How information about historic land grab changed the development of a classic narcotics crime story.

Tobias Meinecke talks with Jay C Key (creator) and Hunter Key (associate producer) about LOVE CHILD's Southern crime drama THE COLONEL’S CUT.

On first sight THE COLONEL’S CUT charges at us as a classic 1990s narcotics drama, a drug deal gone bad, with both victims and perpetrators being somewhat familiar types. The earliest hint that this show might be after something more and something different can be found in the setting: the marshlands of coastal Georgia and the struggles black and white folks face in making a living there, as shrimpers, in law enforcement, in construction or as the town’s antique dealer - a county in steady decline after the completion of I-95 diverted traffic away from its coastal beauty decades earlier.  After 10 episodes, the story will not only have revealed completely different perpetrators and forces behind the crimes, but will also have given us some deeper understanding of why race relations are what they are in this town, this county, this state, this nation, and how and why history lingers in the deep South.

Tobias Meinecke (Creator):  Jay, in the opening sequences The Colonel’s Cut appears to be a genre work that rolls on a familiar track, the narcotics crime drama. But over the next 10 episodes it is revealed that underneath that crime story a lot of other more complicated, more painful stories lurk that include a systemic racist land grab of black-owned (40 acres and a mule) property, a century old interracial family feud, a Romeo-and-Juliet love story gone bad, deep betrayals with deadly consequences, illicit affairs that bear bastard children, and a gruesome massacre – and all of those somehow growing out of the one consistent element: the relations between black and white folk in the South. You originated the story. Before we get into the story itself, would you say the show is a slow burn and why would that be a very Southern thing?

Jay C. Key (Founder | Originating Creator):  I absolutely would say the show is a slow burn. There is certainly a noire sensibility, and it very much is a Southern story. Southerners have a certain way of dancing around the heart of the matter. I have been witness to more than one family squabble in which all of the valuable content is in what is NOT spoken, and that always fascinated me. Interestingly, I have been watching and reading a lot of Nordic crime fiction in the last few years, and I am struck by how similar the pacing can be in those stories to Southern noire. The sensibilities are similar. I think it can be summed up in not wanting your enemies to see you sweat or bleed, which creates questions and puzzles for the readers/viewers.

Tobias:  Hunt, you are Jay’s younger brother and introduced Jay to this story? How did that happen?

Hunter Key (Associate Producer):  My wife took a job with the Department of Natural Resource, which had us move further down the Georgia coast from Savannah. I needed a job, and I was approached about working in the Tax Assessors office. I jumped at it – it was minutes from the house. My role was to manage land parcels using a digital mapping software that I had never used.The county had never managed parcels in this format, and they were at that time under pressure by the State to come into compliance. It was like shining a light into an old dark dank house and watching all the bugs come out of the woodwork. It should be noted that the county courthouse has burned down three times in the last 125 years, which made my job more difficult. I assumed the county wanted me to solve the problem which, in hindsight, was pretty naïve. 

We had something like 11,000 parcels across the county, and I slowly started to connect the dots. Of those 11,000 parcels, we had 500 “holes” which meant we had no idea who owned them. At some point in the process, I was pulled aside by a prominent citizen and he told me that nobody wanted me to work too hard at my job. He made clear that it was very important that I NOT find out who owned all of these parcels.

Jay:  Hunt told me this story at a Thanksgiving fifteen years ago and he is forgetting that he was pushing his daughter Ellie in a stroller to the playground when this guy pulled up in his car to have a “chat” with him.

Hunt:  That’s right. Again, up until then, it didn’t dawn on me that there were families in the county that didn’t want me to do my job, and all of those families went five, six, seven generations back. And here I am, just arrived and tasked to dig up all this apparent dirt. I would go into a deed research project and find that a parcel that had presumably been owned by a black family was now owned by a white family with a recognizable name. The white family had once owned a bail bonds business and therefore, likely received the parcel as collateral. Now, that could all be above board, but the pattern that I saw, and the purposeful vagueness to a lot of the paper trail made it all very troubling.

