Posted by: Khepera | Monday, 27 April 2009

Land Theft: Past, Present & Future


There are many aspects of our present economic catastrophe which are trumpeted in the media. However, one of the overarching aspects is that of the loss/confiscation of land, from those not considered to be part of the ‘monied minority.’ These practices did not just *suddenly stop.*  In fact, my sense is that we will soon discover that these and many more nefarious practices have gone on the last 8 years with clear government sanction of our former regime.

The spectre of the loss of homes — and farms — through bankruptcy as a consequence of deceptive loans & mortgage marketing is neither obscure nor abstract. It is being felt across the country, across demographic boundaries and region types — both rural & urban. In this current context, the following articles can serve to be seen as perhaps a template for our present and future…and we should be cautioned accordingly…..  When you hear elders expressing concern over younger generation having lost their sense of the value of land, and the need to hold onto it — ‘that land is the foundation of wealth’ – perhaps these words will bear more meaning, and urgency after reading this.  There is also the natter of how these maneuvers fold into &/or were perpetrated in concert with the widespread practice of lynching, as noted in the fourth article below.

I also encourage you to go further — do your own searches & research, because, clearly, this is a story far more pervasive than any telling so far has begun to capture. These are not the only articles on this topic, and I will be pulling others from the archives over the next month to more fully elucidate the topic, and they will be under the same title, in series, FYI. Also, I am familiar with Dr. Ray Winbush, who is mentioned several times in these articles, and his work in this area while at Fisk University.  He is to be applauded for his courage and tenacity in engaging in this battle to expose the truth.

Be advised that these articles were released through the Associated Press(AP), though my search of their archives comes up with no current reference to them.  There are some Google hits, but not to the source articles, so I am posting them in full, from the archives I created when these were “news”.  There is one link I found to the “Torn from the Land” Series.

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AP Documents Land Taken From Blacks Through Trickery, Violence and Murder — Part 1

By TODD LEWAN and DOLORES BARCLAY
Associated Press Writers

December 1, 2001

This is Part One of “Torn From the Land,” a three-part series documenting how black Americans lost family land over the last 150-plus years.

For generations, black families passed down the tales in uneasy whispers: ”They stole our land.”

These were family secrets shared after the children fell asleep, after neighbors turned down the lamps – old stories locked in fear and shame.

Some of those whispered bits of oral history, it turns out, are true.

In an 18-month investigation, The Associated Press documented a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.

In some cases, government officials approved the land takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today.

Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia, oil fields in Mississippi, a major-league baseball spring training facility in Florida.

The United States has a long history of bitter, often violent land disputes, from claim jumping in the gold fields to range wars in the old West to broken treaties with American Indians. Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated unfairly, pressured to sell out at rock-bottom prices by railroads and lumber and mining companies.

The fate of black landowners has been an overlooked part of this story.

The AP – in an investigation that included interviews with more than 1,000 people and the examination of tens of thousands of public records in county courthouses and state and federal archives – documented 107 land takings in 13 Southern and border states.

In those cases alone, 406 black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farm and timber land plus 85 smaller properties, including stores and city lots. Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or by corporations.

Properties taken from blacks were often small – a 40-acre farm, a general store, a modest house. But the losses were devastating to families struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery. In the agrarian South, landownership was the ladder to respect and prosperity – the means to building economic security and passing wealth on to the next generation. When black families lost their land, they lost all of this.

”When they steal your land, they steal your future,” said Stephanie Hagans, 40, of Atlanta, who has been researching how her great-grandmother, Ablow Weddington Stewart, lost 35 acres in Matthews, N.C. A white lawyer foreclosed on Stewart in 1942 after he refused to allow her to finish paying off a $540 debt, witnesses told the AP.

”How different would our lives be,” Hagans asked, ”if we’d had the opportunities, the pride that land brings?”

No one knows how many black families have been unfairly stripped of their land, but there are indications of extensive loss.

Besides the 107 cases the AP documented, reporters found evidence of scores of other land takings that could not be fully verified because of gaps or inconsistencies in the public record. Thousands of additional reports of land takings from black families remain uninvestigated.

Two thousand have been collected in recent years by the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, S.C., an educational institution established for freed slaves during the Civil War.  The Land Loss Prevention Project, a group of lawyers in Durham, N.C., who represent blacks in land disputes, said it receives new reports daily. And Heather Gray of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in Atlanta said her organization has ”file cabinets full of complaints.”

AP’s findings ”are just the tip of one of the biggest crimes of this country’s history,” said Ray Winbush, director of Fisk University’s Institute of Race Relations.

