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'We Had Some Land . . . ' but Oil Brought Trouble

Bias: Grandson pieces together what happened after klan chased his family off farm in 1924.

January 27, 2002|TODD LEWAN and DOLORES BARCLAY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PAULDING, Miss. — "I need to know who I am, where I come from."

It was Memorial Day 1997, and Edward Lee was sitting on a worn sofa in a worn house in Jackson. He was talking to an old man with a raspy drawl and a pacemaker--his grandfather, Edgar Lee.

They hadn't seen each other in three years. Edward Lee had been living in California and Texas and had lost touch with most of his relatives. They had left Mississippi long ago, scattered north and west.

He was 35 now, separated from his wife. He had no job, no kids, no house, no roots.

"Please, Grandpa, tell me who I am."

Edgar Lee gave his grandson a long, hard look. Then his eyes fluttered shut and memories flooded back. . . .

Spanish moss . . . an auburn horse . . . a cabin in flames. . . .

"We had some land," the old man said, "and they discovered oil on it."

Edgar Lee pulled out a creased photograph of a slender man in ragged overalls sitting in front of a cabin with a crooked front porch.

"That's your great-great-grandaddy, Sie Lee," Edgar Lee said. "That's the old home place."

And then, as his grandson remembered it later, Edgar Lee began a tale of klansmen and oilmen, of midnight fires and murder.

When he finished his story, Edgar Lee stood up.

"Now that you know," he told his grandson, "do something about this."

What happened to the Lee family has happened to others. The Associated Press, in a series of stories published in December, reported a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their family land or driven from it through intimidation, violence, even murder. The AP documented 107 such land-takings and located thousands of additional cases that have yet to be investigated.

Behind every land-taking is a human story. This is one of them.

Throughout the summer of 1920, Edgar Lee's father, Anderson, slept in the woods with a shotgun.

It was a routine Edgar Lee could recount in detail 80 years later: At nightfall, his father would tuck in his four sons, whisper good night to Edgar's mother, Melvina, and his grandfather, Sie Lee, then slip out the back door and into the buzzing blackness.

The seven of them lived in a three-room log cabin surrounded by pine forests south of Paulding. The land had been in the family since the early 1890s, when Sie Lee arrived from Alabama.

The earth was rocky, but the deacon and his wife earned a living by cutting timber and raising pigs, chickens and cows.

Then, in the fall of 1908, geologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stumbled onto something that would change their destiny.

Beneath eastern Jasper County was a basin of light crude. The oil was deep--so deep that the oilmen couldn't reach it. Not yet.

After word of the discovery seeped out, trouble started.

Black farmers in the area found it harder than usual to get loans, Edgar Lee remembered. They were paid less than ever for their crops and could no longer get credit at supply stores. Some lost their farms.

Other pressure was less subtle.

What Edgar Lee saw and heard as a 10-year-old boy one May night in 1920 was forever trapped in his memory: Galloping horses, torches, hooded men at the cabin door, a shout.

"Where's Anderson?"

"He's gone," Anderson's wife replied. "Out in the woods."

The klansmen laughed.

"We'll be back."

They returned each week, Edgar said.

So Anderson Lee would sleep in the woods, returning at sunrise. His wife would check him for lice and ticks before breakfast. A few times, he returned to find his children staring at a cross ablaze in the yard.

Finally, the family left their land and fled to nearby Moss Hill. One night, their cabin there went up in flames. They built a third cabin in the forest a few miles south of Paulding. They didn't dare return to their farm.

The Ku Klux Klan was never far away. Edgar Lee's aunt, a housemaid, sometimes found herself washing and pressing their robes and hoods.

In the late summer of 1924, the klan came calling again.

"We was sleeping," Edgar Lee recalled. "I heard my momma screaming. The house--it was falling in on us. Then I remember standing outside, watching the fire eat it up."

This time, the family scattered.

Anderson Lee ran all the way to the Delta, leaving behind his wife and children, who moved to a white landowner's farm. Sie Lee moved to another part of Jasper County and worked as a sharecropper until his death in 1951.

In 1930, Edgar Lee married and moved to Laurel. He never saw his father again. In 1931, Anderson Lee's body was found in a barn on a Delta plantation, a bullet in his chest.

By then, the Lee property had fallen into other hands.

*

Paulding had long been the Jasper County seat. In 1906, however, a second seat was established in Bay Springs, in the western, predominantly white, half of the county. That year, land records for western Jasper were transferred to Bay Springs.

So when 15 whites set fire to the Paulding courthouse on Sept. 10, 1932, only the records for the mostly black section burned.

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