their grantees. Giving circles are more likely to support small organizations and $500 can go a long way. Or, leverage your $500 with others by joining or donating to a giving circle for a larger gift. I’d also like to add that you can start giving at any amount.
Reid: What is in the future for Black Benefactors?
Webb: We are undergoing a restructuring process to better serve our members, grantee partners and the community. During this time, we’re accepting donations to support our grant making. Looking into my Black Benefactors crystal ball, I see new members, larger grant awards and a youth component in our future.
Reid: How can someone support black philanthropy now?
Webb: Learn more about the history and impact of black giving circles by reading “The Sweetness of Circles” here, an op-ed that I co-authored with Akira Barclay and Valaida Fullwood, and start planning now to celebrate Black Philanthropy Month in August 2020 by visiting www.blackphilanthropymonth.com. Most importantly, share how you give black year-round with #BPM365
I. Wiped Out
“You ever chop before?” Willena Scott-White was testing me. I sat with her in the cab of a Chevy Silverado pickup truck, swatting at the squadrons of giant, fluttering mosquitoes that had invaded the interior the last time she opened a window. I was spending the day with her family as they worked their fields just outside Ruleville, in Mississippi’s Leflore County. With her weathered brown hands, Scott-White gave me a pork sandwich wrapped in a grease-stained paper towel. I slapped my leg. Mosquitoes can bite through denim, it turns out.
Cotton sowed with planters must be chopped—thinned and weeded manually with hoes—to produce orderly rows of fluffy bolls. The work is backbreaking, and the people who do it maintain that no other job on Earth is quite as demanding. I had labored long hours over other crops, but had to admit to Scott-White, a 60-something grandmother who’d grown up chopping, that I’d never done it.
“Then you ain’t never worked,” she replied.
The fields alongside us as we drove were monotonous. With row crops, monotony is good. But as we toured 1,000 acres of land in Leflore and Bolivar Counties, straddling Route 61, Scott-White pointed out the demarcations between plots. A trio of steel silos here. A post there. A patch of scruffy wilderness in the distance. Each landmark was a reminder of the Scott legacy that she had fought to keep—or to regain—and she noted this with pride. Each one was also a reminder of an inheritance that had once been stolen.
Drive Route 61 through the Mississippi Delta and you’ll find much of the scenery exactly as it was 50 or 75 years ago. Imposing plantations and ramshackle shotgun houses still populate the countryside from Memphis to Vicksburg. Fields stretch to the horizon. The hands that dig into black Delta dirt belong to people like Willena Scott-White, African Americans who bear faces and names passed down from men and women who were owned here, who were kept here, and who chose to stay here, tending the same fields their forebears tended.
But some things have changed. Back in the day, snow-white bolls of King Cotton reigned. Now much of the land is green with soybeans. The farms and plantations are much larger—industrial operations with bioengineered plants, laser-guided tractors, and crop-dusting drones. Fewer and fewer farms are still owned by actual farmers. Investors in boardrooms throughout the country have bought hundreds of thousands of acres of premium Delta land. If you’re one of the millions of people who have a retirement account with the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, for instance, you might even own a little bit yourself.
A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America.
TIAA is one of the largest pension firms in the United States. Together with its subsidiaries and associated funds, it has a portfolio of more than 80,000 acres in Mississippi alone, most of them in the Delta. If the fertile crescent of Arkansas is included, TIAA holds more than 130,000 acres in a strip of counties along the Mississippi River. And TIAA is not the only big corporate landlord in the region. Hancock Agricultural Investment Group manages more than 65,000 acres in what it calls the “Delta states.” The real-estate trust Farmland Partners has 30,000 acres in and around the Delta. AgriVest, a subsidiary of the Swiss bank UBS, owned 22,000 acres as of 2011. (AgriVest did not respond to a request for more recent information.)
Unlike their counterparts even two or three generations ago, black people living and working in the Delta today have been almost completely uprooted from the soil—as property owners, if not as laborers. In Washington County, Mississippi, where last February TIAA reportedly bought 50,000 acres for more than $200 million, black people make up 72 percent of the population but own only 11 percent of the farmland, in part or in full. In Tunica County, where TIAA has acquired plantations from some of the oldest farm-owning white families in the state, black people make up 77 percent of the population but own only 6 percent of the farmland. In Holmes County, the third-blackest county in the nation, black people make up about 80 percent of the population but own only 19 percent of the farmland. TIAA owns plantations there, too. In just a few years, a single company has accumulated a portfolio in the Delta almost equal to the remaining holdings of the African Americans who have lived on and shaped this land for centuries.
