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A Hidden Story:
AP Documents Theft of Black Land
By Esther Iverem
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"Torn from the Land," a three-part
series published by the Associated Press in December 2001, documented
African Americans in the South and in Southern-border states have
been driven from their land by thievery, intimidation, violence
and murder. Through more than 1000 interviews and an examination
of tens of thousands of public records, the exhaustive project
revealed how 406 Black land owners lost 24,000 acres of farm
and timber land, and dozens of smaller properties, including beachfront
land, city lots and stores. According to the report, these cases
are "only the tip" of a larger pattern that has led
to a 91-year decline in Black land-ownership in the U.S. "Today," the
series concludes, "virtually all of this property, valued
at tens of millions of dollars, is held by Whites or corporations."
The initiators and lead reporters of the series, Dolores Barclay
and Todd Lewan, documented the racism with dogged research. And
lest anyone attribute the land grabs to Black ignorance or greed,
the second part of the series illustrates how beatings, arson and
lynching were routinely used to take land, particularly from Blacks
with prosperous farms.
In 1916, for example, a successful Black cotton farmer in South
Carolina named Anthony P. Crawford was lynched by a White mob after
he refused to accept a below-market price from a White merchant
for his cotton crop. One of the two appointed executors of Crawford's
estate, Andrew J. Ferguson, was a cousin to two ringleaders of
the lynch mob. Ferguson liquidated much of Crawford's property,
took more than half of the proceeds, $5,438, for himself, while
Crawford's children received $200 each.
While Crawford's children inherited the farm, the family
lost the property, valued at $20,000, because they could not pay
a $2,000 bank loan balance. A white man paid $504 for the farm
at a foreclosure auction.
Crawford's lynching is not an anomaly. In fact, Ray Winbush,
director of Fisk University's Race Relations Institute told the
reporters, "If you are looking for stolen Black land, just
follow the lynching trail.'' The report documents individuals with
homes, farms, general stores and even entire communities forced
to flee their land and/or sell it to Whites for next to nothing.
Valentine Hightower of Ocoee, Fla. was one of 18 Black families
who lost land after they fled an attack on their community by Whites
in 1920. He sold 52 acres for $10. Today, the report said, the
land owned by those 18 families is assessed at $4.2 million, and
has likely a far higher market value.
Nightriders in hoods were not the only perpetrators of these attacks
against the Black community. The series illustrates how government
officials and agencies, along with big businesses have not only
participated in the violence and schemes but have also profited.
In a relatively recent example, in 1964, the state of Alabama sued
to take possession of two 40-acre farms worked by a Black family
for nearly a century. Alabama said that land belonged to the state
and seized it, despite urgings by the circuit judge to drop its
suit. In the same courthouse where the case was heard, the AP located
deeds and tax records documenting the long-time family's
ownership and tax payments.
In 1942, the U.S. government seized 147 acres belonging to the
Espy family in Vero Beach, Florida to build an airfield and paid
them only $8,000 for it. A White jury later awarded the family
an additional $13,000 but, even then, the family was only compensated
one-sixth of what their White neighbors received. When the Navy
gave the airfield to the city after World War II, the city ignored
the family's plea for the return of their land and sold a
portion of it, at $1,500 an acre, to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In
1999, the report points out, the former Navy land—69 percent
of which once belonged to the Espy family—was assessed at
$6.19 million. Land in Jasper County, Mississippi, which has yielded
millions of dollars in natural gas, timber and oil, was once owned
by Black families who were chased from it by the Klan and denied
proper public records of their deeds.
Many of those now in possession of these seized properties were
not aware of the land's history and, when told about it,
expressed regret. With their powerful reporting, the Associated
Press was able to spur investigation into many of these land grabs.
In other cases, the investigation provided ammunition to those
fighting to regain property or to those organizing to secure reparations
for African-Americans. "Now the time has come for us to examine
the economic and physical losses suffered by African Americans
under the old policies of Jim Crow,' said Congressman Lacy
Clay, Democrat of Missouri, on the floor of the House of representatives
February 6, 2002 in reaction to the AP series. "To do any
less," Clay said, "would allow justice to be denied."
Torn From the Land: AP Documents
Land Taken From Blacks
Through Trickery, Violence and
By Todd Lewan and Dolores Barclay
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, after neighbors turned down the lamps — old stories
locked in fear and shame.
"How different would our lives be if
we'd had the opportunities, the pride that land brings?"
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
of the land taken from black families has become a
country club in Virginia, oil fields in Mississippi, a major-league
spring training facility in Florida.
The United States has a long history of bitter, often violent
land disputes, from claim jumping in the gold fields to range
wars in the old West to broken treaties with American Indians.
Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated unfairly,
pressured to sell out at rock-bottom prices by railroads and
lumber and mining companies.
