Heirs' property: how southern states allow white land developers to steal reconstruction-era land from Black families

Back in 2017, The Nation ran a superb, in-depth story on "heirs' property," a legalized form of property theft that allows primarily rich white developers to expropriate land owned by the descendants of Black slaves.

Now, an in-depth Propublica investigation returns to the American south and its landgrabbing white grifters, with a piece that blends the personalities of the brave Black landowners who are willing to serve long jail sentences rather than cave in to legalized theft (brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels are two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in American history, having spent eight years in lockup for refusing to knock down their ancestral homes).

To understand how heirs' property expropriations work, you have to place them in the context of Black expropriation, which starts with the expropriated bodies of kidnapped Black people who were enslaved, and continues through the ages: the (marshy or arid) properties deeded to formerly enslaved Black people who carefully worked the land and prospered until white mobs came and chased them away with arson, murder and threats; many of the ones who stayed were chased off with massive tax-hikes directed at Black landowners (in South Carolina, property taxes levied on Black lands went up as much as 700% in a decade; Hilton Head had thousands of acres of heirs' property and now it has fewer than 200).

As the remaining property owners began to die off, they were (correctly) mistrustful of white southern lawyers, so they did not draw up wills, leaving their family land to their descendants through a regime called "heirs' property," under the incorrect view that this would keep the land in the family. Instead, as those descendants fled Jim Crow only to find themselves frozen out of home ownership through redlining, they became targets for predatory wealthy land developers who could exploit the complex and unfair law governing heirs' property to seize and expropriate hundreds or even thousands of acres at a time.

The main system for doing this is called "partition": if a single heir with even a tiny claim to family land can be found and convinced to sell their title, the developer can use the courts to force a sale of the whole family property, and the "cash poor, land rich" people who live on the family land are unable to outbid their expropriators.

This is exactly as bad as it sounds: consider Wendy Reed who lost her family home in Summerville, South Carolina because she was late paying a $83.81 tax bill — the property was purchased for a mere $2,000 by a powerful local politician and resort owner named Thomas Limehouse (owner of a nearby luxury resort) for $2,000. Reed was unable to stop the sale by paying her $83.81 because her grandmother had died intestate.

The intersection of partition actions and unclear titles from intestate family elders is bad enough, but it gets especially toxic when mixed with an antiquated, discredited law called the Torrens Act, which allows would-be expropriator to pay a court-appointed lawyer to review their claim to a title and seize land without going through a full court procedure.

14 states have passed laws limiting evictions and partitions and many have repealed the Torrens Act, through model legislation called the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, but eight southern states still support and encourage this kind of white-on-Black land-theft. One notable culprit is North Carolina, especially Carteret County, whose 70,000 residents are 94% white, but whose losers in heirs' property cases are 42% Black.

I've previously said that the difference between "grifters" and "con artists" is that "Grifters put on the veneer of respectability. A grifter doesn't pick your pocket, he gets you to sign a contract full of dirty fine-print. He buys off the judge. He operates out of a 'made town' where the cops are all on the take. The grifter doesn't mount a one-man performance piece. He constructs an immersive LARP in which all the trappings of law and order are present, but filtered through a dream-logic where if he has to pick your pockets, it's only because you don't respect the law enough to empty them voluntarily. A grift is what happens when a con-man hires a lawyer, or a judge, or a legislature, or the President."

In a companion piece, Propublica's Lizzie Presser shows how states can easily stem the tide of disposessions with commonsense legal tweaks. The fact that they don't do this tells you everything you need to know about whether this is an accident or a deliberate campaign of legalized theft.

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.

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.")

Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It. [Lizzie Presser/Propublica]