BEAUFORT — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking public input on an heirs’ property relending program and heirs’ property issues, much like the issues the Reels family has had with their property on Silver Dollar Road in the Merrimon community.
The USDA’s Farm Service Agency published notice July 29 in the Federal Register that it’s holding listening sessions for public input regarding its heirs’ property relending program and heirs’ property issues. One session was held July 31 in Jackson, Miss., while the other is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14 in Washington, D.C. in room 1070A of the Whitten Building at 1400 Independence Avenue Southwest.
Registration for the sessions is available online at www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/outreach-and-education/meeting-registration/index by following the instructions provided. Written copies of oral comments may be submitted online at the website regulations.gov by searching for Docket ID FSA-2019-0010, then following the instructions for online comments.
Written comments must be submitted by Friday, Aug. 9 for attendants of the Washington, D.C. session. Additional written comments will be accepted through Saturday, Aug. 31.
According to the USDA’s notice, heirs’ property refers to land that has been passed down informally from one generation to the next, and is owned “in common” by all heirs, absent a will, regardless of of whether they live on the land, pay the taxes or have ever visited the land.
“An heir is a person legally entitled to the property,” the USDA said. As part of the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act, the departments’ FSA is looking to implement a relending program to help heirs’ property owners get clear legal title to land that became theirs without a formal will.
This action comes about 14 days after ProPublica and The New Yorker co-published an article titled “Kicked off the Land: why so many black families are losing their property” in The New Yorker and “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It” in ProPublica. This article focused on the story of brothers Melvin Davis and LiCurtis Reels, who contested the ownership of a 13.25-acre section of a larger 65-acre tract that belonged to their family since 1911 and ended up serving a nearly-eight-year jail term for civil contempt.
The article put the case of Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels in the context of civil rights, particularly how legal loopholes and vague property laws have been used to take property from black owners. Part of the reason the ownership of the 13.25-acre parcel was disputed was due to Mitchell Reels, Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels’ grandfather, dying without a will.
Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels’ niece, Kim Duhon, said in an email Thursday that having a will from Mitchell, whom she said was her great-great grandfather, would have eliminated “all of this chaos within the family.”
“Mitchell’s children would’ve never had to entertain Shedrick’s unlawful shenanigans,” she said. Ms. Duhon was referring to Shedrick Reels, the brothers’ uncle, who claimed the 13.25-acre parcel was his, resulting in a long civil case that spanned years.
The courts eventually ruled in Shedrick’s favor, and as of Thursday, the property belongs to Adams Creek Associates, to whom Shedrick sold the property. However, Ms. Duhon indicated the Reels family might not be done pursuing ownership of the property.
“I’m not at liberty to say where we are legally with the case,” she said, “Just know that there are strategies in play as we speak. My family has plans on speaking with the USDA in references to this (relending) program.”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.