Some examples of land takings documented by the AP:

  • After midnight on Oct. 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a black farmer in Hickman, Ky., and ordered him to come out for a whipping. When David Walker refused and shot at them instead, the mob poured coal oil on his house and set it afire, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Pleading for mercy, Walker ran out the front door, followed by four screaming children and his wife, carrying a baby in her arms. The mob shot them all, wounding three children and killing the others. Walker’s oldest son never escaped the burning house. No one was ever charged with the killings, and the surviving children were deprived of the farm their father died defending. Land records show that Walker’s 2 1/2-acre farm was simply folded into the property of a white neighbor. The neighbor soon sold it to another man, whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today.
  • In the 1950s and 1960s, a Chevrolet dealer in Holmes County, Miss., acquired hundreds of acres from black farmers by foreclosing on small loans for farm equipment and pickup trucks. Norman Weathersby, then the only dealer in the area, required the farmers to put up their land as security for the loans, county residents who dealt with him said. And the equipment he sold them, they said, often broke down shortly thereafter. Weathersby’s friend, William E. Strider, ran the local Farmers Home Administration – the credit lifeline for many Southern farmers. Area residents, including Erma Russell, 81, said Strider, now dead, was often slow in releasing farm operating loans to blacks. When cash-poor farmers missed payments owed to Weathersby, he took their land. The AP documented eight cases in which Weathersby acquired black-owned farms this way. When he died in 1973, he left more than 700 acres of this land to his family, according to estate papers, deeds and court records.
  • In 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming the cousins had no right to two 40-acre farms their family had worked in Sweet Water, Ala., for nearly a century. The land, officials contended, belonged to the state. Circuit Judge Emmett F. Hildreth urged the state to drop its suit, declaring it would result in ”a severe injustice.” But when the state refused, saying it wanted income from timber on the land, the judge ruled against the family. Today, the land lies empty; the state recently opened some of it to logging. The state’s internal memos and letters on the case are peppered with references to the family’s race.

In the same courthouse where the case was heard, the AP located deeds and tax records documenting that the family had owned the land since an ancestor bought the property on Jan. 3, 1874. Surviving records also show the family paid property taxes on the farms from the mid-1950s until the land was taken.

AP reporters tracked the land cases by reviewing deeds, mortgages, tax records, estate papers, court proceedings, surveyor maps, oil and gas leases, marriage records, census listings, birth records, death certificates and Freedmen’s Bureau archives. Additional documents, including FBI files and Farmers Home Administration records, were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The AP interviewed black families that lost land, as well as lawyers, title searchers, historians, appraisers, genealogists, surveyors, land activists, and local, state and federal officials. The AP also talked to current owners of the land, nearly all of whom acquired the properties years after the land takings occurred. Most said they knew little about the history of their land. When told about it, most expressed regret.

Weathersby’s son, John, 62, who now runs the dealership in Indianola, Miss., said he had little direct knowledge about his father’s business affairs. However, he said he was sure his father never would have sold defective vehicles and that he always treated people fairly.

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman examined the state’s files on the Sweet Water case after an inquiry from the AP. He said he found them ”disturbing” and has asked the state attorney general to review the matter.

”What I have asked the attorney general to do,” he said, ”is look not only at the letter of the law but at what is fair and right.”

The land takings are part of a larger picture – a 91-year decline in black landownership in America.

In 1910, black Americans owned more farmland than at any time before or since – at least 15 million acres. Nearly all of it was in the South, largely in Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million of the country’s more than 1 billion acres of arable land. They are part owners of another 1.07 million acres.

The number of white farmers has declined over the last century, too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer, often corporate, hands. However, black ownership has declined 2 1/2 times faster than white ownership, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission noted in a 1982 report, the last comprehensive federal study on the trend. The decline in black landownership had a number of causes, including the discriminatory lending practices of the Farmers Home Administration and the migration of blacks from the rural South to industrial centers in the North and West.

However, the land takings also contributed. In the decades between Reconstruction and the civil rights struggle, black families were powerless to prevent them, said Stuart E. Tolnay, a University of Washington sociologist and co-author of a book on lynchings. In an era when black Americans could not drink from the same water fountains as whites and black men were lynched for whistling at white women, few blacks dared to challenge whites. Those who did could rarely find lawyers to take their cases or judges who would give them a fair hearing.

The Rev. Isaac Simmons was an exception. When his land was taken, he found a lawyer and tried to fight back.

