Preserving Generations: A Black Family’s Tenacious Battle to Protect Their Land

Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck adapts Lizzie Presser’s ProPublica piece, “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery,” for Silver Dollar Road (Oct. 20, Prime Video). Co-published with The New Yorker, “The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.” Still, this documentary is not particularly rigorous from a journalistic standpoint. The touching tale of a North Carolina clan fighting to hold onto their ancestral land in the face of strong developer pressure shows how close-knit families can be when things go tough. However, it stops short at the knees when it comes to its main legal battle, omitting a great deal of important information.

Gertrude Reels is the owner of several dozen acres in Carteret County, North Carolina, which she inherited from her relatives. Elijah Reels was the one who initially purchased the land in 1911. This estate was the meeting place for generations of Reels men and women. Mamie Ellison, Gertrude’s daughter, and Kim Duhon, her granddaughter, wax nostalgic about the “magical” times spent there playing, roaming, and hanging out with uncles who told stories of mermaids when they weren’t unloading seafood from their commercial fishing boats. Silver Dollar Road leads straight down to the water. Summers at Silver Dollar Road were filled with music, dancing, barbecues, and other celebrations, all of which were made possible by Gertrude’s claim to the site thanks to heirs’ property rules.

Shedrick, Gertrude’s uncle, disputed her ownership in 1978, claiming to have a deed stating that he was the owner of Silver Dollar Road. A judge ruled in his favour on March 19, 1979, awarding him (as well as subsequently a company called Adams Creek Associates) ownership of thirteen waterfront acres. This incident sparked a legal battle, which Silver Dollar Road contextualises with short text cards and newspaper headlines about how former slaves turned swamplands into affluent, lively areas and how Black Southern landowners were terrorised by white supremacists in the early 20th century.

The obvious conclusion is that Shedrick was working with white Adams Creek Associates executives, or was being taken advantage of by them, in order to seize the Reels property and develop it in a way that would make it look like adjacent projects, complete with mansions, golf courses, and boat slips suitable for affluent vacationers.

Sadly, Silver Dollar Road never provides any noteworthy information on Shedrick. Even worse, it provides us with zero information about Adams Creek Associates, including the identity of its real operator. Peck may freely suggest that Adams Creek Associates is a racist organisation by keeping it a murky mystery, avoiding the need to address (perhaps difficult) facts. And it’s implied he does, thanks to Reels attorney James Hairston and Mamie, who can be heard yelling to her brother in an old film that this is “slavery time” and “this is just how white people do.” Hairston believes that race is the main point of contention in this heated situation. Hairston does, however, simultaneously acknowledge that he lacks any proof of racism or anecdotal evidence to support it.

Regarding this alleged land-grab scheme and the subsequent prosecution of Gertrude’s sons Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, who were accused of trespassing by Adams Creek Associates for living on the company’s property, Silver Dollar Road provides scant details to support its conclusions. Both men were soon imprisoned and remained there for about eight years. The anguish and rage of the couple’s family members are portrayed in Peck’s film, and on the surface, it does seem like an unfairly lengthy sentence for a very small offence. Once more, though, the director avoids getting into the specific legal details that gave rise to and maintained this situation.

Rather than delving deeply into the core of its story, Silver Dollar Road focuses its efforts on presenting different members of the Reels family in their homes, on their land, and on the lake. The texts portray their strong bond, unwavering beliefs, and determination to protect their birthright not due to its monetary worth but rather its significant historical significance. Although these are moving parts, they ultimately sacrifice deeper lines of investigation, and the film drags as a result of their detachment from the main plot. By the time he sees Melvin and Licurtis’s release, the director’s narrative is so devoted to emphasising emotion over important details that it feels genuinely perplexing.

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