BUTLER, Tex. — Growing up in rural east Texas in the 1930s, Jeanette Adkins often heard her father describe how unknown white men had swindled the family out of most of the huge swath of land that her great-grandfather, a former slave, had settled here after the Civil War.
It was a tale told with resignation. A black in Texas, one relative philosophized, was "like a man with a shotgun and no shells--he can't shoot."
Adkins eventually married and left Texas for the San Fernando Valley and then Gardena, where she ran beauty shops and raised three children. But she could never shake the ghost of her great-grandfather, Anderson Willis.
She was approaching middle age when she and her sister, Loraine Watson of Dallas, decided to try to nail down the legend once and for all.
"Not for money, but because this was our heritage," Adkins explained.
But what began as a simple search of public records soon turned into a giant historical jigsaw puzzle. Adkins began flying back to Dallas three and four times a year, then driving 80 miles south to spend weeks at a time poring over thousands of deeds, liens and lawsuits in the Freestone County courthouse.
It took the better part of a decade before the sisters became convinced that the family stories were true--that Anderson Willis' land had been stolen with a pencil, and that some of it had wound up in the hands of some of Freestone County's more prominent white citizens.
Armed with boxes of photocopied documents, they persuaded a skeptical Dallas lawyer to file a federal civil rights suit against the county and two dozen property owners.
And this summer, 14 years after she started trying to unravel the mystery, Jeanette Adkins expects to fly once again to Texas, headed this time for U.S. District Court in Waco.
There she will watch her attorney argue that 2,986 acres of softly sloping, mostly vacant pastureland--including a family cemetery, now fenced and gated shut by the current owner--should be deeded back to the Willises.
The case has attracted support from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national civil rights group that characterizes it 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.
According to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, which offers legal assistance to rural black landowners, such fraud is one of the reasons why black ownership of farmland in the United States has fallen from 16 million acres in the 1930s to 4.5 million acres today.
Adkins, an energetic 63-year-old great-grandmother with a patient manner and a soft, articulate voice, has won praise for her doggedness.
A Strong Commitment
"I've never seen anyone more committed in a case like this," said E. Randel T. Osburn, SCLC's director of affiliate chapters.
"Jeanette and Loraine stayed with this when everybody else in the family had given up," said Bill Willis, a cousin who lives in Dallas. "The whole family owes them a big debt."
The lawsuit is a legal long shot. For one thing, it was filed long after Texas' 25-year statute of limitations had expired. For another, the family has never been able to find deeds showing that Anderson Willis bought the land the Willises lived on. And, finally, the suit fails to accuse specific individuals of specific misdeeds. It merely states that "certain white citizens" defrauded Anderson Willis at a time when blacks in Texas were subjected to a "system of divestment and terrorism."
Nevertheless, to the Willis family the suit is a cathartic explosion with as much symbolic power as "Roots," the chronicle of African genealogy that Alex Haley began writing the same year that Adkins and Watson started their research.
"Win or lose, this will do something to right the injustice," Adkins said recently as she walked across the weed-choked clearing where Anderson Willis once lived and near where she was born.
'There Are Our Roots'
"These are our roots. Alex Haley was able to go back to Africa. We cannot go back that far. Our history stops at Anderson Willis. The least we should do for him is try to rectify a wrong he wasn't able to do anything about."
Defense attorneys contend that their clients, none of whom live on the property, have proof of purchase and are not responsible for previous transactions.
"Just as a lay person, I have no idea who was on the property I own 100 years ago, and I'd hate to lose my house because of it," said Frank McCowan, an attorney representing the trust fund of a family that in 1910 bought 350 acres of the land claimed by the Willises.