It seemed obvious to me that in a country grappling with what reparations to Black Americans for slavery and Jim Crow and beyond might look like, what they should not look like was a Black family being forced to spend thousands of dollars on attorney fees if they hoped to save, or simply be paid fair market value for, reparations land they’d held since 1890 as it was converted to a parkway that would enable big corporations like Amazon, Walmart, and Target to access what is quickly becoming the busiest port on the eastern seaboard.
I naively believed it would be rather easy, or at least possible in 2020, to find local probate attorneys who were unencumbered by political and economic ties in the Savannah area who wanted to help the Quartermans, and that at least one of them would be outraged enough by the unique injustice of the story to offer to do the work pro bono. But after months of searching and many dead-end referrals both locally and through our meeting in New York with Living Cities, it became clear that we needed a Georgia attorney based outside the Savannah area, and that someone was going to need to pay for that attorney. It took me a while, and some help from generous attorney friends in California, to see that this someone could and should be me.
My belief that the injustice being done to the Quarterman family was unique was naïve. It’s true that the fact that Randy Quarterman’s great-great-great grandfather had been given any reparations land at all by my great-great-great grandfather after Sherman’s Special Field Order №15 failed was unique, but it’s also true that the present day railroading of Black families (and to a lesser extent, white families) out of their land for less than fair market value by big American corporations via the strictures of heirs property laws in Georgia is not.
The $973 million Port of Savannah harbor expansion project (SHEP) will be completed in 2020, after which it will be able to handle 14,000 TEU ultra large container vessels — ships with market values of more than $90 million that carry between 2.5 and 3.5 million gallons of fuel, each. Port authorities estimate that US businesses will save up to 40% in transportation costs by going through this port. The upgrade is expected to net more than $282 million in annual benefits: great news for American corporations and their (let’s be honest, largely already very wealthy, and white) executives, and yes, I’m sure in many ways great news for any American who might save or make money and benefit from a healthy economy (and yes, that includes me), but it is not good for those who are railroaded unfairly off the land those corporations hope to use.
Because their land is held as heirs property, the Quartermans are being offered a mere $2,000 per acre, a tiny fraction of its true value even if it wasn’t going to help save American corporations $282 million per year (to say nothing of what it might help them make) as a thoroughfare, by the county. There is no way they can contest this, and they have no control over imminent future condemnation of their land, or the pittance they’re being offered in exchange. Their reparations land is being stolen for corporate development.
I am under no illusion that I can stop the SHEP and Effingham Parkway projects, nor do I want to try. I want the people they plow through — including the Quartermans, including my white cousin (a bonsai farmer definitely not within the category of “wealthy elite”) who lives down the street from the Quartermans, including all the individuals who are about to get taken advantage of — to be compensated fairly. The least America can do in exchange for enabling big corporate benefits is acknowledge humanity and pay each of these people who are losing their means to build generational wealth a fair price. My cousin, for example, will lose ten acres to the parkway’s eminent domain efforts, and his remaining ten acres will be rendered useless as a result. He, too, is being offered a price well under fair market value. But he, at least, has clear title. The price he’s being offered for the land is a little higher. And he can try and fight for fair market value in the courts.
Step one in helping the Quarterman family protect their land is finding an attorney to help them secure clear title, and I found out quickly that heirs property knowledgeable attorneys in Georgia are really fucking busy, especially those who do the work pro bono.
The first five or six people I spoke to who knew anything about heirs property suggested we contact the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center, a remarkable organization that educates and provides pro bono legal support for lower income families and individuals with heirs property. I nearly begged them to consider taking us on. Can you believe this? I said. In this day and age reparations land is being taken away? But there are only two attorneys who work at the Center, and there are so many families in Georgia who are fighting to secure clear title and unlock the value of their heirs property that those two women were already drowning trying to handle 140 cases between them.
“We can really handle 100, maybe,” Wanda, one of the attorneys, told me. “I’m so sorry. This is an interesting case. I wish we could help.” I made a note to make a (501c federal tax deductible) donation to help them with their work instead, once we’d found our own pro bono help, and moved on.
Among other referrals that dead-ended, our friend and Savannah activist Patt Gunn (who also runs Underground Tours of Savannah) referred Randy to a local attorney whom she thought was meeting with Randy as a favor. The man listened, said we had a particularly complicated estate administrator situation, told us clearing title would likely cost nearly $100,000, said no thanks to the case, and charged Randy $150.