In 1942, his 141-acre farm in Amite County, Miss., was sold for nonpayment of taxes, property records show. The farm, for which his father had paid $302 in 1887, was bought by a white man for $180.

Only partial, tattered tax records for the period exist today in the county courthouse; but they are enough to show that tax payments on at least part of the property were current when the land was taken.

Simmons hired a lawyer in February 1944 and filed suit to get his land back. On March 26, a group of whites paid Simmons a visit.

The minister’s daughter, Laura Lee Houston, now 74, recently recalled her terror as she stood with her month-old baby in her arms and watched the men drag Simmons away. ”I screamed and hollered so loud,” she said. ”They came toward me and I ran down in the woods.”

The whites then grabbed Simmons’ son, Eldridge, from his house and drove the two men to a lonely road.

”Two of them kept beating me,” Eldridge Simmons later told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ”They kept telling me that my father and I were ‘smart niggers’ for going to see a lawyer.”

Simmons, who has since died, said his captors gave him 10 days to leave town and told his father to start running. Later that day, the minister’s body turned up with three gunshot wounds in the back, The McComb Enterprise newspaper reported at the time.

Today, the Simmons land – thick with timber and used for hunting – is privately owned and is assessed at $33,660. (Officials assess property for tax purposes, and the valuation is usually less than its market value.)

Over the past 20 years, a handful of black families have sued to regain their ancestral lands. State courts, however, have dismissed their cases on grounds that statutes of limitations had expired.

A group of attorneys led by Harvard University law professor Charles J. Ogletree has been making inquries recently about land takings. The group has announced its intention to file a national class-action lawsuit in pursuit of reparations for slavery and racial discrimination. However, some legal experts say redress for many land takings may not be possible unless laws are changed.

As the acres slipped away, so did treasured pieces of family history – cabins crafted by a grandfather’s hand, family graves in shaded groves.

But ”the home place” meant more than just that. Many blacks have found it ”very difficult to transfer wealth from one generation to the next,” because they had trouble holding onto land, said Paula Giddings, a history professor at Duke University.

The Espy family in Vero Beach, Fla., lost its heritage in 1942, when the U.S. government seized its land through eminent domain to build an airfield. Government agencies frequently take land this way for public purposes under rules that require fair compensation for the owners.

In Vero Beach, however, the Navy appraised the Espys’ 147 acres, which included a 30-acre fruit grove, two houses and 40 house lots, at $8,000, according to court records. The Espys sued, and an all-white jury awarded them $13,000. That amounted to one-sixth of the price per acre that the Navy paid white neighbors for similar land with fewer improvements, records show.

After World War II, the Navy gave the airfield to the city of Vero Beach. Ignoring the Espys’ plea to buy back their land, the city sold part of it, at $1,500 an acre, to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965 as a spring training facility.

In 1999, the former Navy land, with parts of Dodgertown and a municipal airport, was assessed at $6.19 million. Sixty percent of that land once belonged to the Espys. The team sold its property to Indian River County for $10 million in August, according to Craig Callan, a Dodgers official.

The true extent of land takings from black families will never be known because of gaps in property and tax records in many rural Southern counties. The AP found crumbling tax records, deed books with pages torn from them, file folders with documents missing, and records that had been crudely altered.

In Jackson Parish, La., 40 years of moldy, gnawed tax and mortgage records were piled in a cellar behind a roll of Christmas lights and a wooden reindeer. In Yazoo County, Miss., volumes of tax and deed records filled a classroom in an abandoned school, the papers coated with white dust from a falling ceiling. The AP retrieved dozens of documents that custodians said were earmarked for shredders or landfills.

The AP also found that about a third of the county courthouses in Southern and border states have burned – some more than once – since the Civil War. Some of the fires were deliberately set.

On the night of Sept. 10, 1932, for example, 15 whites torched the courthouse in Paulding, Miss., where property records for the eastern half of Jasper County, then predominantly black, were stored. Records for the predominantly white western half of the county were safe in another courthouse miles away.

The door to the Paulding courthouse’s safe, which protected the records, had been locked the night before, the Jasper County News reported at the time. The next morning, the safe was found open, most of the records reduced to ashes.

Suddenly, it was unclear who owned a big piece of eastern Jasper County.

Even before the courthouse fire, landownership in Jasper County was contentious. According to historical accounts, the Ku Klux Klan, resentful that blacks were buying and profiting from land, had been attacking black-owned farms, burning houses, lynching black farmers and chasing black landowners away.

The Masonite Corp., a wood products company, was one of the largest landowners in the area. Because most of the land records had been destroyed, the company went to court in December 1937 to clear its title. Masonite believed it owned 9,581 acres and said in court papers that it had been unable to locate anyone with a rival claim to the land.

