Silver Dollar Road follows a Black family’s struggle to save their North Carolina land from cutthroat developers. The patriarch Mitchell Reels died without a will, leading to family disputes about the land. White developers swooped in, making a deal with one Reels uncle who was willing to sell against Mitchell’s wishes.
“After a member of the family dies, sometimes all the really crazy emotion comes up and some of the crazy uncle or the crazy niece come out of the woods,” Peck said on a panel for the Amazon MGM Studios movie at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary. “Then the outside world came crashing and they had to basically try to submit them to what was happening all over the country.”
The coastal land that was in the Reels family had become advantageous to the tourism, real estate and tech industries. Peck said the modern legal issues extend from the founding of America, when people of color and indigenous communities that already were here were excluded from opportunity.
“The few former enslaved who could buy land, they bought land that they could afford which was swampland, coastal land with sandy ground, and they made it fruitful,” Peck said. “They made it something, and then by the beginning of the 20th century, people start chasing them and start stealing that very land that they really worked on and made something out of it.”
In the early 1900s, that chase took the form of violence and lynchings, which drove many Black families north.
“The tourist industry in the ‘20s even made that worse,” Peck said. “All that coastal land became prime land. It’s an addition of effort and structural bias that created that situation.”
Some of the tactics used against the Reels include holding them in jail for contempt of court for more than 90 days without coming before a judge.
“They could have stayed longer,” Peck said. “They were basically left there to die. They were not even in a federal prison where you have access to books, you have access to sports, you can go out for multiple hours. No, they were in a sheriff’s jail, basically left by themselves and basically left to rot.”
Peck said such cases highlight the systemic ways in which American society attempts to prevent poor and underprivileged from ever rising above their stations.
“They were basically happy,” Peck said. “They had their piece of land. They could hunt. They were fishing. They made money, a lot of money sometimes fishing, they didn’t need anybody. Yes, they did not have a will. The property was on what we call heirs property.”
Check back Tuesday for the panel video.