The complication was this: The Quarterman family had been under the impression that the administrator of their estate was not a family member but a white male attorney that a white male judge had appointed to control their land back in 1976.
Before the family went to court in the 70’s to try to assign an administrator, none existed, because Zeike Quarterman and his primary and secondary heirs had died, as most rural folks did — intestate, or without a will — without access to or knowledge of confusing and expensive estate planning. But in 1976, nearly 100 years after they’d been given the reparations land, the family realized someone needed to be assigned to manage the property and protect it for the remaining family members, and tried to remedy that. Randy’s grandfather and great aunt had gone to court in disagreement, each arguing they should be appointed as administrator. The judge heard the case for both sides and then instead appointed a white probate judge in Savannah, whom I’ll call John.
I don’t know exactly how the process went down or what the judge and the appointed attorney’s intentions were exactly. But in the end, the ruling meant that a white man was in charge of the Quarterman land. The Georgia heirs property estate administrator role includes filing various letters, obtaining death certificates, filing wills, looking for heirs, filing tax returns, publishing inventory and managing assets, determining the value of property including locating qualified appraisers, making sure land and buildings are insured, and investing and protecting estate assets in order to help protect and control the family’s inheritance. But the Quarterman family never heard from John again. No one was clear on how to interact with him, or what he might do.
In 2019, Randy showed me the paperwork from 1976, and I Googled John’s name. What I found was his obituary from 2016. His death was news to the Quartermans. John’s obituary listed his law firm, which I called after asking Randy if it was okay for me to follow this trail. After a few calls, I was told that an attorney at the firm, whom I’ll call Marina, had taken over John’s files. She was assumed to be the current administrator of the Quarterman estate. I left dozens of voicemails and emails before she made time to speak with me. The conversation began ominously.
“I’m not going to be much help to you,” she said in a sweet southern drawl. She then informed me she had not taken over the Quarterman case and had no knowledge of it. “That book is likely closed,” she said, “but you’d have to do a search with Chatham County.” I’d already spent ample time at the Chatham County Courthouse and knew how confounding searching for real estate documents was. But, this was good news. Once the court assigns an administrator for property that is held as heirs property, only the administrator can act for the property. So not having John, or some other non-family member, as administrator was news that made matters less complicated. But no one told the Quarterman family.
I asked Marina if she could be the attorney to follow up on this important local case and help us clear title. She said she’d never cleared heirs property title before and it wasn’t for her. She referred me to her “wonderfully democratic” attorney and “friend of the people” who’d “helped other Black families keep their land” and urged me to contact him and make sure I gave him her name.
I simultaneously called that attorney and ran his name by Patt and Randy via email. The response came back immediately and in all caps from Patt: “STAY AWAY!”
It was a moot point. He never called back.
Around this time, we flew to New York for the Living Cities board meeting with high hopes that someone there would know an attorney outside of Port Wentworth and Savannah who could help. That was our aim. From Nadia’s and Living Cities’ perspectives, they wanted to give us that chance at seeking help, and they also hoped our storytelling would inspire their board members, in charge of many millions of dollars and large organizations, to go back into their lives more open to examining their individual and organizational responsibility and power to do reparations research and work.
We left the meeting with reassurances from Nadia that we’d inspired others, and on a positive note with many promises of referrals. After a month or so of hunting them down, none of the referrals panned out as we’d originally hoped, though one led us further along.
We were referred to someone named Jazz at the Georgia Heirs Property Law Center. I reached out to Jazz even though I knew the Center was tapped out, hoping maybe somehow he was available to help. I found that Jazz was an organizer, not an attorney, and he was no longer with the Heirs Property Law Center, but he did ask me some insightful questions, and give me another name. I’ll call her Liz. Liz turned out to be a Black woman with experience clearing heirs property title, a practicing attorney in Macon, conveniently located about 150 miles away from Savannah.
I reached out to Liz, still hopeful of finding pro bono help, and with the $100,000 price tag in my head (though that was likely always massively inflated). I explained the situation to Liz and she wrote back that she was interested in the case, and that her fee for an initial consultation was $350. Also still on my mind was the $150 Randy had been charged for an initial consultation that went nowhere. How many of these consultation fees should we consider being charged? I explained what we’d experienced thus far in terms of legal fees to Liz and specified that we were ideally looking for pro bono help. I asked if there was any way we could work on any kind of reduced fees.
