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

This land is her land.

"They just about drove my husband crazy. I just thank God I'm sane," Berry says. "If they think I'm going anywhere, I'm not going anywhere. I'll stay here. I don't intend to give it up. I'm a fighting monster."


Berry is hoping to open cabins like this to the public so they can see how slaves such as her great-grandparents used to live. Now she finds herself fighting an all-new foe.
Berry is hoping to open cabins like this to the public so they can see how slaves such as her great-grandparents used to live. Now she finds herself fighting an all-new foe.
Former state District Judge John Marshall says Berry's lawsuit still ranks as one of his favorite cases. She proved she had title to her land, he says, and if anybody ever tries to take it, "it'll be over my dead body."
Former state District Judge John Marshall says Berry's lawsuit still ranks as one of his favorite cases. She proved she had title to her land, he says, and if anybody ever tries to take it, "it'll be over my dead body."

She didn't understand the significance of what Curly Morney did that day in 1969, but that's when Murdine Berry's battle began.

Curly Morney was Berry's uncle, and Curly was his real name, though everybody called him Dee. His father was Lonnie Morney, one of eight children born to James and Catherine Morney, the former slaves who bought the land in the first place. Originally, the land totaled 100 contiguous acres.

The land itself was never rich, though James Morney managed to produce cotton, pecans, hay and cedar tree crops before he died in 1924. In those days, and even now, poor people made their Christmas trees from cedars, which were abundant in that part of Dallas County. That's according to Berta Whisand, who during Berry's trial was one of the few living locals who had known James and Catherine Morney.

"Well, he was a little bitty man, and Aunt Catherine was a large, large lady," Whisand testified. Whisand was born in 1904 in the house across the street from the Morneys. Her family, like theirs, were farmers at a time when mules dragged plows and life was much slower.

"It was real exciting when you're 4 years old--well, you get excited about anybody that goes up and down the road in those days. And when we would see the Morneys coming down the road, I would always go out to the fence and wave," Whisand said. "They would always holler at me. If they had time, they would talk to me."

Whisand was particularly fond of her childhood playmate Jearline Morney, Uncle Dee's sister. Everyone called her Shine--a nickname she got at birth because of her dark skin. Segregation was the law of the land and Whisand was white, but that didn't stop their friendship from taking root.

"Oh, we played backwards and forth," Whisand said. "We were real neighborly because they were good to us and we were good to them."

Later in life, Shine married a Louisiana reverend named Clinton Keys. On November 2, 1929, Shine gave birth to Murdine Berry, the third of 10 children. Berry grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but she spent her summer vacations on the farm, where the land and family were the entertainment.

"We used to fish in the creek. And my grandmother had a lot of turkeys out there, and we ran the turkeys," recalls Berry, who was always surrounded by family--especially her mischievous uncles, represented chiefly by Ollie. "He gambled, and they used to play cards out there."

By then, Uncle Dee had taken charge of the farm. He was the only Morney heir still interested in farming, but he couldn't produce enough crops to live on. Instead, he worked as a laborer for the Interurban railroad. On the weekends, Dee harvested what the land did offer. He kept cows out there and hogs, too. Eventually, though, he would come to rely on Berry to keep the farm afloat.

"He never did get a chance to really enjoy life," Berry says. "In later years, he worked himself to death."

After she graduated from high school in 1946, Berry moved to Dallas, determined to become the first Morney to obtain a college education. She worked as a servant for several prominent Dallas families, saving enough money to attend Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. She graduated in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education--an accomplishment she later trumped by completing her master's degree at East Texas State University.

Before that, though, she began her teaching career at Joseph J. Rhoads Elementary School, which is still located near Fair Park and was then one of the few schools set aside for blacks. Soon she started giving a portion of her salary to Uncle Dee, who was having trouble keeping up with the taxes on the farm. That's why it was no surprise that Dee called Berry on that all-important day in 1969.

Like a lot of families then, the Morneys never drafted any wills. Instead, they simply passed the land down to their heirs in person. And that's what happened, though the precise day has been forgotten. Dee telephoned Berry and asked her to come to the farm. Together they walked to the front of the property, which runs along what is today Lancaster-Hutchins Road. Uncle Dee had some big news for his favorite niece, whom he called Baby Ruth: It was time for her to take charge of the Morney land.

"He said, 'Baby Ruth, you're the only one that is here. Mama is dead now. I want you to come with me,'" Berry later testified. "And I went with him, and we went in the front, and he said, 'Uncle Dee can't do any more farming.' And he picked up this soil, right in front. He said, 'I'm going to pass the torch on to you. You must keep the land. Grandfather worked for it; his dying words were, 'Take care of the farm.'"

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