- Interview by
- Ed Rampell
Oscar-nominated writer/director Raoul Peck’s latest documentary, Silver Dollar Road, focuses on Elijah Reels, a black American who — after the Civil War — purchased “65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore” in Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. As Lizzie Presser detailed in her 2019 ProPublica article “Kicked Off the Land,” copublished by the New Yorker, the property soon became a refuge for the extended Reels family, and on his deathbed Elijah Reels, the family patriarch, exhorted his relatives: “Whatever you do, don’t let the white man take our land.”
Over the decades the Reels enjoyed their very own beach — at a time when black Americans were banned from most sands in the segregated South — and pursued livelihoods as commercial fishermen, shrimpers, and farmers. But in time, the waterfront property near the eponymous Silver Dollar Road became extremely valuable and coveted by white interests. Legal machinations were used to strip away the family’s property, and two brothers, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, were arrested for trespassing on their legacy land, which had been in the family for generations. Remarkably, they ended up serving eight years behind bars, “becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history,” as Presser noted.
But as Peck chronicles in his documentary Silver Dollar Road, the Reels family remained united and persisted in their support of their incarcerated kinfolk. They continued the struggle in the streets with civil rights demonstrations and in the courts of Beaufort, the Carteret County seat, fighting for their relatives’ liberty — and for their land.
As Peck discusses below, no matter what medium he works in, whether it’s films like his Academy Award–nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro or his HBO miniseries Exterminate All the Brutes, all have a thematic unity stressing empathy for and solidarity with the wretched of the earth. Peck was interviewed about his latest production, Silver Dollar Road, via Zoom in Los Angeles.
How did you get wind of this story?
The story was brought to me by ProPublica, Amazon, and JuVee Productions. They had been working on it for a few years, and as you know, it’s an incredible story. But when it came to me, I saw a possibility to tell the same story I told in Exterminate All the Brutes or Baldwin did with I Am Not Your Negro from a different perspective. Much more down to earth, much more humane group of people, but for me, it’s the same core story of this country and the injustices that exist.
It’s the story of a family who had been denied justice about a piece of land they owned for at least 160 years. It’s the typical story of appropriation in an urban world of gentrification where people are unable to keep their property and they are being pushed out by other entities that want to make a profit from that piece of land.
How did the Reels family originally get that land?
Like many people who came out of enslavement, they tried to make a living. Some of them succeeded in buying swamp land. They were able as well to make that land prosperous — nobody bought it because it was the only land they could have access to and pay for.
Of course, it became a problem for the surrounding white population that a former slave could own land and make a living out of that land. That’s when the terror started. Lynching, burning down houses, burning down plantations. And then sending a big exodus of black farmers to the North.
According to your film, during the twentieth century, 90 percent of black landowners lost their land. Can you tell us about that?
They were pushed out, and the laws voted were not in their favor. Or even when they were in their favor there were ways to manipulate those laws and make sure that blacks and minorities — I’m not even talking about the indigenous part of the population, the original inheritors — were deprived of everything. You can trace the source of today’s poverty, today’s economic down spiral, the fact that all of the community doesn’t have access to the minimum of education or wealth, cannot live in proper places where they feel protected. So, you can trace the whole history of this country through the same history of land, and land acquiring and land being stolen, and land being used for capitalistic profit.
It’s astounding in your film that two members of the Reels family, Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, go to prison for trespassing on their own legacy land. What is “heirs’ property law,” which is mentioned in Silver Dollar Road?
It’s a simple concept. Because most of the black population doesn’t trust the justice system, when they die, a lot of the time they don’t leave a will. Because for a will, you have to go to a notary; it’s a legal document. They prefer to let the land to all their inheritors, all their children and grandchildren, believing that because it’s the whole family, [the land] is all protected. But you fall into what’s called “heirs’ property” — that means it’s a property that each part of the family owns a little bit of, like a stakeholder. But there is no paperwork.
So, the heirs’ property makes the property, in fact, more fragile. People can find loopholes where they can go to one of those supposed heirs, whether that person lived on the property or not, and say, “I want my piece.” Usually, because it’s the whole family who is responsible — but as you know in everyday life, when you have one hundred or two hundred family members, it’s very hard to get a hold of everybody. That helped make the thing very complicated. And the property is sold at some auction, usually at the bargain price, and the family loses the whole property. They get some money for it, but there’s nothing they can do and they lose the very place where they live. Just because somebody from elsewhere pushes some sort of document that they were also owner. So that’s how those bad stories started, because the laws enable it.
Can you give some examples of how Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were cheated out of their land?
One of them is the Torrens Act, where somebody can indeed bring some sort of paper of title, whether the title is proven truthful or not; in that case, it was a fraudulent title. Because if you could prove that you have a line on the land or that you put people on the land who can witness that it belongs to you, the judge might decide, okay, it’s rightfully true.
But in that case, most of the names in that deed did not exist — the family did not know who they were. But a judge decided it was truthful. So, basically that’s when the problems started. There were two documents: One fraudulent; one was legal, but conflicted, because the justice said both are in conflict. Starting from there it was impossible to really find the right way to get out of the situation, and the property kept being sold to other companies.
I hope the film will give more insight about what else is happening in this country right now. And in order to understand, you need to know more about your whole history since the beginning.