This is not a story about TIAA—at least not primarily. The company’s newfound dominance in the region is merely the topsoil covering a history of loss and legally sanctioned theft in which TIAA played no part. But TIAA’s position is instrumental in understanding both how the crimes of Jim Crow have been laundered by time and how the legacy of ill-gotten gains has become a structural part of American life. The land was wrested first from Native Americans, by force. It was then cleared, watered, and made productive for intensive agriculture by the labor of enslaved Africans, who after Emancipation would come to own a portion of it. Later, through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive, occasionally violent—farmland owned by black people came into the hands of white people. It was aggregated into larger holdings, then aggregated again, eventually attracting the interest of Wall Street.
Owners of small farms everywhere, black and white alike, have long been buffeted by larger economic forces. But what happened to black landowners in the South, and particularly in the Delta, is distinct, and was propelled not only by economic change but also by white racism and local white power. A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America. They have lost 12 million acres over the past century. But even that statement falsely consigns the losses to long-ago history. In fact, the losses mostly occurred within living memory, from the 1950s onward. Today, except for a handful of farmers like the Scotts who have been able to keep or get back some land, black people in this most productive corner of the Deep South own almost nothing of the bounty under their feet.
Land has always been the main battleground of racial conflict in Mississippi. During Reconstruction, fierce resistance from the planters who had dominated antebellum society effectively killed any promise of land or protection from the Freedmen’s Bureau, forcing masses of black laborers back into de facto bondage. But the sheer size of the black population—black people were a majority in Mississippi until the 1930s—meant that thousands were able to secure tenuous footholds as landowners between Emancipation and the Great Depression.
Driven by what W. E. B. Du Bois called “land hunger” among freedmen during Reconstruction, two generations of black workers squirreled away money and went after every available and affordable plot they could, no matter how marginal or hopeless. Some found sympathetic white landowners who would sell to them. Some squatted on unused land or acquired the few homesteads available to black people. Some followed visionary leaders to all-black utopian agrarian experiments, such as Mound Bayou, in Bolivar County.
It was never much, and it was never close to just, but by the early 20th century, black people had something to hold on to. In 1900, according to the historian James C. Cobb, black landowners in Tunica County outnumbered white ones three to one. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 25,000 black farm operators in 1910, an increase of almost 20 percent from 1900. Black farmland in Mississippi totaled 2.2 million acres in 1910—some 14 percent of all black-owned agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state.
The foothold was never secure. From the beginning, even the most enterprising black landowners found themselves fighting a war of attrition, often fraught with legal obstacles that made passing title to future generations difficult. Bohlen Lucas, one of the few black Democratic politicians in the Delta during Reconstruction (most black politicians at the time were Republicans), was born enslaved and managed to buy a 200-acre farm from his former overseer. But, like many farmers, who often have to borrow against expected harvests to pay for equipment, supplies, and the rent or mortgage on their land, Lucas depended on credit extended by powerful lenders. In his case, credit depended specifically on white patronage, given in exchange for his help voting out the Reconstruction government—after which his patrons abandoned him. He was left with 20 acres.
In Humphreys County, Lewis Spearman avoided the pitfalls of white patronage by buying less valuable wooded tracts and grazing cattle there as he moved into cotton. But when cotton crashed in the 1880s, Spearman, over his head in debt, crashed with it.
Around the turn of the century, in Leflore County, a black farm organizer and proponent of self-sufficiency—referred to as a “notoriously bad Negro” in the local newspapers—led a black populist awakening, marching defiantly and by some accounts bringing boycotts against white merchants. White farmers responded with a posse that may have killed as many as 100 black farmers and sharecroppers along with women and children. The fate of the “bad Negro” in question, named Oliver Cromwell, is uncertain. Some sources say he escaped to Jackson, and into anonymity.
