This Land Is My Land
Murdine "Baby Ruth" Berry's knees have grown weak, but that doesn't stop her from making the rounds on her land. Walking cane in hand, the 72-year-old retired schoolteacher yanks open the crooked door of an old Jeep and climbs behind the wheel. After wrestling the metal shut, she turns on the ignition. "Here's hoping we don't get stuck," she says.
She waves to a pair of workmen, then steers the Jeep out onto her bumpy heritage.
It is hard to image that this land, 80 ragged acres that lie along the Dallas-Hutchins border, was at one time productive, albeit stingy, farmland. The rocky soil is overgrown with wild grass and prickly pear cactuses, which mingle with naked trash trees that threaten passersby with their dagger-like branches. They look like skeleton sentries defending a forgotten realm.
"Would you believe they made a living?" Berry asks.
She is talking about her great-grandparents, freed slaves James and Catherine Morney, who bought the land in 1876 for several bales of cotton and wrung it tight till it yielded them a living.
Berry parks the Jeep near the back of the property and climbs out. Her flip-flops gently slap her heels as she navigates the land she joyously roamed as a schoolgirl on summer break. Out here, the original Morney farmhouse has lost its battle with time and lies in a heap of cinders. An old oven still stands at attention beneath the December sun, while a rusty commode naps in the shade of a nearby pecan tree.
The abandoned junk is evidence of the days when Berry's relatives gathered here as a family, but they left little else behind. The Morneys were poor folk; they didn't leave their names on family histories, record books or bank accounts to pass to the next generation. All they had to offer was this land, which they suffered as slaves to get and, as freedmen, worked tirelessly to keep. The land is all that Berry has left. It is her legacy and also her obsession.
At times, like the day she recently telephoned a reporter, Berry's obsession can reach a harried state. An Associated Press story had prompted the call. It documented how whites have historically used legal tricks, scare tactics and, surprisingly often, outright murder to rob black families of land obtained after the Civil War and passed down generation to generation.
"That's happening to me," Berry had said, claiming she is the target of harassment. "Terror," to be precise. Somebody had unloaded an assault rifle on her property. Her electricity had been cut and her gas shut off. She talked about calling the FBI. "We are old and in our 70s. What can we do?" Berry said. "I am afraid."
Berry has been searching for a willing ear to listen to her story for years. Once, she even hired a public relations firm to write a press release about it. "Black senior citizen harassed with firebombs, electrocution attempts in land grab scheme," the release hollered. Nobody paid it any attention, perhaps rightly so.
There is no evidence to support Berry's conviction that she was or is the target of a harassment campaign, hatched by people who aim to steal her land. But that doesn't mean Berry doesn't have a story to tell.
The truth is, somebody has wrongfully taken a chunk of her family's land, and others have tried to take more, using some of the same legal tricks The Associated Press story documented so well. What makes Berry's story unusual is its outcome. She spent years researching the land, only to discover that portions of it had wrongfully passed out of the family name. In the 1980s, Berry sued to get it back. The case dragged on for years, at times tossing up barriers that more than once seemed impassable. But Berry never gave up on the system, despite its history of giving up on so many others like her. In the end, she emerged with a victory precious still for its rarity.
Ten years ago this February, the Texas Supreme Court sealed Berry's victory, the justices upholding a Dallas County trial court decision she won in 1989. The case established Berry's title to some 80 acres of her great-grandfather's land, a sizable portion of his original 100-acre estate. Today, her land is some of the only freedmen's land in Dallas County that is still in lineage.
Former state District Judge John Marshall doesn't need to consult his files to recall one of the most fascinating cases over which he presided.
"This is a case where the system worked the way it was supposed to," Marshall says. "She won that title clear. Nobody can undo that judgment. If they do, it'll be over my dead body."
The battle, however, left Berry with an emotional debt she still feels every time she spies a stranger near her property: Berry is consumed by the notion that she is in constant jeopardy of losing everything. Whenever she recounts her family's history, the story gets lost in an unending string of details and clouded accusations about "they"--they being neighboring landowners, their tenants or even workers from local utility companies. The one thing that always emerges is the strength of Berry's determination, which she wields like a weapon.