A month later, the court ruled the company had clear title to the land, which has since yielded millions of dollars in natural gas, timber and oil, according to state records.

From the few property records that remain, the AP was able to document that at least 204.5 of those acres had been acquired by Masonite after black owners were driven off by the Klan. At least 850,000 barrels of oil have been pumped from this property, according to state oil and gas board records and figures from the Petroleum Technology Transfer Council, an industry group.

Today, the land is owned by International Paper Corp., which acquired Masonite in 1988. Jenny Boardman, a company spokeswoman, said International Paper had been unaware of the ”tragic” history of the land and was concerned about AP’s findings.

”This is probably part of a much larger, public debate about whether there should be restitution for people who have been harmed in the past,” she said. ”And by virtue of the fact that we now own these lands, we should be part of that discussion.”

Even when Southern courthouses remained standing, mistrust and fear of white authority long kept blacks away from record rooms, where documents often were segregated into ”white” and ”colored.” Many elderly blacks say they still remember how they were snubbed by court clerks, spat upon and even struck.

Today, however, fear and shame have given way to pride. Interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and some black Americans are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories.

”People are out there wondering: What ever happened to Grandma’s land?” said Loretta Carter Hanes, 75, a retired genealogist. ”They knew that their grandparents shed a lot of blood and tears to get it.”

Bryan Logan, a 55-year-old sports writer from Washington, D.C., was researching his heritage when he uncovered a connection to 264 acres of riverfront property in Richmond, Va.

Today, the land is Willow Oaks, an almost exclusively white country club with an assessed value of $2.94 million. But in the 1850s, it was a corn-and-wheat plantation worked by the Howlett slaves – Logan’s ancestors.

Their owner, Thomas Howlett, directed in his will that his 15 slaves be freed, that his plantation be sold and that the slaves receive the proceeds. When he died in 1856, his white relatives challenged the will, but two courts upheld it.

Yet the freed slaves never got a penny.

Benjamin Hatcher, the executor of the estate, simply took over the plantation, court records show. He cleared the timber and mined the stone, providing granite for the Navy and War Department buildings in Washington and the capitol in Richmond, according to records in the National Archives.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the former slaves complained to the occupying Union Army, which ordered Virginia courts to investigate.

Hatcher testified that he had sold the plantation in 1862 – apparently to his son, Thomas – but had not given the proceeds to the former slaves. Instead, court papers show, the proceeds were invested on their behalf in Confederate War Bonds. There is nothing in the public record to suggest the former slaves wanted their money used to support the Southern war effort.

Moreover, the bonds were purchased in the former slaves’ names in 1864 – a dubious investment at best in the fourth year of the war. Within months, Union armies were marching on Atlanta and Richmond, and the bonds were worthless pieces of paper.  The blacks insisted they were never given even that, but in 1871, Virginia’s highest court ruled that Hatcher was innocent of wrongdoing and that the former slaves were owed nothing.

The following year, the plantation was broken up and sold at a public auction. Hatcher’s son received the proceeds, county records show. In the 1930s, a Richmond businessman cobbled the estate back together; he sold it to Willow Oaks Corp. in 1955 for an unspecified amount.

”I don’t hold anything against Willow Oaks,” Logan said. ”But how Virginia’s courts acted, how they allowed the land to be stolen – it goes against everything America stands for.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Associated Press Writers Woody Baird, Allen G. Breed, Shelia Hardwell Byrd, Alan Clendenning, Ron Harrist, David Lieb and Bill Poovey, and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.

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Torn from the Land (Part 1 of 3)

By Todd Lewan and Dolores Barclay
Associated Press

Sunday 2 December 2001

For generations, black families passed down the tales in uneasy whispers: “They stole our land.”

These were family secrets shared after the children fell asleep old stories locked in fear and shame.

Some of those whispered bits of oral history, it turns out, are true.

In an 18-month investigation, The Associated Press documented a pattern in which black Americans were, cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.

In some cases, government officials approved the land-takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today.

Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia, oilfields in Mississippi, a baseball spring-training facility in Florida. The United States has a long history of bitter land disputes, from range wars in the Old West to broken treaties with American Indians. Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated unfairly, pressured to sell at rock-bottom prices by railroads and mining companies.

The fate of black landowners has been an overlooked part of this story.

The AP in an investigation that included interviews with more than 1,000 people and the examination of tens of thousands of public records documented 107 land-takings in 13 Southern and border states.