Like so many of his forebears, Ed Scott Sr., Willena Scott-White’s grandfather, acquired his land through not much more than force of will. As recorded in the thick binders of family history that Willena had brought along in the truck, and that we flipped through between stretches of work in the fields, his life had attained the gloss of folklore. He was born in 1886 in western Alabama, a generation removed from bondage. Spurred by that same land hunger, Scott took his young family to the Delta, seeking opportunities to farm his own property. He sharecropped and rented, and managed large farms for white planters, who valued his ability to run their sprawling estates. One of these men was Palmer H. Brooks, who owned a 7,000-acre plantation in Mississippi’s Leflore and Sunflower Counties. Brooks was uncommonly progressive, encouraging entrepreneurship among the black laborers on his plantation, building schools and churches for them, and providing loans. Scott was ready when Brooks decided to sell plots to black laborers, and he bought his first 100 acres.
Unlike Bohlen Lucas, Scott largely avoided politics. Unlike Lewis Spearman, he paid his debts and kept some close white allies—a necessity, since he usually rejected government assistance. And unlike Oliver Cromwell, he led his community under the rules already in place, appearing content with what he’d earned for his family in an environment of total segregation. He leveraged technical skills and a talent for management to impress sympathetic white people and disarm hostile ones. “Granddaddy always had nice vehicles,” Scott-White told me. They were a trapping of pride in a life of toil. As was true in most rural areas at the time, a new truck was not just a flashy sign of prosperity but also a sort of credit score. Wearing starched dress shirts served the same purpose, elevating Scott in certain respects—always within limits—even above some white farmers who drove into town in dirty overalls. The trucks got shinier as his holdings grew. By the time Scott died, in 1957, he had amassed more than 1,000 acres of farmland.
Scott-White guided me right up to the Quiver River, where the legend of her family began. It was a choked, green-brown gurgle of a thing, the kind of lazy waterway that one imagines to be brimming with fat, yawning catfish and snakes. “Mr. Brooks sold all of the land on the east side of this river to black folks,” Scott-White told me. She swept her arm to encompass the endless acres. “All of these were once owned by black families.”
That era of black ownership, in the Delta and throughout the country, was already fading by the time Scott died. As the historian Pete Daniel recounts, half a million black-owned farms across the country failed in the 25 years after 1950. Joe Brooks, the former president of the Emergency Land Fund, a group founded in 1972 to fight the problem of dispossession, has estimated that something on the order of 6 million acres was lost by black farmers from 1950 to 1969. That’s an average of 820 acres a day—an area the size of New York’s Central Park erased with each sunset. Black-owned cotton farms in the South almost completely disappeared, diminishing from 87,000 to just over 3,000 in the 1960s alone. According to the Census of Agriculture, the racial disparity in farm acreage increased in Mississippi from 1950 to 1964, when black farmers lost almost 800,000 acres of land. An analysis for The Atlantic by a research team that included Dania Francis, at the University of Massachusetts, and Darrick Hamilton, at Ohio State, translates this land loss into a financial loss—including both property and income—of $3.7 billion to $6.6 billion in today’s dollars.
This was a silent and devastating catastrophe, one created and maintained by federal policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal life raft for agriculture helped start the trend in 1937 with the establishment of the Farm Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Agriculture. Although the FSA ostensibly existed to help the country’s small farmers, as happened with much of the rest of the New Deal, white administrators often ignored or targeted poor black people—denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people. After Roosevelt’s death, in 1945, conservatives in Congress replaced the FSA with the Farmers Home Administration, or FmHA. The FmHA quickly transformed the FSA’s programs for small farmers, establishing the sinews of the loan-and-subsidy structure that undergirds American agriculture today. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s administration created the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, or ASCS, a complementary program to the FmHA that also provided loans to farmers. The ASCS was a federal effort—also within the Department of Agriculture—but, crucially, the members of committees doling out money and credit were elected locally, during a time when black people were prohibited from voting.
Through these programs, and through massive crop and surplus purchasing, the USDA became the safety net, price-setter, chief investor, and sole regulator for most of the farm economy in places like the Delta. The department could offer better loan terms to risky farmers than banks and other lenders, and mostly outcompeted private credit. In his book Dispossession, Daniel calls the setup “agrigovernment.” Land-grant universities pumped out both farm operators and the USDA agents who connected those operators to federal money. Large plantations ballooned into even larger industrial crop factories as small farms collapsed. The mega-farms held sway over agricultural policy, resulting in more money, at better interest rates, for the plantations themselves. At every level of agrigovernment, the leaders were white.
Lizzie Presser 17 Jul 2019
Mansions on land once owned by Freeman’s family.
The Reels brothers spent eight years in jail for refusing to leave their plot of land in North Carolina.
“Since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land.”
In the Spring of 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.
Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.”
