This Land Is My Land

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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.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley