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

Right there, on what eventually would be known as Tract 1 of the Morney land, Dee gave Berry the dirt. Trouble was, they didn't know that the land they were standing on was no longer theirs. It had already been taken.

From the day James Morney bought the land, in 1876, until well after Uncle Dee and Berry took their walk, nothing happened on the land to indicate that the ownership had changed. But it had.

Berry stands at the front of her property, a spot that offers a view of downtown Dallas in the distance. "When you come here," Berry says, "you make yourself at home."
Berry stands at the front of her property, a spot that offers a view of downtown Dallas in the distance. "When you come here," Berry says, "you make yourself at home."

The culprit was Mattie Morney--the second wife of Lonnie Morney, who was James Morney's son and Uncle Dee's father. When Lonnie died in 1938, he, like his father before him, left no will. Instead, Dee had simply taken over the farm with the understanding that the estate would remain whole, just as James Morney wished.

Well, about the time Lonnie died, Mattie needed money, and she decided to sell a portion of the farm. Without telling any of the Morney heirs, she hired a Dallas lawyer named R.L.H. Rice to begin a legal process called a partition, a common practice that occurs whenever an heir attempts to extract his or her share from an estate that's never been legally divided.

When a partition suit is filed, typically the courts will order the entire property sold and divided among the heirs--sometimes without their knowledge. In some cases, their shares are sold out from under them. Other times, they wind up losing the land because they are unaware they should be paying taxes on it, and once those taxes are in arrears, the land is auctioned off at public tax sales.

In this case, the 100-acre Morney farm was carved up into five tracts, which were divided among various Morney heirs and separated by invisible "dividing lines." Even though Uncle Dee was farming the land, he was not awarded his lawful share. Neither was his sister Jearline, who was Murdine's mother. They didn't even know about the suit. Attorney Rice, however, bit off some 20-odd acres as payment for his work--something he apparently accomplished by shorting the other heirs' shares. Rice's take was located at the front of the property on what became known as Tract 1.

Meanwhile, Mattie sold off 11.5 acres located smack in the middle of the property, on what was labeled Tract 3. The buyer was Herman Davis.

"She had no right," Murdine Berry says of Mattie's actions. "She's not a lineage."

Perhaps so, but Mattie did it anyway.

This is what happened next: Herman Davis eventually stopped paying taxes on Tract 3, and it was put up for sale at a tax auction. The land was bought and sold again, eventually winding up in the hands of a man named John Dawson. In 1981, Dawson donated the land to a Denton-based school for the mentally retarded, operated by the Volunteer Council of Denton State School.

While all this was happening, Baby Ruth was growing up. After college, she married Leonard Berry and soon became a mother. She also kept teaching, eventually transferring to Roger Q. Mills Elementary School, where she taught in the talented and gifted program until she retired in 1992. In her spare time she became politically active, working on the campaigns of some of Dallas' first black politicians, including former Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb.

Berry can't recall exactly why she began researching her family's land records, but sometime in the 1970s she made her first trip to the Dallas County Records building. She quickly learned something black historians know all too well: Records pertaining to black land ownership, particularly those involving freedmen, were seldom kept--if they existed at all.

"It's just a mess how they kept records at the time," Berry says. "You can't find enough about it."

Berry needed expert help, so she hired the first of what was to become a string of expensive lawyers. One by one, they managed to piece together the details of the partition. As sure as the estate was broken into pieces, Berry soon realized, so, too, was the promise she had made when she accepted Uncle Dee's fistful of dirt. Determined to make the land whole again, Berry began persuading each of her various relatives to sign their shares of the land over to her. That was easy enough, but Berry hit a wall when it came to Tract 3.

The Volunteer Council had no use for the 11.5 acres smack in the middle of the Morney farm; it never made a single improvement on them. The school's directors, however, were about to sell the land and pump the proceeds back into their school. Berry tried to settle the matter herself, offering to pay the council some $5,000 in 1983. The council's directors turned her down, telling Berry they wanted an offer much closer to the land's $37,000 appraised value.

Berry didn't have that kind of money. She did, however, scrape together $3,500 and retain an attorney. In 1985, the attorney filed a "trespass to try title" suit on Berry's behalf, naming the Volunteer Council as the main defendant and seeking to prove that Berry held true title to the land. The council's lawyers quickly fired back, sending a letter to Berry ordering her to vacate the property. Berry, who was living in North Dallas at the time, responded by having a house she owned physically moved onto the land.

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