Lawyers and real-estate traders are stripping Americans of their ancestral land today, simply by following the law.
It is done through a court procedure that is intended to resolve land disputes but is being used to pry land from people who do not want to sell.
Black families are especially vulnerable to it. The Becketts, for example, lost a 335-acre farm in Jasper County, S.C., that had been in their family since 1873. And the Sanders clan recently lost 300 acres in Pickens County, Ala., that had been in their family since 1919.
The procedure is called partitioning, and this is how it works:
Whenever a landowner dies without a will, the heirs inherit the estate in common, with no one person owning a specific part of it. If more family members die without wills, things can get messy within a couple of generations, with dozens of relatives owning the land in common.
Anyone can buy an interest in one of these family estates; all it takes is a single heir willing to sell. And anyone who owns a share, no matter how small, can go to a judge and request that the entire property be sold at auction.
Some land traders seek out such estates and buy small shares with the intention of forcing auctions. Family members seldom have enough money to compete.
"Imagine buying one share of Coca-Cola and being able to go to court and demand a sale of the entire company," said Thomas Mitchell, a University of Wisconsin expert on partitioning. "That's what's going on here."
This can happen to anyone who owns land in common with others; laws allowing partition sales exist in every state.
However, government and university studies show black landowners in the South are especially vulnerable because up to 83 percent do not leave wills.
Blacks have lost 80 percent of the 5.5 million acres of farmland they owned in the South 32 years ago, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Partition sales account for half of those losses, according to land experts such as Jerry Pennick, regional coordinator for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Partition statutes exist for a reason: to help families resolve impossible tangles that can develop when land is passed down through several generations without wills.
But the process doesn't always work as intended. Land traders who buy shares of estates with the intention of forcing partition sales are abusing the law, declared a 1985 study done for the Commerce Department by the Emergency Land Fund, a nonprofit group that helped Southern blacks retain threatened land.
The Associated Press studied 14 partition cases in detail, reviewing lawsuit files and interviewing participants. The cases were in Southern and border states. In nearly every case, traders bought small shares of black family estates, sometimes from heirs who were elderly or mentally disabled, and then sought partition sales. All 14 estates were acquired by whites or corporations, usually at bargain prices.
The case of the Marsh family of Northern Louisiana contains the three typical elements: land passed down without wills, black landowners unfamiliar with property law and a white businessman who saw an opportunity and took it.
Louis Marsh, a freed slave, accumulated 560 acres in Jackson Parish in the decades after the Civil War. When he died without a will in 1906, his children inherited the land. They owned it in common until 1944, when they asked the court to divide it. The court gave six siblings 80 acres each, court records show. The final 80 acres would have gone to their brother, Kern Marsh, but he had fled Louisiana after killing a man. So, the court decided, Louis Marsh's children would continue to own that share in common.
With the family's permission, one of the siblings, Albert Marsh, farmed those extra 80 acres along with his own share. As 20 years passed with no sign of Kern Marsh, the family came to think of all 160 of those acres as Albert Marsh's land. Relatives said they expected it would be passed down to Albert's children when he died.
That's not what happened.
On April 11, 1955, about the time oil rigs were appearing on neighboring property, Albert Marsh died without a will. Not long after, a white oilman named J.B. Holstead purchased an 11.4-acre interest in the extra 80 acres for $100 and a used truck. The seller was one of Albert Marsh's nephews, Leon Elmore, who has since died.
Holstead filed for a partition sale of the 80 acres. Because the 1944 partition had left that land as common property of Louis Marsh's children, the true owners were his 23 living descendants, a judge decided. Leon Elmore was among them, giving him the right to sell his share to Holstead.
The Marshes did not understand what was happening and did not have a lawyer, said Albert Marsh's son, Alvie, 86. Besides, he said, challenging a white businessman in the 1950s "never entered your mind " 'less you wanted the rope."
At an auction in 1956, Holstead bought the 80 acres for $6,400. He quickly sold the land and the oil and gas rights for unspecified amounts, records show.
Alvie Marsh believes the land was taken unfairly. "I've lived with that for 45 years," he said.
Today, he lives in a shack on that part of the estate his family was able to keep.