The fate of black landowners has been an overlooked part of
The AP — in an investigation that included interviews
more than 1,000 people and the examination of tens of
thousands of public records in county courthouses and state
and federal archives — 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 by 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 building economic security
and passing wealth on to the next generation. When black families
lost their land, they lost all of this.
"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
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
Besides the 107 cases the AP documented, reporters found evidence
of scores of other land takings that could not be fully
verified because of gaps or inconsistencies in the public
record. Thousands of additional reports of land takings from black families remain uninvestigated.
Two thousand have been collected in recent years by the Penn Center
on St. Helena Island, S.C., an educationalinstitution established
for freed slaves during the Civil
War. The Land Loss Prevention Project, a group of lawyers in Durham,
N.C., who represent blacks in land disputes, said it receives
new reports daily. And Heather Gray of the Federation
of Southern Cooperatives in Atlanta said her organization
has "file cabinets full of complaints."
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.
Some 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 poured coaloil
on his house and set it afire, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Pleading for mercy, Walker ran out the
front door, followed by four screaming children and his
wife, carrying 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 farm their father died defending. Land
records show that Walker's 2 1/2-acre farm was simply folded
into the property of a white neighbor. The neighbor soon
sold it to another man, whose daughter owns the undeveloped land
- In the 1950s and 1960s, a Chevrolet dealer in Holmes
County, Miss., acquired hundreds of acres from black farmers
by foreclosing on small loans for farm equipment
pickup trucks. Norman Weathersby, then the only dealer in
the area, required the farmers to put up their land as
security for the loans, county residents who dealt with him
said. And the equipment he sold them, they said, often broke
down shortly thereafter. Weathersby's friend, William E.
Strider, ran the local Farmers Home Administration — the
credit lifeline for many Southern farmers. Area residents,
including Erma Russell, 81, said Strider, now dead, was
often slow in releasing farm operating loans to blacks. When
cash-poor farmers missed payments owed to Weathersby, he
took their land. The AP documented eight cases in which
Weathersby acquired black-owned farms this way. When he died
in 1973, he left more than 700 acres of this land to his
family, according to estate papers, deeds and court records.
- In 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon
Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming the cousins had no right
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,
it wanted income from timber on the land, the judge ruled
against the family. Today, the land lies empty; the staterecently
opened some of it to logging. 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 the property on
Jan. 3, 1874. Surviving records also show the family paid
property taxes on the farms from the mid-1950s until the
land was taken.
AP reporters tracked the land cases by reviewing
deeds,mortgages, tax records, estate papers, court proceedings,
surveyor maps, oil and gas leases, marriage records, census
listings, birth records, death certificates and Freedmen's
Bureau archives. Additional documents, including FBI files
and 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, appraisers,
genealogists, surveyors, land activists, and local, state
and federal officials.
The AP also talked to current owners of the land, nearly all
of whom acquired the properties years after the land takings
occurred. Most said they knew little about the history of
their land. When told about it, most expressed regret.
Weathersby's son, John, 62, who now runs the dealership in
Indianola, Miss., said he had little direct knowledge about
his father's business affairs. However, he said he was sure
his father never would have sold defective vehicles and that
he always treated people fairly.
Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman examined the state's files on the
Sweet Water case after an inquiry from the AP. He said he
found them "disturbing" and has asked the state attorney
general to review the matter.
"What I have asked the attorney general to do," he
look not only at the letter of the law but at what is fair
The land takings are part of a larger picture — a 91-year
decline in black landownership in America.
In 1910, black Americans owned more farmland than at any
time before or since — at least 15 million acres. Nearly
all of it was in the South, largely in Mississippi, Alabama and
the Carolinas, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census.
Today, blacks own only 1.1 million of the country's more
than 1 billion acres of arable land. They are part owners of
another 1.07 million acres.
The number of white farmers has declined over the last
century, too, as economic trends have concentrated land infewer,
often corporate, hands. However, black ownership has
declined 2-1/2 times faster than white ownership, the U.S.
Civil Rights Commission noted in a 1982 report, the last
comprehensive federal study on the trend.
The decline in black landownership had a number of causes, including
the discriminatory lending practices of theFarmers Home Administration
and the migration of blacks from
the rural South to industrial centers in the North and West.
However, the land takings also contributed. In the decades
between Reconstruction and the civil rights struggle, black
families were powerless to prevent them, said Stuart E.
Tolnay, a University of Washington sociologist and co-author
of a book on lynchings. In an era when black Americans could
not drink from the same water fountains as whites and 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 or judges who would give them a
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
get his land back. 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
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People. "They kept telling me that my father and I were
'smart niggers' 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 forhunting
— is privately owned and is assessed at $33,660.
(Officials assess property for tax purposes, and the
valuation is usually less than its market value.)
Over the past 20 years, a handful of black families have
sued to regain their ancestral lands. State courts, however,
have dismissed their cases on grounds that statutes of
limitations had expired.
