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Obstacles to Finding Family Assets

ED GORDON, host:

We're joined now by Professor Ray Winbush, head of the Urban Affairs Institute at Morgan State University. He joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Also with us is attorney Miessha Thomas, project director for The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund. She joins us via phone from Atlanta.

I thank you both for joining us. Professor, let me start with you. Historically, how often has this kind of thing occurred?

Professor RAY WINBUSH (Morgan State University): Oh, it continues to occur. If you look at the height of black landownership, which was in 1910 of about 15 million acres, and now it's down to 1.1 million acres, you can see the trend over the past century. We still, in forms of gentrification, have land takings that occur all over the United States. I called it in my book `American history's greatest unpunished crime.'

GORDON: In terms of reclaiming land that African-Americans believe they lay claim to that they owned at some point in time through ancestry, isn't part of the problem, as we heard in Cheryl Corley's piece, and perhaps the biggest issue, the idea that ofttimes these stories were stories passed down through family lore of land that was owned? There's no deed or document that assists in proving that many of these people owned that land.

Prof. WINBUSH: Well, I think some of it has passed on through lore, but you know, when we did the study along with the Associated Press in early 2001--I have in my office right now at Morgan State over 200 deeds that prove that there were land takings. What's interesting is that you go to courthouses and you can see all their deeds, and I've got copies of those, mislabeled deeds, names scratched out and just sheer intimidation of blacks who've owned land and how it was taken from them.

GORDON: Miessha...

Prof. WINBUSH: Sure.

GORDON: ...one of the problems, I know, that people have had in terms of just the legal regress, is the idea that the statute of limitation in terms of trying to get the land back legally has run out. When you deal with people, is that perhaps the most problematic issue you've had to deal with?

Ms. MIESSHA THOMAS (Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund): In part; that is a major problem. We do--the federation receives quite a number of phone calls from individuals where they've basically said, quote, unquote, that their land has been "taken" and where individuals have signed settlement agreements. And there's been issues of capacity and, unfortunately, the statute of limitations as told. But more of the calls that come in to our office are dealing with heir property ownership and actually getting--identifying co-owners and those who have inherited that land through the generations and then getting them to work together to take really more non-traditional means of securing that landownership, whether it's clearing title or actually getting the family to come together and organize on how they're going to utilize their property for payment of taxes or just to reap some type of profit off of their land, whether it be through forest management or other non-alternative land uses.

GORDON: Meissha, let me ask you, in relation to what you have seen as you've worked to try to rectify these problems for families, how receptive have states been when you go to them and suggest that there has been an issue?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, actually--I mean, the main issue is actually looking at changing the laws, and there have been a couple of state particularly dealing with partition statutes. One of the major contributors of land laws dealing with heir property has been partition sales, which is basically a court-ordered public sale of property. And really the main issue in terms of working with states is to actually propose legislation, and to push for its passage, that modify the partition statutes in each state to benefit heirs. And an example is in Alabama, where they actually provide heirs the opportunity to--what we call a right of first refusal, to actually buy out, in that case, the petitioners, the individuals, the co-owners who have actually initiated the partition sale action. So it's really a matter of working through the Legislature. I know in North Carolina, they're pushing a bill as well that serves to create greater protections for co-owners.

GORDON: Professor Winbush, one of the things that I think that is missed in all of this is the idea, as you suggest, when you can truly prove that land had been taken illegally through the years, the wealth that would have been amassed by these families sometimes is astronomical.

Prof. WINBUSH: Well, it's absolutely mind-boggling. There's a case in Florida, the Espies(ph) family whose family--the land was taken in the early 1940s by the federal government for an air strip. That land was then sold to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a training camp and was recently sold for $10 million. The family initially got $8,000 for 147 acres, 40 house lots and a 30-acre orange grove. So these are enormous sums of money. I mean, absolutely mind-boggling sums, in fact.

GORDON: Let me ask this: What of people who will be listening to this program who reflect on stories they heard at summer gatherings, barbecues, family reunions and may want to research and find out if, in fact, they lay legal claim to particular land? Is there any place that they can go to start seeking regress?

Prof. WINBUSH: Absolutely. And one of the things that--the Internet has made this much easier than it was just 10 years ago. I would go to state records. You can go on the Internet and get a lot of this information. We've been able to gather a lot of information literally online. One of the things that has occurred, though, is that if you go into a courthouse, you would be surprised that when you started actually doing the investigation, how those records oftentimes disappear. And that was one of the cases when I was at Fisk that we had a lot of people who simply--they just blocked the research.

GORDON: Hmm. Miessha?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, I was also going to say definitely a lot of wonderful information, vital statistics information and other information you can find online. It is definitely critical to go to the local courthouse in the county or parish where your land is located. Again, like Professor Winbush indicated, there may be a lot of records missing. I know that in the Associated Press article, they had also identified numerous courthouse fires that destroyed a lot of records.

Prof. WINBUSH: Absolutely.

Ms. THOMAS: As well, you may actually only just find one deed to the property, and it's the deed that was recorded, you know, maybe over a century ago, but at least that's a starting point. And then definitely creating a family tree, because your state laws of descent and distribution are going to also assist you in determining who the current heirs could be. So definitely having a family tree and pulling any deeds, any land records, probate records...

GORDON: Right.

Ms. THOMAS: ...in your local courthouse where the land is located.

GORDON: All right. Well, Professor Ray Winbush, head of the Urban Affairs Institute at Morgan State University, and Meissha Thomas, project director for The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, we thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you.

Prof. WINBUSH: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, a showdown in Crawford and what it means to the president, just one of the issues on today's Roundtable.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.