In a wonderfully transparent note, Liz wrote back that she had promised her husband and young children that she would only take on work she was being paid for, in the interest of both supporting her family financially and protecting family time. She also said that she believed in the importance of the work and wanted to help the Quartermans, so if we could provide her with various documents and answers to a number of questions ahead of time, she would drastically reduce her initial consultation fee so she could have a conversation with Randy.
Liz’s honest and heartfelt response convinced me that she was without a doubt the woman best qualified to represent the Quartermans, if we could get her. (We still didn’t know if she’d feel she had the bandwidth to take us on once she reviewed the case.) We’d pursued every attorney we could think of and she was the one who was both obviously most qualified and the most straight talking. Randy and I began to gather the information she’d requested. And, I thought more about what Nadia had hoped the Living City board members would do — turn inward to see what personal power and resources they had — and realized that I could dig deeper and do more of the same. I asked myself: What kind of reparations would I be paying if I attempted to convince a Black woman that she should do work I had the ability to pay her for, reduced or for free?
The question gnawed at me, and I carried it with me on a cold night that week in December as I brought the delicate old deeds that listed Keller and Quarterman names as show and tell items to my dear friend Laura’s home in Silicon Valley’s Emerald Hills. I was there to meet with a group of my friends and swim teammates who’d decided a year earlier we wanted to have sort of an alternative to a book club, a monthly meeting of ideas we’d called the “Alt Club” because we were self-conscious about the self-importance of calling it a “salon,” though by definition that’s what it was. We took turns leading discussions about various topics — religion, empathy, food, where to plan our next open water vacation, and now reparations — just as we took turns leading swims in the pool. We were gay and straight, parents, grandparents and soon-to-be great-grandparents and also people who had chosen not to have children, and we were forty-something to ninety-something. We were Christian, Jewish, Evangelical, Agnostic, and Atheist. We were democrats and republicans. We were seven women and one man. We represented the diversity of America in some ways. But also, we could all afford to live in the very affluent areas of Silicon Valley. And we were all white.
On this night the lead was mine.
Laura and her husband, a French gentleman whose accent I never got tired of listening to and whose French-ness I oddly attributed Laura’s flawless olive skin to even though Laura was from Southern California, had met at Apple in 1999 and worked there ever since. Laura’s house was warm inside, above her cerulean pool and hillside view, and she always had good champagne. She cooked things for us based on what the garden produced — tonight it was fresh bread and brie and ratatouille with homegrown eggplant that tasted like butter — and, having played a role in designing them, she could also troubleshoot our Apple watches, all of which made me feel at once well-loved, fortuitous, and inferior. She had been the most ardent in insisting I bring the topic of reparations to the group, and I was grateful to her.
Over ratatouille I ran through the background of our story though most of the gang had already read parts one and two of it, my view on H.R. 40, and then told the story I’ve detailed in this essay, of seeking representation for the Quarterman family. I soaked in the gift of having curious friends who appreciated the knowledge and experience I had to share; friends, even those who were skeptical about the topic, who actually wanted to sit and listen to what I’d learned about reparations. In no way was I expecting the night to end in game-changing legal support. But it did.
“Maybe we can help,” Katy, a highly experienced trademark lawyer who’d recently learned she was going to be a grandmother, said. Katy had short grey hair, hazel eyes that dazzled, strong swimmer’s shoulders, and cold-water tolerance I coveted and repeatedly tried to emulate unsuccessfully. She almost always smiled when she talked, and she talked often, and authoritatively. She’d brought her 95-year-old mother, Phillis, with her. Phillis had suffered a “small stroke” earlier that week, she told us, but was “completely with it now,” as evidenced by the engaging story she’d told about organizing the first Western Regional Conference on the Status of Women when she worked for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and was eight months pregnant with her son in 1961, and by the way she was listening intently and responsibly, thoroughly enjoying her brie and champagne: a picture of post-octogenarian longevity due to good luck, intellectual engagement, and “moderation in all things!” Just having her there, nodding her head and listening, lifted me.
My initial reaction to Katy was: “Oh thank you so much, but that’s okay.” I knew we needed an attorney in Georgia, and one who knew probate law. I didn’t understand how a California trademark attorney could help. Luckily Katy did.
