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'When They Steal Your Land, They Steal Your Future'

History: Study details black landowners' losses, now worth millions. One site eventually was sold to the L.A. Dodgers.

December 02, 2001|TODD LEWAN and DOLORES BARCLAY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

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