In those cases alone, 406 black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farm and timberland plus 85 smaller properties, including stores and city lots. Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or corporations.

Properties taken from blacks were often small a 40-acre farm, a modest house. But the losses were devastating to families struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery.

“When they steal your land, they steal your future,” said Stephanie Hagans, 40, of Atlanta, who has been researching how her great-grandmother, Ablow Weddington Stewart, lost 35 acres in Matthews, N.C. A white lawyer foreclosed on Stewart in 1942 after he refused to allow her to finish paying off a $540 debt, witnesses told the AP.

No one knows how many black families have been unfairly stripped of their land, but there are indications of extensive loss.

Besides the 107 cases the AP documented, reporters found evidence of dozens more that could not be fully verified because of gaps in the public record. Thousands of additional reports of land-takings collected by land activists and educational institutions remain uninvestigated.

AP’s findings “are just the tip of one of the biggest crimes of this country’s history,” said Ray Winbush, director of Fisk University’s Institute of Race Relations.
Examples documented by the AP

After midnight on Oct. 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a black farmer in Hickman, Ky., and ordered him to come out for a whipping. When David Walker refused and shot at them instead, the mob set fire to his house, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Walker ran out, followed by four screaming children and his wife, carrying a baby in her arms. The mob shot them all, wounding three children and killing the others. Walker’s oldest son never escaped the burning house. No one was ever charged with the killings. Land records show that Walker’s 2-1/2-acre farm was simply folded into the property of a white neighbor. The neighbor soon sold it to another man, whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today.

In 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming the cousins had no right to two 40-acre farms their family had worked in Sweet Water, Ala., for nearly a century.

The land, officials contended, belonged to the state.

Circuit Judge Emmett Hildreth urged the state to drop its suit, declaring it would result in “a severe injustice.” But when the state refused, the judge ordered the family off the land.

In the same courthouse where the case was heard, the AP located deeds and tax records documenting that the family had owned the land since an ancestor bought it on Jan. 3, 1874.

AP reporters tracked the land cases by reviewing deeds, mortgages, tax records, estate papers, court proceedings, oil leases and Freedmen’s Bureau archives. Additional documents, including Farmers Home Administration records, were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The AP interviewed black families that lost land, as well as lawyers, title searchers, historians, land activists and public officials.

The AP also talked to current owners of the land, nearly all of whom acquired it years after the land-takings occurred. Most said they knew little about the history of their land. When told about it, most expressed regret.

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman called the Sweet Water case “disturbing” and asked the state attorney general to review the matter.

“What I have asked the attorney general to do,” he said, “is look not only at the letter of the law but at what is fair and right.”

The land-takings are part of a larger picture: a 91-year decline in black landownership in America.

In 1910, black Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all of it in the South, according to the U.S.

Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland and are part owners of another 1.07 million acres.

The number of white farmers has declined, too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer lands. However, black ownership has declined 2-1/2 times faster than white ownership according to a 1982 federal report, the last comprehensive government study on the trend.

The decline in black landownership had a number of causes, including the migration of blacks from the rural South. However, the land-takings also contributed.

In the decades between Reconstruction and the civil-rights struggle, blacks were powerless to prevent them, said Stuart Tolnay, a University of Washington sociologist. In an era when black men were lynched for whistling at white women, few blacks dared to challenge whites. Those who did could rarely find lawyers to take their cases.

In recent years, a handful of black families sued to regain ancestral lands, but the cases were dismissed on grounds that statutes of limitations had expired. Some legal experts say redress for many land-takings may not be possible unless laws are changed.

The Espy family in Vero Beach, Fla., lost its heritage in 1942, when the U.S. government seized its land through eminent domain to build an airfield. Government frequently takes land this way under rules that require fair compensation for the owners.

In Vero Beach, however, the Navy appraised the Espys’ 147 acres, which included a 30-acre fruit grove and 40 house lots, at $8,000.

The Espys sued, and an all-white jury awarded them $13,000. That amounted to one-sixth of the price per acre that the Navy paid white neighbors for similar land, records show.

After World War II, the Navy gave the airfield to the city of Vero Beach. Ignoring the Espys’ plea to buy back their land, the city sold part of it, at $1,500 an acre, to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965 as a spring-training facility. The team sold its property to Indian River County for $10 million in August, according to the Dodgers.

The true extent of land-takings from black families will never be known because of gaps in public records. The AP found crumbling tax records, deed books with pages torn from them and records that had been crudely altered.

The AP also found that about a third of the county courthouses in Southern and border states have burned some more than once since the Civil War. Some of the fires were deliberately set.

