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ProPublica Report: Black Americans Lose Big Under Longtime Property Provision

Jul 20, 2019
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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The issue of reparations is back in the news. Democratic presidential hopefuls are talking about it. Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee proposed legislation this year that would create a commission to study reparations. And this week, Senator Chuck Schumer said he'd support that bill. Proponents of the concept argue that reparations are not just about slavery but also injustices black Americans have endured since the Jim Crow era and beyond. One of those injustices includes the losses of enormous amounts of property to a form of land ownership called heirs property, which some economists say has cost black Americans hundreds of billions of dollars in lost land over the past century.

Joining us now to talk about this is reporter Lizzie Presser, who investigated heirs property in a collaboration between ProPublica and The New Yorker. She followed the case of Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who spent eight years in jail fighting for the land they call home. And she joins us now from our New York bureau. Hi, Lizzie. Welcome.

LIZZIE PRESSER: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: One of the people you spoke to in your reporting called heirs property the worst problem you never heard of. Can you tell us more about what it is?

PRESSER: So heirs property is a form of ownership. And essentially what happens is that someone dies without a will, and their descendants inherit an interest in the land. So instead of owning a physical piece of it, they're owning a share, kind of like holding stock in a company. And as that land is passed down through generations, that can mean that dozens or hundreds of family members co-own a piece of land. And it creates a very unstable form of ownership.

MCCAMMON: And why is it structured that way?

PRESSER: Intestate succession is what it's called legally, and essentially that's just what will happen if you die without a will. And so families often believed, actually, that if they owned land in this way, they were protecting it from being taken from them. But in reality, it made their ownership very vulnerable to takings.

MCCAMMON: In the heart of your investigation is the case of the Reels family, two brothers - Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis in Carteret County, N.C. Tell us a little bit about how their story starts and then how it starts to unravel.

PRESSER: So Melvin and Licurtis's great-grandfather bought 65 acres in 1911. And in 1970, their grandfather Mitchell Reels died without a will. What ended up happening was a distant uncle who hadn't lived on the property in two decades used an arcane law called the Torrens law to carve out the most valuable slice of the property right on the river. And this is a family of shrimpers and crabbers and fishers. And so that's - that wasn't just the most valuable property in terms of its value to sell, it was also the way in which these men made their money and fed their community. Once he was able to take that land, he very quickly sold it off to developers. And that's really when the trouble started for the Reels family.

MCCAMMON: And so the two brothers get their day in court in 2011. What happens next?

PRESSER: The brothers had been occupying the waterfront. They didn't really understand that their uncle had taken it. And, in fact, they lived with the belief that the land was theirs, and they weren't going to let go. So even when there were court orders that required the brothers to remove their homes, they refused. In 2011, they went to court thinking that they were just going to argue their case again. But the judge found them guilty of civil contempt, and he ordered them sent to jail.

MCCAMMON: You document multiple ways, both judicial and extrajudicial, in which black Americans have had property taken from them. I want to turn to another legal mechanism you describe that really seems to allow developers to take advantage of heirs property landowners. It's called partition action. Can you explain that?

PRESSER: So in a partition action, any single heir to the property or a speculator who buys the interest of a single heir can go to the court and ask for a sale of the entire property. So imagine if you have 15 relatives, and one person says, I want to sell. And then they get to go to the court and say, I want to sell, and the court says, sure, you can. And everyone then is dispossessed. This is what was happening and continues to happen across the South. But in many cases, what you see are speculators, companies, developers who buy off interests of individual heirs and then bring it to the court.

MCCAMMON: And if I could just ask one last sort of bigger-picture question - as you hear candidates in the 2020 campaign talking about issues of racial justice and reparations, do you think this issue of heirs property, though it's less understood, do you think it helps to make that case?

PRESSER: Absolutely. I think what I was hoping to convey with this piece is that black families had very good reason to be suspicious of white southern courts under Jim Crow. And as a result, we have seen this unstable form of land ownership take hold across the South. And it's a very significant example of how racial discrimination and segregation has fueled a legal system that is stacked against African American landowners.

MCCAMMON: That's ProPublica Lizzie Presser. Lizzie, thanks so much for joining us.

PRESSER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.