By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In the courthouse the case moved slowly, but out on the farm the battle heated up. Berry began sending out a series of urgent telegrams to various public officials she knew, both black and white, unsuccessfully hoping to corral their support. She also began monitoring the property for uninvited guests. In 1987, she nearly came to blows with a team of surveyors who had arrived on the property as part of the lawsuit. The confrontation prompted her lawyer to issue a warning.
"Until the court reaches this matter, it is imperative that you do not exercise any extra-judicial methods," the attorney wrote Berry. "You should be particularly circumspect about threatening any individuals in this matter."
But Berry was beginning to lose faith in the attorney, who was charging her $125 an hour and who, it seemed to her, was too focused on giving the Volunteer Council what it wanted. In the fall of 1988, Berry wrote the attorney an angry, error-riddled missive, letting him know exactly what she thought about a deal he'd proposed.
"I am sick, sicker the way things have been going and finally went in this case," Berry wrote, in pencil. "We have been fighting this for over 12 years to finally come to one of the worse endings I've ever heard of. If anybody with sense pays $35,000 for undeveloped land that has no utilities is a Fool!"
The word "Fool" was underlined twice.
On November 3, the attorney notified Berry in writing that he was withdrawing from the case, leaving her without representation just days before the trial was set to begin.
"I saw that letter and said, 'Lord, have mercy.' It just threw me. It just got me. We had spent everything we could get our hands on," Berry says. "He wanted me to settle with the Denton State School, and I wouldn't do it because I knew the land was ours."
In the recent Associated Press story, the one that caught Berry's eye, the reporters uncovered an impressive statistic: In 1910, black Americans owned more farmland than at any time in U.S. history--15 million acres. Today, they own just over 1 million agricultural acres.
Not all of that land was wrongfully lost, but a good deal of it was--particularly in the early half of the 1900s, when white-on-black violence raged in the South. Sometimes land was lost after white mobs lynched black landowners or burned their houses, among other tactics. In other cases, the land was simply taken at tax sales or through other "legal" means, which blacks rarely challenged. The few who did turn to the courts seldom found justice.
One example was the case of the Reverend Isaac Simmons, whose 141-acre Mississippi farm was sold in 1942 at a tax sale, even though the taxes were paid in full. Simmons sued to get his farm back, and a month later, a group of whites dragged him and his son onto a rural road and told them to start running. Simmons was later found dead, shot in the back three times. His son survived to recount how the men beat him and told him "my father and I were 'smart niggers' for going to see a lawyer."
It was around Christmas in 1989 when Murdine Berry showed up at B. Prater Monning's Dallas law office, referred there by an old contact she made when she worked as a maid. Monning was leery about having his name published; the last time his name appeared in a story about Berry's lawsuit, he spent years turning down hundreds of requests from blacks who wanted him to help them get back land they believed was unlawfully taken. "It was a nightmare," Monning says.
He didn't take any of those cases and will not take any in the future. It's not that he didn't enjoy helping Berry, but most of those cases aren't winnable. For all practical purposes, neither was Berry's.
"She almost lost and probably should have lost," Monning says.
Berry, who was broke and in a state of near panic, happened to catch Monning on a soft day, and he listened to her story. Berry couldn't have chosen a better lawyer to gamble on: Monning comes from a long line of attorneys who had spent years clearing titles to West Texas farmland on behalf of oil prospectors.
To Monning, Berry's case didn't sound good at first. The Volunteer Council had legal documents showing its title to the land, while Berry had none. But when Berry recounted how Uncle Dee had given her the handful of dirt, Monning's heart went aflutter. He told Berry he would take the case for free.
"It was a very romantic and a very easy case to try," Monning says. "The romantic part about it is...when people, not having any legal knowledge at all, intend to pass property on from one generation to another and they go out and do something absolutely perfect--something that most lawyers wouldn't even do."
Uncle Dee didn't know it, but there is a legal term for what he did with that handful of dirt in 1969. It's called a "feoffment," and it is a perfectly legal, albeit archaic, means of land conveyance that dates back to English common law, circa the Middle Ages.