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--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 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 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 build economic security and pass wealth on to the next generation.
“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 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 have not been investigated.
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 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 set fire to his house, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.
Walker ran out, followed by four screaming children and his wife with 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 land their father had died to defend. Records show that Walker’s 2 1/2-acre farm was simply folded into the property of a white neighbor, who 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, contending 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, the judge ordered the family off the land. 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 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 hands. But 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. But the land-takings also contributed.
In the decades between Reconstruction and the civil rights struggle, blacks were powerless to prevent them, said Stuart E. 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.
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 regain his land. 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 Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “They kept telling me that my father and I were [acting too smart] 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; the valuation is usually less than its market value.)
In recent years, a handful of black families have 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, 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 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 away the owners.
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 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 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.”
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.
Bryan Logan, a 55-year-old sportswriter from Washington, D.C., was researching his heritage when he uncovered a connection to 264 acres in Richmond, Va.
Today, the land is Willow Oaks, a country club with an assessed value of $2.94 million. But in the 1850s, 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. When he died in 1856, his white relatives challenged the will, but two courts upheld it.
Still, the freed slaves 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 former slaves complained to the 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, records show, the money was invested on the slaves’ behalf in Confederate War Bonds in 1864--a dubious investment in the fourth year of the war.
Moreover, there is nothing in the public record to suggest that the former slaves wanted their money used to support the Southern war effort.
Within months, Union armies were marching on Atlanta and Richmond, and the bonds were worthless pieces of paper. The former slaves insisted they were never given even that, but in 1871, Virginia’s highest court ruled they 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 . . . it 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 Xerschaft contributed to this report.
This is Part One of “Torn From the Land,” a three-part weekly series documenting how black Americans lost family land over the last 160 years. A Web presentation of this series, including documents and additional stories, can be found at the AP’s “The Wire” Web site: wire.ap.org
NEXT WEEK: Land ownership made blacks targets of violence, murder.