BEAUFORT, N.C. (WTVD) -- In their eyes, this land is both holy and promised.
Melvin Davis, 78, stands at the edge of Silver Dollar Road and looks out at the mouth of the Neuse River where it feeds into the Pamlico Sound. It's the first time since 2011 he's seeing the sun glisten over the water.
"I shrimped off of this water and I've been on this land all of my days," Davis told ABC11. "I'm not letting it up."
Davis' determination is as mighty as it is consistent; he and his brother, Licurtis Reels, spent the last eight years locked up in Carteret County Jail having refused to comply with the conditions of a court order and recognize the sale of 13.25 acres of land which Davis' family continues to claim as its own.
"Where are you going to find another home like this on the water? We are the only black family around that owns (land on) inter-coastal waters," Davis said. "That's why it's so important to me."
According to the family, the Reels family's ties to the property and the sprawling bluffs around it date to Reconstruction, when the land was gifted to their ancestors who were freed from slavery.
In 1911, Elijah Reels officially took ownership of about 65 acres. For decades, the Reels family ran a fishing business to support their growing family, whose members continued to build houses along Silver Dollar Road, which is the only way in and out of the property.
WHERE THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A RELATIVE
Elijah Reels' grandson, Mitchell Reels, would later take ownership but died without leaving a will in 1971, thus enabling a distant relative to claim 13.25 acres using an old North Carolina law called "Torrens."
"I've got papers on this land," Davis told ABC11. "This is the Reels' land and it's going to stand."
Despite fierce opposition, the land was sold in 1985 and then sold again in 1986 to William Dean Brown and his company, Adams Creek Associates.
Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis, meanwhile, had never left their homes or dismantled their property.
According to Lamar Armstrong, Brown's attorney, the plan was to build some condos, but to this day there's never been a shovel in the ground.
"I don't think it'd be any different if Joe Blow came in and bought the land," Armstrong said to ABC11 in March 2018. "We don't take it personally."
BROTHERS REFUSE TO MOVE
In the ensuing 20 years, Brown and Adams Creek Associates successfully took the brothers to court to assert the company's ownership of the land and coerce the brothers to leave the property. Upon judgment after judgment, the brothers were given two orders: remove their homes and promise to not trespass. Ultimately, a judge in 2011 set those demands in a Contempt of Court order, sending Licurtis and Melvin to jail unless they meet those two conditions.
"When those disputes are reflected in a final decision, we follow them -- regardless of whether we like the result or agree with it," Armstrong said. "But not the extended Reels family, including defendants Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels. They remain in jail because they will not even sign an acknowledgment that Adams Creek owns the land and promise not to go back on it. They are martyrs by choice."
"They're trying to preserve their heritage," the brothers' niece, Kim Duhon countered. "They made a vow never to leave this property or to lose the property and they're standing by that vow. If they build those condos, the property tax rates will get so high nobody here can afford them, and we'll all have to leave."
Armstrong, however, refuted the notion of a takeover. Brown today is 85, married and no children. While they won't give away the land, they're eager to sell and are open to finding a resolution with either the Reels or any other supporters who wish to help them preserve the land.
"The fairness of it all is that we have victims on all sides of this," Armstrong added. "We feel for these folks. I am amazed like anyone else who looks at this and they would stay in jail for that long - and for what? But it is a choice, and every chance they get to testify, they reaffirm that choice."
BROTHERS GO HOME, FIGHT GOES ON
The brothers' attorney, James Hairston, successfully argued on Wednesday for the brothers' release from Carteret County Jail. Significantly, the judge did not absolve Melvin and Licurtis from obeying the court order, meaning they are technically still forbidden to trespass on to the land and, if they can afford it, raze their homes.
If they're caught, it's possible they could be charged with criminal trespassing and sent back to jail.
"It hurts me to see it like this," Davis says as he looks at his old house from afar. "You used to see a pretty white building and working on the water and doing what we do."
Even if the Reelses gave up the 13.25 acres, the family would still retain more than 50 acres in Elijah Reels' original plot, which includes a church and cemetery. Davis, however, fears that giving up any parcel for development could lead to the Reelses being unable to afford to stay in the area.
"They'll run the taxes up where you can't afford to pay the taxes unless you're making big bucks," Davis said. "I'm taking care of my kids, making sure they've got a place to swim and be baptized like we were."
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