This Land Is My Land

Murdine "Baby Ruth" Berry won her fight to save the family farm passed down by former slaves, but her battle--real or imagined--isn't over

Murdine "Baby Ruth" Berry's knees have grown weak, but that doesn't stop her from making the rounds on her land. Walking cane in hand, the 72-year-old retired schoolteacher yanks open the crooked door of an old Jeep and climbs behind the wheel. After wrestling the metal shut, she turns on the ignition. "Here's hoping we don't get stuck," she says.

She waves to a pair of workmen, then steers the Jeep out onto her bumpy heritage.

It is hard to image that this land, 80 ragged acres that lie along the Dallas-Hutchins border, was at one time productive, albeit stingy, farmland. The rocky soil is overgrown with wild grass and prickly pear cactuses, which mingle with naked trash trees that threaten passersby with their dagger-like branches. They look like skeleton sentries defending a forgotten realm.

It's not much to look at, but these 80 ragged acres used to be a productive farm operated by freed slaves James and Catherine Morney. Today, their great-granddaughter Murdine Berry, 72, protects the family legacy.
Mark Graham
It's not much to look at, but these 80 ragged acres used to be a productive farm operated by freed slaves James and Catherine Morney. Today, their great-granddaughter Murdine Berry, 72, protects the family legacy.
Murdine Berry spent years fighting to regain title to her family's land. In 1989, she pulled out an unlikely victory, precious still for its rarity.
Murdine Berry spent years fighting to regain title to her family's land. In 1989, she pulled out an unlikely victory, precious still for its rarity.

"Would you believe they made a living?" Berry asks.

She is talking about her great-grandparents, freed slaves James and Catherine Morney, who bought the land in 1876 for several bales of cotton and wrung it tight till it yielded them a living.

Berry parks the Jeep near the back of the property and climbs out. Her flip-flops gently slap her heels as she navigates the land she joyously roamed as a schoolgirl on summer break. Out here, the original Morney farmhouse has lost its battle with time and lies in a heap of cinders. An old oven still stands at attention beneath the December sun, while a rusty commode naps in the shade of a nearby pecan tree.

The abandoned junk is evidence of the days when Berry's relatives gathered here as a family, but they left little else behind. The Morneys were poor folk; they didn't leave their names on family histories, record books or bank accounts to pass to the next generation. All they had to offer was this land, which they suffered as slaves to get and, as freedmen, worked tirelessly to keep. The land is all that Berry has left. It is her legacy and also her obsession.

At times, like the day she recently telephoned a reporter, Berry's obsession can reach a harried state. An Associated Press story had prompted the call. It documented how whites have historically used legal tricks, scare tactics and, surprisingly often, outright murder to rob black families of land obtained after the Civil War and passed down generation to generation.

"That's happening to me," Berry had said, claiming she is the target of harassment. "Terror," to be precise. Somebody had unloaded an assault rifle on her property. Her electricity had been cut and her gas shut off. She talked about calling the FBI. "We are old and in our 70s. What can we do?" Berry said. "I am afraid."

Berry has been searching for a willing ear to listen to her story for years. Once, she even hired a public relations firm to write a press release about it. "Black senior citizen harassed with firebombs, electrocution attempts in land grab scheme," the release hollered. Nobody paid it any attention, perhaps rightly so.

There is no evidence to support Berry's conviction that she was or is the target of a harassment campaign, hatched by people who aim to steal her land. But that doesn't mean Berry doesn't have a story to tell.

The truth is, somebody has wrongfully taken a chunk of her family's land, and others have tried to take more, using some of the same legal tricks The Associated Press story documented so well. What makes Berry's story unusual is its outcome. She spent years researching the land, only to discover that portions of it had wrongfully passed out of the family name. In the 1980s, Berry sued to get it back. The case dragged on for years, at times tossing up barriers that more than once seemed impassable. But Berry never gave up on the system, despite its history of giving up on so many others like her. In the end, she emerged with a victory precious still for its rarity.

Ten years ago this February, the Texas Supreme Court sealed Berry's victory, the justices upholding a Dallas County trial court decision she won in 1989. The case established Berry's title to some 80 acres of her great-grandfather's land, a sizable portion of his original 100-acre estate. Today, her land is some of the only freedmen's land in Dallas County that is still in lineage.

Former state District Judge John Marshall doesn't need to consult his files to recall one of the most fascinating cases over which he presided.

"This is a case where the system worked the way it was supposed to," Marshall says. "She won that title clear. Nobody can undo that judgment. If they do, it'll be over my dead body."

The battle, however, left Berry with an emotional debt she still feels every time she spies a stranger near her property: Berry is consumed by the notion that she is in constant jeopardy of losing everything. Whenever she recounts her family's history, the story gets lost in an unending string of details and clouded accusations about "they"--they being neighboring landowners, their tenants or even workers from local utility companies. The one thing that always emerges is the strength of Berry's determination, which she wields like a weapon.

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