Tobias:  We talked about the distrust African-Americans have and had in the white legal system. In one of the stories from Louisiana an African-American farmer told his children on his death bed to, whatever they do, not have the white man get his hands on the land. But a will was never written for they did not trust the lawyers.

Hunt:  We have that problem here. And it has led to dubious or unclear title on many land deeds. I don’t know if you know what quick claim deeds are, but quick claims are if a grandfather passes away and leaves his land to his six kids, but some have died and now there is only one grandchild who still lives in town and everyone else is dead or scattered across the country. Since that grandkid has been dutifully paying the taxes on the land for the last 4 or 5 years, they go to quick claim the land – and if nobody steps up and says hey, that’s my land too, then they lose their inherited land, or at least their partial claim to it. Then, some folks started to use these quick claims on some of these “holes,” essentially trying to legally acquire land for free – you would pay property taxes on it, but it was a straight land grab.

Tobias:  Simply wow. How did that turn into a corrupt Sheriff story, Jay?

Jay:  Hunt started doing some historical research. As part of that he found these reports on drug trafficking out in the salt marsh that was either controlled or tolerated by local authorities - led by the Sheriff - for a price. And I thought the vastness of the salt marsh was such an interesting location. It was ripe for a southern noir story. Here we had a remote part of the country controlled by a corrupt Sheriff who had been investigated by the FBI and the State and never paid any price for his crimes. Add to that the Sheriff was actually fairly well liked by most in the county, including a lot of the disenfranchised black residents, and I wanted to untie that knot. Why was he so popular? So I started thinking about a story that revolved around drug trafficking on the water.

Hunt (interjects):  Fishing for Square Flounder as they say down here!

Jay:  That’s right. So perfect. After that I decided to build the story around two prominent families, one white and one black, that have a long ugly history. Hunt and I moved back to the South from the Midwest when I was 15 and he was 13. Our entire family on both sides are Southern and have never left the south. On my first day of high school, a kid in my class asked me if I was a “Yankee.” I couldn’t believe it. I probably had a smart-ass response like, “that’s 125 years ago, dude,” and his response I’ll never forget. He said, “history plays different down here.” It’s funny, such a throwaway line, but it has stuck with me like glue for over thirty years. I constantly had that line in my head when creating The Colonel’s Cut. I even put it in the script.

Hunt:  That’s right.

Jay:  So, the whole story was coming together in my head, maybe some of it on paper within 24 hours of Hunt sharing it with me. But the land stuff that Hunt was working on was not in the initial story. It eventually made its way in because when I told people what I was working on, I always included Hunt’s genesis story – the soft threat that he not uncover the ownership of these 500 “Holes” he was talking about. And to a person, everyone was as interested in Hunt’s story as they were in the rest of it. When I added that to the script, I found it justified so many character motivations. Land is the easiest way to erase dirty money. When we began working the screenplay into a TV series, the land grab part of the story really got the oxygen it needed. That we have been able to really embed it into the arc of our story has been extremely gratifying.

Tobias:  Coming back to the “Holes” you mentioned, Hunt, do you think they existed so that owners could disguise how they got the land? Or is it more about not paying taxes?

Hunt:  It varies. I know in two cases, property owners that owned a lot of land would sell off an acre to somebody, and they would put a plat and a deed together and so you would know the boundary of that one acre, but all the rest of the land of the original property owner, you wouldn’t know. You don’t actually know how much land they own, just that they sold that one acre. And if you do not know how much they own, you can’t ask how they got it.

Tobias:  What happens when a big property owner comes in and says I own one of these holes and has just sold it? Do they show up with a deed nobody knew existed?

Hunt:  No, not really. I have paperwork in front of me right now where two property owners essentially have historical records and their plats actually overlap. That’s common, and we have to sort it out. It’s a mess - still.

Tobias:  That’s incredible. Sounds fishy, if not willful. You mentioned the fires at the courthouse. Did records burn?

Hunt (laughing):  Oh yeah. The first fire was Union troops during the Civil War, but the two after that were of “mysterious” origins. Probably also worth mentioning that the newspaper building has burned down twice as well.

Tobias:  Oh oh. So the black families, were they in the dark about all of this land grab? 