On the night of Sept. 10, 1932, for example, 15 whites torched the courthouse in Paulding, Miss., where property records for the eastern half of Jasper County, then predominantly black, were stored.

Suddenly, it was unclear who owned a big piece of eastern Jasper County.

Even before the fire, landownership in Jasper County was contentious.

The Ku Klux Klan had been attacking black-owned farms and chasing the owners away.

A few years after the fire, Masonite, a wood-products company, went to court to clear title to its land in the area. Masonite thought it owned 9,581 acres and said it had been unable to locate anyone with a rival claim.

In 1938, the court ruled the company had clear title to the land, which has since yielded millions of dollars in natural gas, timber and oil, according to state records.

From the few property records that survived the fire, the AP was able to document that at least 204.5 of those acres had been acquired by Masonite after black owners were driven off by the Klan. At least 850,000 barrels of oil have been pumped from this property, according to state records.

Today, the land is owned by International Paper, which acquired Masonite in 1988.

“This is probably part of a much larger, public debate about whether there should be restitution for people who have been harmed in the past,” a company spokesman said. “We should be part of that discussion.”

Even when Southern courthouses remained standing, fear of white authority long kept blacks away from record rooms. Today, however, interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and some are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press

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Associated Press writers Woody Baird, Allen G. Breed, Shelia Hardwell Byrd, Alan Clendenning, Ron Harrist, David Lieb and Bill Poovey, and investigative researcher Randy Xerschaft contributed to this report.

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PART II : A legal maneuver is used to strip black Americans of their land.

Legality Used To Take Land From Blacks

By TODD LEWAN and DOLORES BARCLAY
The Associated Press

Dec 4, 2001

Lawyers and real estate traders are stripping Americans of their ancestral land today, simply by following the law.

It is done through a court procedure that is intended to help resolve land disputes but is being used to pry land from people who do not want to sell.

Black families are especially vulnerable to it. The Becketts, for example, lost a 335-acre farm in Jasper County, S.C., that had been in their family since 1873.

And the Sanders clan watched helplessly as a timber company recently acquired 300 acres in Pickens County, Ala., that had been in their family since 1919.

Alvie Marsh of Choudrant, La., believes 80 acres belonging to his family was taken unfairly. “I’ve lived with that for 45 years,” he said.

Today, he lives in a shack on that part of the estate his family was able to keep.

THE PROCEDURE IS CALLED PARTITIONING, AND THIS IS HOW IT WORKS:

Whenever a landowner dies without a will, the heirs – usually spouse and children – inherit the estate. They own the land in common, with no one person owning a specific part of it. If more family members die without wills, things can get messy within a couple of generations, with dozens of relatives owning the land in common.

Anyone can buy an interest in one of these family estates; all it takes is a single heir willing to sell. And anyone who owns a share, no matter how small, can go to a judge and request that the entire property be sold at auction.

Some land traders seek out such estates and buy small shares with the intention of forcing auctions. Family members seldom have enough money to compete, even when the high bid is less than market value.

“Imagine buying one share of Coca-Cola and being able to go to court and demand a sale of the entire company,” said Thomas Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin law professor who has studied partitioning. “That’s what’s going on here.”

This can happen to anyone who owns land in common with others; laws allowing partition sales exist in every state.

However, government and university studies show black landowners in the South are especially vulnerable because up to 83 percent of them do not leave wills – perhaps because rural blacks often lack equal access to the legal system.

Mitchell and others who have studied black landownership estimate that thousands of black families have lost millions of acres through partition sales in the past 30 years.

By the end of the 1960s, civil rights legislation and social change had curbed the intimidation and violence that had driven many blacks from their land over the previous 100 years. Nevertheless, land loss did not stop.

Since 1969, the decline has been particularly steep. Black Americans have lost 80 percent of the 5.5 million acres of farmland they owned in the South 32 years ago, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census.

Partition sales, Pennick estimates, account for half of those losses.

PARTITION SALES ‘EASY’ FOR JUDGES

A judge is not required to order a partition sale just because someone requests it. Often, there are other options.

When the property is large enough for each owner to be given a useful parcel, it can be fairly divided. When those who want to keep the land outnumber those who want to sell, the court can help the majority arrange to buy out the minority. In at least one state, Alabama, the law gives family members first rights to buy out anyone who wants to sell.

Yet, government and university studies show, alternatives to partition sales are rarely considered. When partition sales are requested, judges nearly always order them.

“Judges order partition sales because it’s easy,” said Jesse Dukeminier, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles.  Appraising and dividing property takes time and effort, he said.