“The land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families.”
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.”
”’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.”
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.
“You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?”
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 1920, African Americans represented 14% of Southern farm owners.”
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.”
“Investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots.”
Beaufort is a quaint town, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.
Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.
Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.
Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.”
“Gertrude secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs.”
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.”
“The Torrens Act is ‘a legal way to steal land.’”
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.
“Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot.”
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.”
“Tax sales have a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property.”
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.
“A white customer sneered that Gertrude was the only thing standing in the way of development.”
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.”
“If the brothers had to go to jail, they would.”
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.
“Even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another.”
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?”
“The white man takes the land from the black.”
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.
“North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms.”
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.
“The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order.”
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.”
“This has messed my mind up.”
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.
Pine trees by the shore.
The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.
After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”
“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 7/19/2019 at 7:00 PM our guest was African American Farmer, Activist, Carlton Sanders. In part II of this discussion Mr. Sanders informed the listeners about his struggle, and also other Black Poultry Farmers in the Black Belt. And in Mississippi, how one of the nations top Poultry Processors are trying to drive Black Farmers out of business, which will result in the lost of land.
Written by Peter Pedroncelli Jul 05, 2019
Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, African Union ambassador to the U.S., has called on African Americans to “come home” and contribute to Africa’s growth and prosperity.
She was speaking to an audience of Black entrepreneurs at a Power Networking Conference in Houston, Texas and urged them to “wake up, organize, go home and take what is rightfully ours,” according to a YouTube video uploaded by Dr. Boyce Watkins, the CEO of The Black Business School.
Zimbabwe-born Dr. Chihombori-Quao is the permanent representative of the African Union Representational Mission to the U.S., according to the A.U.
A former medical doctor, she is the CEO and founder of Bell Family Medical Centers in the U.S. Before taking up her current position at the A.U. in 2017, she practiced medicine for 29 years in Tennessee.
Chihombori-Quao asked African Americans to return home to Africa with the skills and expertise to help build African economies.
“If the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area is going to succeed, it must include the children in the diaspora,” she said.
The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement is a new pan-African trade zone proposed in March 2018 that aims to enable intra-Africa trade among the 55 countries in Africa, Fin24 reports.
Intra-African trade was worth about $170 billion in 2017, but accounts for only 15 percent of the continent’s trade, FT reports.
By comparison, intra-continental trade is at 67 percent in the European Union and 58 percent in Asia.
Designed to boost intra-Africa trade, the African Continental Free Trade Area, which came into effect at the end of May, aims to slash tariffs on 90 percent of goods across a market of 1.2 billion people, according to Moneyweek.
Contracts for massive construction projects are going to companies in China and Europe when they could be going to “the children of Africa” in the diaspora, Chihombori-Quao said.
“So while the rest of the world is strategizing about how to get into Africa, guess who is still sleeping like grasshoppers? Us, the children of Africa. I’m here to say, my brothers and sisters, we must wake up. We have got to wake up, organize and go home to take what is rightfully ours.”
She ended her address with a call for African Americans not to complain about Africa but contribute to change it.
“If we don’t organize in order for us to participate in the development of Africa, let’s not complain when the contract to build the Cape-to-Cairo highway goes to China. Let’s not complain when the highway from East Africa to West Africa goes to some European company,” Chihombori-Quao said.
Organized for almost two decades, the PowerNetworking Conference has gathered Black entrepreneurs looking to connect, grow and prosper with annual events held in Houston, Texas.
This year’s event took place between June 26-29. The dates for 2020 are not confirmed.
During a visit to Los Angeles on June 14, Ethiopian ambassador Fitsum Arega outlined the prospects for investors, companies, and entrepreneurs to engage with Africa’s second most populous country, according to the LosAngelesSentinel.
“Our new, reformist prime minister (Abiy Ahmed) welcomes U.S. businesses to do trade between the U.S. and Africa and the U.S. and Ethiopia. We encourage the Africa diaspora – African Americans – to do business and strengthen this link,” said Arega.
Manufacturing, telecommunications, power and solar energy and entertainment are areas ripe for investment, he said.
“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 7/07/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guest was African American Farmer, Activist, John Ingrum. Mr. Ingrum informed the listeners about his struggle, and also other Black Poultry Farmers in the Black Belt. Our conversation also covered Mississippi, how one of the nations top Poultry Processors are trying to drive Black Farmers out of business, which will result in the lost of land.