"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."