Partition statutes exist for a reason: to help families resolve impossible tangles that can develop when land is passed down through several generations without wills.

In Rankin County, Miss., for example, the 66 heirs to an 80-acre black family estate could not agree on what to do with the land. One family member, whose portion was the size of a house lot, wanted her share separated from the estate. Three other heirs, who owned shares the size of parking spaces, opposed dividing the land because what they owned would have become worthless. So in 1979, the court ordered the land sold and the proceeds divided.

Even when the process works as intended, it contributes to the decline in black-owned land; the property nearly always ends up in the hands of white developers or corporations. The Rankin County land was bought at auction by a timber company.

But the process doesn’t always work as intended. Land traders who buy shares of estates with the intention of forcing partition sales are abusing the law, according to a 1985 Commerce Department study.

The practice is legal but “clearly unscrupulous,” declared the study, which was conducted for the department by the Emergency Land Fund, a nonprofit group that helped Southern blacks retain threatened land in the 1970s and ’80s.

Blacks have lost land through partitioning for decades; the AP found several cases in the 1950s. But in recent years, it has become big business.  Legal fees for bringing partition actions can be high – often 20 percent of the proceeds from the land sales. Families, in effect, end up paying the fees of the lawyers who separate them from their land.

CAN’T ALWAYS TRUST THEIR LAWYERS

Moreover, black landowners cannot always count on their own lawyers. Sometimes, the Commerce Department study found, attorneys representing blacks filed partition actions that were against their clients’ interests.

The Associated Press found several cases in which black landowners, unfamiliar with property law, inadvertently set partition actions in motion by signing legal papers they did not understand.

Once the partition actions began, the landowners found themselves powerless to stop them.

The AP studied 14 partition cases in detail, reviewing lawsuit files and interviewing participants. The cases stretched across Southern and border states. In nearly every case, the partition action was initiated by a land trader or lawyer rather than a family member. In most cases, land traders bought small shares of black family estates, sometimes from heirs who were elderly, mentally disabled or in prison, and then sought partition sales. All 14 estates were acquired from black families by whites or corporations, usually at bargain prices.

________________________________________________

Associated Press reporters Ron Harrist and Sara Silver contributed to this report.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Land Often The Motive For Attacks On Blacks, Lynchings

By DOLORES BARCLAY, TODD LEWAN and ALLEN G. BREED
The Associated Press

Dec 4, 2001

As a little girl, Doria Dee Johnson often asked about the man in the portrait hanging in an aunt’s living room – her great-great-grandfather. “It’s too painful,” her elderly relatives would say.

A few years ago, Johnson, now 40, went to look for answers in the rural town of Abbeville, S.C.

She learned that in his day, the man in the portrait, Anthony P. Crawford, was one of the most prosperous farmers in Abbeville County. That is until Oct. 21, 1916 – the day the 51- year-old farmer hauled a wagonload of cotton to town.

Crawford “seems to have been the type of negro who is most offensive to certain elements of the white people,” the wife of J.B. Holman would say a few days later in a letter published by The Abbeville Press and Banner. “He was getting rich, for a negro, and he was insolent along with it.”

Crawford’s prosperity had made him a target.

Racial violence in America is a familiar story, but the importance of land as a motive for lynchings and white mob attacks on blacks has been widely overlooked. And the resulting land losses suffered by black families have gone largely unreported.

The Associated Press documented 57 violent land takings in an 18-month  investigation of black land loss in America. Sometimes, black landowners were attacked by whites who just wanted to drive them from their property. In other cases, the attackers wanted the land.

For many decades, successful blacks “lived with a gnawing fear … that white  neighbors could at any time do something violent and take everything from them,” said Loren Schweninger, a University of North Carolina expert on black  landownership.

SPLITTING A FAMILY

While waiting his turn at the gin that fall day in 1916, Crawford entered the mercantile store of W.D. Barksdale. Contemporary newspaper accounts and the papers of then-Gov. Richard Manning detail what followed:

Barksdale offered Crawford 85 cents a pound for his cottonseed. Crawford replied he had a better offer. Barksdale called him a liar; Crawford called the storekeeper a cheat. Three clerks grabbed ax handles, and Crawford backed into the street, where the sheriff appeared and arrested Crawford – for cursing a white man.

Released on bail, Crawford was cornered by about 50 whites who beat and knifed him. The sheriff carried him back to jail. A few hours later, a deputy gave the mob the keys to Crawford’s cell.

AT SUNDOWN, THEY HANGED HIM FROM A SOUTHERN PINE.

