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

Last year, Berry sent a certified letter to the property owner, advising him to keep his fence off her property. Evidently, the owner's tenants had erected another fence somewhere on what Berry says is her property. Berry had that fence torn down. The owner wrote Berry back, telling her to stop tearing down his fences and advising her to leave his tenants alone. For now, the two parties have reached a quiet stalemate.

By the time Berry turns the Jeep back home, a stranger has joined her two hired hands. Berry narrows her eyes at him and wonders aloud what he wants. She slowly unrolls her window as she approaches the man, who steps up to the Jeep and asks her if she knows who owns this land. Straight-faced and serious, the man says he's interested in buying some acres. Berry says she doesn't know anything and speeds off, leaving a dust storm in her wake.

"He's lying," she says, scowling at the man's image in her rearview mirror.

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.

Berry reaches the edge of her property and turns the Jeep around, letting it idle for a moment. Her suspicions are on red alert. After a moment, she drives back toward the man. This time when she approaches, the man has a huge smile on his face. He waves at her, urging her to unroll her window.

"I was only kidding," he says. Behind him, the two hired hands try to conceal the mischievous smirks on their faces.

Berry is being razzed.

The man explains that he's in the business of making horseshoes. He wants to know if Berry's horse, the one quietly grazing in her front yard, needs a set. Berry tells him she doesn't know whose horse that is and drives off again, rolling up the window. Berry begins to relax as she pulls up to her house. She realizes her mistrust of strangers is sometimes excessive, but she says she can't help it.

The battle isn't over.

"I was leery of him," she confesses. "Sometimes they're good people, but I can't trust 'em."

Off to the side of the house, the five slave cabins glimmer like ice cubes left in the afternoon sun. She is still planning to add a couple of more cabins, including one with a chapel in it, but from the looks of things she'll be lucky if these don't melt away by then. Their thin coats of white paint are slipping away, while the nails that bind their warped walls continue to loosen their grip.

When asked to talk about her great-grandparents' lives, Berry grows silent. After a moment, she sighs.

"I never asked Uncle Dee," she says.

She has tried to gather some basic details about them, without success. She doesn't know where they were forced to work as slaves or what their lives were like then. To this day, she doesn't even know where they're buried.

About the only things Berry has found are the rusted scythe and scale James Morney used to cut and weigh cotton. That's about all he left behind. That and the land.

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