Suit Saying Land Was Stolen Is Dismissed : Descendants of Black Settler to Appeal Ruling by Texas Judge

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge in Waco, Tex., has dismissed a civil rights lawsuit filed by a black Gardena woman and dozens of her relatives alleging that whites swindled her great-grandfather out of nearly 3,000 acres of land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. ruled that the 1984 lawsuit by Jeanette Adkins and other descendants of Anderson Willis was filed long after the statute of limitations had expired.

Smith also ruled that the suit was not drawn specifically enough. It named as defendants the current owners of the property in question, rather than accusing any individuals of specific misdeeds, he said.

A spokeswoman for the the Adkins family said the family will appeal Smith's ruling.

Decade of Research

The Adkins family filed the lawsuit after Adkins and her sister, Loraine Watson of Dallas, spent more than a decade researching records of land in Freestone County, Tex., where they and their families were raised. The property had been settled by Anderson Willis, a freed slave.

The sisters, trying to pin down old family stories about blacks being swindled or forced off their land, said they found local tax records indicating that Anderson Willis had paid taxes on 2,986 acres. However, they were not able to find ownership records for more than a few hundred acres of property, leading them to believe that much of the land the family had once occupied had been fraudulently transferred to white owners by Freestone County officials.

Civil rights organizations had characterized the story of the Adkins family's land as an example of how land was taken from blacks throughout the South by unscrupulous whites who controlled land records and courts in the days of segregation.

However, Smith ruled that under Texas' two-year statute of limitations, the family would have had to file a lawsuit at the turn of the century--when members of the family first became suspicious. Even allowing for the family's claim that it was impossible for blacks to gain access to county records until after the passage of federal civil rights laws in the 1960s, Smith said the suit was not filed in time.

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