In the 1990s, a South Carolina real-estate trader named Audrey Moffitt sought a 335-acre estate in Jasper County, S.C., that had been owned by the Beckett family since 1873.
Frances Beckett, 74, a terminally ill widow with a fourth-grade education, was one of 76 heirs to the estate.
The woman accepted Moffitt's offer of $750 for her 1/72nd interest worth $4,653, according to a later appraisal by a real-estate consultant.
Moffitt then bought out six other heirs for a total of $6,600, court papers show. Among them, she paid Edward Stewart, 88, a man with no formal education, and Flemon Woods, 80, with a third-grade education, a combined $5,800 for their one-sixth interest. It was worth $55,833, according to the subsequent appraisal.
Moffitt filed her partition action in January 1991. Beckett family members countersued, alleging Moffitt had secured the elderly heirs' signatures improperly. A special referee in the Court of Common Pleas ruled that the estate be sold.
The property was broken into two pieces that were auctioned separately. Fifty acres were purchased by a real-estate broker for $75,000. Of this, $12,864 went to Moffitt for her shares and nearly $20,000 was taken for court costs, leaving $42,331 for the family. Today, the 50 acres are assessed at $200,000.
Moffitt bought the remaining 285 acres for $146,000 in February 1992. (That included $24,338 she paid to herself for her own shares.)
Two years later, however, an appeals court ruled that the signatures of the elderly heirs were obtained illegally and called Moffitt's dealings with them "unconscionable."
When Moffitt paid an additional $45,075 for the shares, however, the court validated the partition sale.
With the additional payment, Moffitt's outlay for the land totaled $198,425, court papers show. Deduct the $37,202 she received from the partition sales for her own shares of the estate, and her true outlay was $161,223.
Moffitt has since broken up the property and resold it for a total $1,708,117 nearly 11 times what she paid.
Moffitt , defended the dealings described as "unconscionable" by the court, calling her payments to the elderly Becketts "fair value."
She characterized the Beckett ownership as "a convoluted mess" that made the land unmarketable. She added: "The heirs could have done for themselves what I did, but for generations had not done so."
M.L.. Wheat of Millport, Ala., wanted to buy 300 acres of Pickens County, Ala., timberland, which had been in the Sanders family for 83 years. In early 1996, he talked price with one of the owners, Ivene Sanders. They met in the office of Wheat's lawyer, William D. King IV.
When Wheat learned buying the land would require reaching agreement with about 100 heirs, he backed away from the deal.
Then, in May of that year, the story took a turn.
King, who had represented Wheat, filed a partition action on behalf of 35 members of the Sanders family, naming other heirs as defendants.
Only two family members signed the complaint seeking the sale: Ivene Sanders, now 72, with a fourth-grade education, and his cousin, Archie Sanders, now 75, with a third-grade education. Court papers show both later insisted they did not understand what they were signing.
Ivene Sanders told the AP he thought he was authorizing King only to determine the size of each family member's share.
Family members who took a position on the sale plaintiffs and defendants alike were overwhelmingly opposed, court records show. Some said they never wanted the family land sold. Others, including Ivene and Archie Sanders, said that if they were to sell, they would want to do so privately rather than risk a low winning bid at a court-ordered auction.
Nevertheless, Circuit Court Judge James Moore ordered an auction. The Melrose Timber Co. bought it on Nov. 24, 1998, for $505,000.
It was not a bad price, but the family did not get all the money. King collected $104,730 in fees and expenses about 20 percent of the sale proceeds. After court costs were deducted, $389,170 remained to be divided among 96 heirs, some of whom incurred legal fees fighting the sale.
King, reached at his office in Carrollton, Ala., said: "I have no additional comments, other than what is in the record. ... I have nothing to hide. This case has been well litigated."
Judge Moore said partitioning laws, intended to protect landowners, are often used against them and may need revision. However, he said, once the partition request was filed, he approved it largely as a matter of routine. In his three-county rural circuit, he said, two or three such cases are going on all the time. Most, he said, involve black families.
Associated Press writer Allen G. Breed and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this story.
Copyright 2001 Associated Press