More than one-third of Black owned land in the South is heirs’ property. What is this law? Heirs’ Property Law states that all heirs may agree to give ownership to one person. In other words, one heir may buy the others’ shares, or the others may voluntarily give their share to a single family member. In some cases, the heirs may agree to form a corporation or other entity to hold and manage the property. Any owner of the property may file for partition.
Based on the ProPublica article, Silver Dollar Road recounts the riveting narrative of the Reels family, led by the matriarch fondly known as “Mamie.” Since the emancipation of slavery, the Reels family has dedicated themselves to farming, fishing, and creating a sustainable existence upon their land along the coastal reaches of North Carolina’s Silver Dollar Road. Mamie’s great grandfather acquired this 65-acre plot during a surge of Black land ownership in America and during a time when African Americans proudly possessed a staggering 15 million acres in the South.
This is not an isolated story, In 1924, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased beachfront property in Southern California’s Manhattan Beach. That same year, Manhattan Beach officials condemned the property and paid the Bruce’s $14,500 while declaring the municipality needed the land for a public park. The property was left underdeveloped for more than three decades, while the couple lost a legal battle to reclaim it. The land was later transferred to Los Angeles County where it was used as a training center for lifeguards. Recently, LA County paid the Bruce family heirs $20 million dollars for the seized land which is now worth an estimated $75 million dollars.
When patriarch Elijah Reels, passed away, the family believed they had a claim on the land. Apparently, another relative, Uncle Sherrick, declared through “adverse possession” his legal right to the prime seashore…basically allegedly falsifying documents to obtain said property. When his claim was uncontested, Sherrick sold his share to Adams Creek Associates. Ever since then, the Reels family has been locked in a multi-decade battle to reclaim what rightfully belongs to them against the team of shady land developers seeking to displace yet another Black family from their own land.
That’s not the worst of the story. Adams Creek served family member Melivin and Licurtis Reels with eviction notices which they decided to fight in court. Not only did they lose their battle, but the court charge them with trespassing on their own land and sent them to prison where they sat for nearly eight years. After spending hundreds of thousands on legal fees and lawyers, teh brothers were finally released.
The Reels family continues to fight for what is theirs. As one relative states during a taped confrontation with the developers, “All they (white people) know how to do is lie, steal and cheat.” As a woman of color who had affluent relatives in St. Louis who owned property, ran their own businesses and paid cast for a brand new care every year, it is not lost on me the pain and frustration this family continues to experience.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), who is not one to shy away from the atrocities experienced by people of color whether it’s James Baldwin or The Reels family, this documentary gives the old adage of the family that prays together – stays together meaning far beyond its text.