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"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ~ Frederick Douglass

Associated Press

Sunday, Dec 2, 2001

Associated Press

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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, oil fields 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 documented 107 land takings in 13 Southern and border states.  In those cases alone, 406 black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farmland 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.


Reporters found evidence of other takings that could not be fully verified because of gaps in the public record. Thousands of additional reports collected by land activists and educational institutions remain uninvestigated.  The 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.  


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."  Stephanie Hagans of Atlanta, whose great-grandmother lost 35 acres in North Carolina.  A white lawyer foreclosed on Ablow Weddington Stewart in 1942 after he refused to allow her to finish paying off a $540 debt, witnesses told the AP.  


Examples of other documented land takings:

> 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 shot at them instead, the mob set fire to his house, according to 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, 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 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming the cousins had no right to two 40-acre farms their family hand 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..... 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 the property on Jan. 3, 1874.


Most of the current owners of the land, nearly all of whom acquired it years after the land takings occurred, 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.  The Land takings are part of a larger picture: 
a decades-long 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 hands.  However, black ownership 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 rarely could find lawyers to take their cases.  


In recent years, a few 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 agencies frequently take 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 that the Navy paid white neighbors for similar land, records show.


After World War II, the Navy gave the airfields 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 extent of land takings from black families will never be known because of gaps in public records.  About one-third of the county courthouses in Southern and border states have burned 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.


A few years after the fire, the Masonite Corp., a wood products company, went to court to clear title to its land in the area.  Masonite believed it owned 9,581 acres, and said it had been unable to locate anyone with a rival claim.  In 1958, the court ruled the company had a 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 Ku Klux 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 Corp., 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."


Today, interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and some are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories.  

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

Today, the land is Willow Oaks, a country club with an assessed value of $2.94 million.  But in the 1850's it was a 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.  But the blacks never got a penny.  After Howlett's death, Benjamin Hatcher, the executor of the estate, ran the plantation as his own, court records show.  When the Civil War ended, the newly freed slaves complained to the Union Army, which ordered Virginia courts to investigate.


Hatcher testified that he had sold the plantation in 1862 but had not given the proceeds to the former slaves.  Instead, records show, the proceeds were invested on the slaves' behalf in Confederate War Bonds in 1864 - a dubious investment 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 the former slaves were owed nothing.


Willow Oaks Corp. acquired the property in 1955 for an unspecified amount.  "I don't hold anything against Willow Oaks," Logan said.  "But how Virginia's courts acted...goes against everything America stands for."


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 article.

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