No one was tried for the killing. In its aftermath, hundreds of blacks, including some Crawfords, fled Abbeville.

Two whites were appointed executors of Crawford’s estate, which included 427 acres of prime cotton land. One was Andrew J. Ferguson, cousin of two of the mob’s ringleaders, the Press and Banner reported.

Crawford’s children inherited the farm, but Ferguson liquidated much of the rest of Crawford’s property, including his cotton, which went to Barksdale.  Ferguson kept $5,438 – more than half the proceeds – and gave Crawford’s children just $200 each, estate papers show.

Crawford’s family struggled to hold the farm together but lost it when they couldn’t pay off a $2,000 balance on a bank loan. Although the farm was assessed at $20,000 at the time, a white man paid $504 for it at the foreclosure auction, land records  show.

“There’s land taken away, and there’s murder,” said Johnson, of Alexandria, Va. “But the biggest crime was that our family was split up by this. My family got scattered into the night.”

FROM LYNCHING TO LAND-TAKING

The former Crawford land provided timber to several owners before International Paper Corp. acquired it last year. A company spokesman said International Paper was unaware of the land’s history, and added, “It causes you to think that there are facets of our history that need to be discussed and addressed.”

Other current owners of property involved in violent land takings also said they knew little about the history of their land, and most were disturbed when told.

The Tuskegee Institute and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have documented more than 3,000 lynchings between 1865 and 1965. Many of those lynched were property owners, said Ray Winbush, director of Fisk  University’s Race Relations Institute.

“If you are looking for stolen black land,” he said, “just follow the lynching trail.”

Some white officials condoned the violence; a few added threats of their own.

“If it is necessary, every negro in the state will be lynched,” James K. Vardaman  declared while governor of Mississippi (1904-1908). “It will be done to maintain white supremacy.”

At the start of the 20th century, Birmingham, Ky., a tobacco center with a  predominantly black population, became a battleground in a five-year siege by white marauders called Night Riders.

On March 8, 1908, about 100 armed whites tore through town, shooting seven  blacks, three of them fatally. The AP documented cases of 14 black landowners who were driven from Birmingham. Together, they lost more than 60 acres of farmland and 21 city lots to whites — many at sheriff’s sales, all for low prices.

John Scruggs and his young granddaughter were killed in Birmingham that night. Property records show that the lot Scruggs had bought for $25 in 1902 was sold for nonpayment of taxes six years after the attack. A white man bought it for $7.25 (about $144 today).

Today, Birmingham lies beneath a flood way created in the 1940s.

‘THE LAW WOULDN’T HELP’

In Pierce City, Mo., 1,000 armed whites burned down five black-owned houses and killed four blacks on Aug. 18, 1901. Within days, all of the town’s 129 blacks had fled, never to return, according to a contemporary report in The Lawrence Chieftain newspaper. The AP documented the cases of nine Pierce City blacks who lost 30 acres of farmland and 10 city lots. Whites bought it all at bargain prices.

Sometimes, individual black farmers were attacked by bands of white farmers known as the Whitecaps. Operating in several Southern and border states near the turn of the 20th century, they were intent on driving blacks from their land, said historian George C. Wright, provost at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“THE LAW WOULDN’T HELP,” HE SAID. “THERE WAS JUST NO ONE TO TURN TO.”

Whitecaps often nailed notes to the doors of black landowners, warning them to leave or die.

The warning to Eli Hilson of Lincoln County, Miss., came on Nov. 18, 1903, when Whitecaps shot up his house, The Brookhaven Leader newspaper reported at the time. Hilson ignored the warning.

A month later, the 39-year-old farmer was shot dead. His wife, Hannah, struggled to raise their 11 children and work the 74-acre farm, but she could not manage without her husband. She lost the property through a mortgage foreclosure in 1905. Land records show the farm went for $439 to S.P. Oliver, a county supervisor. Today, the property is assessed at $61,642.


Responses

  1. [...] Original post by Electronic Drum [...]

  2. You drop knowledge in a single blog post that outdoes the entire journalistic efforts of some national magazines.

    For that reason, you earned the ‘E for Excellence’ blogging award!

    http://electronicvillage.blogspot.com/2009/04/e-for-excellence-award.html

    peace, Villager

  3. i feel the land and property has been stolen from me through fraud because i was in a serious car accident..and have been in and out of hospitals ..so i fouund out after the accident my grandmother and father left me property and a house in puerto rico ..i need help…i live in the us..and dont speek very much spanish..mom never spoke it in the house..can anyone point me in the right direction?


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