A group of attorneys led by Harvard University law professor
Charles J. Ogletree has been making inquries recently about
land takings. The group has announced its intention to file
a national class-action lawsuit in pursuit of reparations
for slavery and racial discrimination. However, some legal
experts say redress for many land takings may not be
possible unless laws are changed.As the acres slipped away, so
did treasured pieces of family
history — cabins crafted by a grandfather's hand, family
graves in shaded groves.
But "the home place" meant more than just that. Many
have found it "very difficult to transfer wealth from one
generation to the next," because they had trouble holding
onto land, said Paula Giddings, a history professor at Duke
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 for public purposes 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 property and tax records
in many rural Southern counties. The AP found crumbling tax
records, deed books with pages torn from them, file folderswith
documents missing, and records that had been crudely
In Jackson Parish, La., 40 years of moldy, gnawed tax and
mortgage records were piled in a cellar behind a roll of
Christmas lights and a wooden reindeer. In Yazoo County,
Miss., volumes of tax and deed records filled a classroom in
an abandoned school, the papers coated with white dust from
a falling ceiling. The AP retrieved dozens of documents that
custodians said were earmarked for shredders or landfills.
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
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. Records for the
predominantly white western half of the county were safe in
another courthouse miles away. The door to the Paulding courthouse's
safe, which protected
the records, had been locked the night before, the Jasper
County News reported at the time. The next morning, the safe
was found open, most of the records reduced to ashes.
Suddenly, it was unclear who owned a big piece of eastern
Even before the courthouse fire, landownership in Jasper
County was contentious. According to historical accounts,
the Ku Klux Klan, resentful that blacks were buying and
profiting from land, had been attacking black-owned farms,
burning houses, lynching black farmers and chasing black
The Masonite Corp., a wood products company, was one of the
largest landowners in the area. Because most of the land
records had been destroyed, the company went to court in
December 1937 to clear its title. Masonite believed it owned
9,581 acres and said in court papers that it had been unable
to locate anyone with a rival claim to the land.
A month later, 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 remain, 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 oil and gas board records
and figures from the Petroleum Techno logy Transfer Council,
an industry group.
Today, the land is owned by International Paper Corp., which
acquired Masonite in 1988. Jenny Boardman, a company
spokeswoman, said International Paper had been unaware of
the "tragic" history of the land and was concerned
"This is probably part of a much larger, public debate
whether there should be restitution for people who have been
harmed in the past," she said. "And by virtue of the
that we now own these lands, we should be part of that
Even when Southern courthouses remained standing, mistrust
and fear of white authority long kept blacks away from
record rooms, where documents often were segregated into "white" and "colored." Many
elderly blacks say they still
remember how they were snubbed by court clerks, spat upon
and even struck.
Today, however, fear and shame have given way to pride.
Interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and
some black Americans are unearthing the documents behind
those whispered stories.
"People are out there wondering: What ever happened to
Grandma's land?" said Loretta Carter Hanes, 75, a retired
genealogist. "They knew that their grandparents shed a lot
of blood and tears to get it."
Bryan Logan, a 55-year-old sports writer from Washington,
D.C., was researching his heritage when he uncovered a
connection to 264 acres of riverfront property in Richmond,
Today, the land is Willow Oaks, an almost exclusively white
country club with an assessed value of $2.94 million. But in
the 1850s, it was a corn-and-wheat 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.
Yet the freed slaves never got a penny.
Benjamin Hatcher, the executor of the estate, simply took
over the plantation, court records show. He cleared the
timber and mined the stone, providing granite for the Navy
and War Department buildings in Washington and the capitol
in Richmond, according to records in the National Archives.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the former slaves
complained to the occupying 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, court papers show,
the proceeds were invested on their behalf in Confederate
War Bonds. There is nothing in the public record to suggest
the former slaves wanted their money used to support the
Southern war effort.
Moreover, the bonds were purchased in the former slaves'
names in 1864 — a dubious investment at best in the fourth
year of the war. Within months, Union armies were marching
on Atlanta and Richmond, and the bonds were worthless pieces
The blacks insisted they were never given even that, but in
1871, Virginia's highest court ruled that Hatcher was
innocent of wrongdoing and that the former slaves were owed
The following year, the plantation was broken up and sold at
a public auction. Hatcher's son received the proceeds,
county records show. In the 1930s, a Richmond businessman
cobbled the estate back together; he sold it to Willow Oaks
Corp. in 1955 for an unspecified amount.
"I don't hold anything against Willow Oaks," Logan
said. "But how Virginia's courts acted, how they allowed
to be stolen — it goes against everything America stands
This article includes contributions from Woody Baird,
Allen G. Breed, Shelia Hardwell Byrd, Alan Clendenning, Ron
Bill Poovey, and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft.
The complete Torn from the Land series is in the archives
Copyright © 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
— April 1, 2005
2001-05 Seeing Black, Inc. All Rights Reserved.