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

Berry's suspicious mind-set was cemented shortly before 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1996. Berry and her husband, Leonard, along with two grandchildren, were inside the house when they heard someone firing an assault rifle just outside. Berry doesn't have a police report to document the incident, but she has recorded her recollections of it on a cassette tape.

Seated at her kitchen table, surrounded by a mountain of paperwork, Berry dusts off an old cassette recorder and inserts the tape. She won't name the person she suspects shot off the gun, but she says she has a pretty good idea why it happened.

"Hate," she says. "They actually dislike me because of that lawsuit. I never had no problem until then. I ain't never had so much trouble in all the days of my life."

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.

Indeed, Berry made a career out of teaching her predominantly black students not to let history's barriers block their path to success. That effort is documented on her living-room wall, which is covered with plaques from various political, civic and educational organizations to which Berry has donated her time. But the best evidence comes from former students, such as Dallas attorney Mitzi Wallace-Willis, who remembers how Berry opened her eyes by letting her play at her North Dallas home. Wallace, who was born and raised in Oak Cliff, says Berry exposed her to a new world.

"Ms. Berry was a teacher. Her husband was an insurance salesman. For African-American children, we didn't see that that often. It was just the idea that you do well in school, and you go to college. Those were the kinds of things she pushed," Wallace says. "She was more than just a teacher. She was a kind of surrogate mother."

Berry presses the play button and her voice fills the room like an old ghost come to haunt.

"Trrrrrr. Trrrrrrr. Trrrrrr," says the voice, describing the sound of the gunfire. "They fired from 30 to 50 rounds each time, and my husband started hollering, 'Who is it? Who is it?' I said, 'Honey, they're firing,' and I ran and turned out the light in the bedroom. My husband grabbed a .38 and went through the den and fired from the deck porch. The dog was hollering, trying to get in at the front. The person ran and left."

The tape goes on to describe other incidents Berry observed on her property. Her electricity was shut off once. Another time the gas was turned off. To Berry, these were attacks. To a stranger, they sound like everyday mishaps. Monning doesn't have firsthand knowledge about any of those incidents, and he is hesitant to jump to conclusions about who may have been behind them--just as he is hesitant to cast judgment on Berry's version of events.

"It's hard for me to imagine what she thinks--the fears and concerns that a person who grew up in segregation would have," says Monning, who is white and who, like Berry, lives outside of town. "When my cows are gone I think, 'Oh, gee, I have to fix my fence.' Murdine would think someone stole the cows."

As it happens, someone may have recently stolen some cows Berry was keeping on the land, according to Dallas County criminal court records. In March 2000, Berry reported that several cows had gone missing. Police later arrested her neighbor Vincent Offord, a convicted felon with a history of nabbing livestock, in connection with the case. Offord is scheduled to stand trial next month on a felony charge of livestock theft.

When told about the trial date, Berry chuckles. She had forgotten all about calling the police, having assumed they didn't take her call seriously. She is more concerned about a fence, which divides the back of her property from another neighbor, whom she believes has moved the fence onto her land. The fence is like a time warp that sends Berry's thoughts reeling backward in time, right to the day she and Uncle Dee took their walk.

There at the kitchen table, Berry turns her face to the side to conceal her eyes and begins thumping her walking cane on the linoleum, as if the rubber thuds will somehow stop the tears from flowing.

"God dawg, I don't know why I get like that. You're gonna have to forgive me. I've worked on this for so long," Berry says. "I promised him I would keep the land, just like I kept it all those years. It hurts me because I'm trying, but it seems that I can't keep the promise."


Back out on the farm, a motley crew of yard dogs has staggered over to join Berry on her tour of the grounds.

"You're gonna say I'm crazy," Berry cautions, realizing this isn't the first time she's tried to convince someone that the fence has mysteriously moved. "That fence there, they picked it up and brought it this way."

It does sound crazy. That old wire fence--rusted and tangled in the underbrush--looks as though it has been there forever. Especially in contrast to the neighbor's electric fence, which looks brand-new. The new fence runs the length of the property's dividing line, carrying with it a silent current intended to keep the horse from getting out. Of course, it's also pretty effective at keeping Berry from getting in.

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