This Land Is My Land

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"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."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley