This is Part One of "Torn From the Land," a three-part series documenting how black Americans lost family land over the last 150-plus years.
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.
Henry Espy, an attorney, is pictured in his orange grove in Vero Beach, Fla., which was taken in 1942 by the federal government at bargain-basement prices. He was not allowed to buy it back after the war. (AP Photo)
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, oilfields 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 timberland 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 modest house. But the losses were devastating to families struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery.
"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.
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 remain uninvestigated.
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 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, 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. 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 today.
In 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming 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 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.
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.
The AP also talked to current owners of the land, nearly all of whom acquired it years after the land-takings occurred. Most said they knew little about the history of their land. When told about it, most expressed regret.
Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman called the Sweet Water case "disturbing" and asked the state attorney general to review the matter.
"What I have asked the attorney general to do," he said, "is look not only at the letter of the law but at what is fair and right."
The land-takings are part of a larger picture: a 91-year decline in black landownership in America.
In 1910, black Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all of it in the South, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland and are part owners of another 1.07 million acres.
The number of white farmers has declined, too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer hands. However, black ownership has declined 2-1/2 times faster than white ownership according to a 1982 federal report, the last comprehensive government study on the trend.
The decline in black landownership had a number of causes, including the migration of blacks from the rural South. However, the land-takings also contributed.
In the decades between Reconstruction and the civil-rights struggle, blacks were powerless to prevent them, said Stuart Tolnay, a University of Washington sociologist. In an era when 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.
In recent years, a handful of black families sued to regain ancestral lands, but the cases were dismissed on grounds that statutes of limitations had expired. Some legal experts say redress for many land-takings may not be possible unless laws are changed.
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 frequently takes land this way 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 and 40 house lots, at $8,000. 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, 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. The team sold its property to Indian River County for $10 million in August, according to the Dodgers.
The true extent of land-takings from black families will never be known because of gaps in public records. The AP found crumbling tax records, deed books with pages torn from them and records that had been crudely altered.
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 were deliberately set.
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.
Suddenly, it was unclear who owned a big piece of eastern Jasper County.
Even before the fire, landownership in Jasper County was contentious. The Ku Klux Klan had been attacking black-owned farms and chasing the owners away.
A few years after the fire, Masonite, a wood-products company, went to court to clear title to its land in the area. Masonite thought it owned 9,581 acres and said it had been unable to locate anyone with a rival claim.
In 1938, 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 survived the fire, 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 records.
Today, the land is owned by International Paper, which acquired Masonite in 1988.
"This is probably part of a much larger, public debate about whether there should be restitution for people who have been harmed in the past," a company spokesman said. "We should be part of that discussion."
Even when Southern courthouses remained standing, fear of white authority long kept blacks away from record rooms. Today, however, interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and some are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories.
Associated Press writers Woody Baird, Allen G. Breed, Shelia Hardwell Byrd, Alan Clendenning, Ron Harrist, David Lieb and Bill Poovey, and investigative researcher Randy Xerschaft contributed to this report.
Copyright 2001 Associated Press