“Let’s just see,” Katy said.
The next day Katy asked me for a bit more background, and then quickly got back to say that they’d be happy to take it on. And, because she worked for a big Silicon Valley firm that could spare a bit of time and was not overwhelmed already with similar cases, they could do the work pro bono.
I was deeply moved by Katy’s desire to help the Quartermans and her belief in this work, and indebted immediately to her for her willingness to do it without pay. And, I still didn’t understand what work that would actually be. She explained that if we had an attorney in Georgia who was the face of the case, who could guide them on the legal framework, then she and her colleagues, particularly DJ, a young Black attorney from Detroit whom she brought in immediately, could do legal research, title searches, letter writing, data gathering and assist in the search for heirs. Further, they could continue to ask other lawyers in their firm, which was nationwide, and elsewhere for expertise or any behind the scenes digging. This would hopefully make the Georgia lawyer’s job a lighter load, and thus make the cost of clearing title much more manageable.
Their help proved invaluable immediately. Katy, DJ and I met in person for coffee and discussed how to pull all the documents together and answer Liz’s questions, and with their help Randy and I were able to get Liz everything within a few days, an effort that would have otherwise cost several thousand dollars in hourly fees.
Liz responded that it would take a few weeks for her to look over everything and determine whether she could help. I responded that we really hoped to work with her and that I would pay her full consultation fee of $350 when she was ready, then I waited anxiously hoping she would take us on.
Though it was always at the back of my mind as something I could potentially do, it took Liz’s forthrightness and Katy and DJ’s generous help to allow me to see that part of the reparations I could and should pay were Liz’s full ongoing fees. Just like the board members we’d hoped to inspire in New York, rather than waiting for others, I needed to look more closely at what I could individually do.
I am not suggesting that every white person can and should go out and pay for an attorney to help a Black person save their land (as horrific as Black land loss has been). “Save” is a loaded word, and I am also certainly not saying that I can or want to personally save any one or any thing. I hope what I’m doing is sharing. It’s not just the money. It took being willing to share this story with people I already know to find my way. One thing we can all do is look inside.
I’m saying that I can and should pay reparations in the form of using some of my money to pay for a lawyer who can help the Quartermans gain control of their land, both because my ancestors enslaved theirs and because I am privileged to have made enough money to do it. I’ll also admit that I hope it doesn’t cost $100 grand.
I can hear it already: “You earned that money! You’re not guilty. You deserve it. It’s yours!”
Here are some of the truths I see when I look inside. I’m not saying I’m guilty of anything in particular. I’m not saying I’ve set up America’s systems that are racist or enslaved anyone myself. I’m not saying Noah and I stole the money we have, or even inherited it, and I’m not saying we explicitly are undeserving of some of it. I know that neoliberal capitalism is the game America plays today and I know I’m as big a player as anyone else. Noah and I worked hard to pay our respective ways through college and graduate school and beyond, and then we worked at high intensity jobs. We “earned” the money we have. But let’s look at the word “earn” and the way it’s tied to “deserve.”
Both Noah and I had the privilege of having seen multiple generations of our ancestors earn graduate degrees, own property, and prosper as part of the white middle class in America. We both had the fortuitous privilege of earning graduate degrees in engineering in Silicon Valley in the 1990’s and of parlaying those degrees into well paying tech careers. Noah’s intelligence and hard work, but also his white maleness and privileged connections from both Stanford and Cornell (even though he paid his way through), enabled him to get the company he co-founded well funded. Many people worked together to make “his company” a success. And the stock market did well. This is what enabled us to procure our current personal wealth. Oh. And also, some of it came from the two years Noah worked for Amazon and acquired valuable stock options.
To procure is to acquire. But acquiring something, even if we acquire it partially thanks to intelligence and good intentions and grit, doesn’t suggest to me that we should hoard it. I’m not saying we should feel guilty about it, though I am always conflicted and trying to move through shame for my privilege as I recognize so many go without. There is no legacy I’d like to leave less as a mother than teaching my wealthy white sons to feel shame.
Shame paralyzes. It does not inspire action, healing, or change.
I’m saying that where reparations are concerned, we don’t have time to wait for the government. But maybe if we start with individual responsibility, America will eventually be inspired to pay.
Part 5 of this story can be found by clicking this link