Hunt:  No, not at all. The Black land owners in particular were extremely guarded because they didn’t want to risk losing their land. I’m sure they knew way more than the Sheriff and everyone in government thought they knew, and they wanted to keep it that way. They had what they called “phone trees” to relay information to and from the NAACP and each other locally. The rule of thumb was don’t write anything down. Just the phone numbers needed which looked benign if someone made you empty your pockets.

Jay:  Is it fair to say that the challenges you faced when you first took the job were due in some part to the fact that so many deeds were overridden by notes on basically bar napkins?

Hunt:  Well, I wouldn’t say they wrote these down on bar napkins, but the way they wrote “meets and bounds” were so vague, that it allowed for confusion. This is not all that unique to rural Georgia, by the way. A “meets and bounds” in Georgia means that a legal document detailing property was written like this: The Davis property goes along the river edge until the big rock, and then shoots along Smith’s property until the Big Oak tree and then goes east to the road. That’s how those documents are written. So, if the Big Oak falls down, how do you define that property? It’s just crazy. So there just wasn’t any concrete map. If land changed hands, they just tack on, formerly owned by Smith. Let’s say a bail bondsman fronts the cash to a black family to make bail, and that family has a “meet and bounds” deed. Let’s say they aren’t able to pay him back and they lose whatever part of their land they agreed to put up as collateral – from the 70s forward that Bail Bondsman sends a professional surveyor out and has a modern map drawn with their 5 or 10 acres clearly marked out. There is no disputing that land. What is the black family going to do? What if they weren’t even aware of exactly what the surveyor marked off?

All this history is causing all sorts of trouble even today. Take for example, CBG grants which are grants to help poor communities with various land improvement like new septic tanks. To get these grants, you need clear title on the land – but for that very reason, the black land owners have a hard time complying with these requirements because they seldom have clear title. Their grandparents didn’t trust a white lawyer to get a will or to get a legal deed on their land. We have so many cases in which the grandchildren diligently pay the property taxes year after year, but on these hazy deeds in their grandparents names. They don’t have clear title so cannot apply for a grant.

Tobias:  Thanks Hunt, a lot of incredible detail. Can you talk about the progress in your county from the 70s (one of our timelines) through the 90s (our main time line) to now?

Hunt:  Sure, the county has basically been led by a number of prominent white families. The African Americans acquired a voice, not control, but a voice slowly over time. The Civil Rights laws of the 60s did provide the black community with a minority majority district on the county commission. That set the ball rolling, but one voice was hard. In the 70s, if you were a Black family and you owned a shrimp boat and made good money, you had some power, but not as much as a white shrimper in the same shoes. It’s been a slow roll. What hasn’t helped is that the county sort of cratered economically. So whatever power came to the Black community, it came at the same time that the economic power of the county was diminishing. Remember, this was a town, that Little Richard and James Brown would stop in and play. The construction of I-95 connecting Miami to DC was a near fatal blow to the soul of this part of Georgia. Nothing has really been the same since.

Tobias:  And that’s what a lot of the show is about. In summary, Jay, we have seen in the last few years a surge of stories about race related injustice and systematic racism, police brutality, discrimination, judicial double standards, the rise of the prison industry targeting blacks with unequal punishment and so forth. How powerful and important is the seemingly less harmful story of white land grab, stealing from the 40 acre and a mule owners, in that context? Or rather, what does this apparent land grab say about race relations today?

Jay:  Hmmm. I’d say it speaks to how systemic the problem has been. This has all been a slow boil, right? It has been very difficult for white America to understand what systemic racism looks like. It is not Charlottesville and white guys all but wearing old KKK hoods, though that has been a huge part of the story in the Trump era. But rather, maybe more Trayvon Martin being gunned down, unarmed, on a mostly white suburban street by George Zimmerman, and having the court dismiss the case. I think that was maybe the moment white America started to think that racism is more than whether or not you use racial epitaphs. The fact that the left is talking out loud about reparations speaks to that. There have been a number of articles written on white land grabs in the last several years, so I believe what we have created in The Colonel’s Cut is historically truthful and absolutely relevant.