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."
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.'"
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.
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.
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.
For more than a century, people have been using written deeds to document land transactions. But way back, when people didn't read or write, they conveyed property by doing exactly what Uncle Dee did with Berry: They walked onto said land and symbolically picked up a piece of dirt, or perhaps a twig, and physically and verbally passed on the land. This is also called a "livery in deed," and while written deeds are today's standard, a ceremonial feoffment is, by law, the purest way to transfer title. Even today.
Since most lawyers, even good ones, know little about feoffment, Monning figured he just might be able to pull out a victory. After all, Uncle Dee passed the land on to Berry long before the Volunteer Council got its written deed. And that deed was the result of a questionable partition that, in any event, never disrupted the Morneys' continuous occupation or "prior possession" of the land. All Monning really needed was the chance to argue his point to the right judge.
As it happened, the case was assigned to then-state District Judge John Marshall, who happens to be a history enthusiast. Monning knew that.
"He and I happened to have been classmates in law school," Marshall says. "When he found out the case was going to be in front of me, I think he had a certain confidence level."
The trial began on February 7, 1989, and it lasted for several days, during which various old-timers, like Berta Whisand, showed up to recount their memories of the Morney farm and answer the defense's questions about whether Berry was even occupying the land, large portions of which had gone fallow after Uncle Dee gave up farming. And then Berry took the stand.
Berry testified at length, but the turning point came when she recounted her walk with Uncle Dee--a brief tale. The defense didn't pay much attention to the story, but Marshall did. He knows so much about feoffment that he can recite from memory how in 1840 it was incorporated into Texas Law.
"Up until the time she testified about the feoffment, her case was pretty shaky, but once she testified about that, the case was really over," Marshall says. "The lawyers for the defense were so focused on the chain-of-title argument in the traditional sense that I don't think they ever saw it coming."
Berry's testimony prompted Marshall to intervene on several legal technicalities, shifting the course of the trial. Instead of allowing the case to go to the jury, Marshall ordered an instructed verdict in Berry's favor. The Volunteer Council cried foul and appealed the case, but Marshall's ruling withstood scrutiny. In 1992, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the council's appeal, closing the case for good.
"I felt jubilant. I was so excited," Berry says. "I told the Dallas Post Tribune that a black person could get a fair trial."
The court victory gave Berry a breath of determination. A professional her whole life, Berry never entertained any notions about reverting the land to farming, though she did continue Uncle Dee's policy of leasing it out to local cow and hog farmers. She simply wants to keep the land intact so her relatives can build houses on it if they want. But after Judge Marshall's ruling, Berry decided she would turn a portion of the land into a public park, where visitors could come and learn about slavery.
In 1991, Al Lipscomb and other local officials took part in a ceremony at which Berry unveiled a sign, which still stands at the front of the property and informs visitors that the land was purchased by freed slaves James and Catherine Morney. Berry also began construction on a collection of white cabins, hoping to reconstruct the way slaves like her great-grandparents once lived. Before long, though, the project was interrupted.
"They" began showing up on the land.
Initially, they were a work crew that appeared on Tract 1 and erected a small communications tower. Berry, who started a new habit of jotting down the license plate numbers of any cars that appeared on or near the place, was outraged that someone was trespassing on her property. It's no wonder she was upset.
Tract 1, the part that was seized by lawyer Rice in the 1938 partition, was originally part of James Morney's land. The problem is, the land at issue in Berry's lawsuit did not include Tract 1. Attorney Monning studied the history of that transaction but concluded there was nothing he could do to get the tract back.
"From a purely technical standpoint, she lost that land. It wasn't right, and it wouldn't happen today, but it's not hers," Monning says, adding, "I've explained that to Murdine 100 times."
Monning continued to advise Berry over the years, but he couldn't give her peace of mind that the rest of the estate is hers. Even after the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter in 1992, Berry kept a constant eye out for uninvited guests. Over the years, "they" became anyone who approached the property, including neighboring landowners, their tenants and even work crews from public utility companies.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.