In his 2007 documentary Banished, filmmaker Marco Williams examined four examples of primarily white communities violently rising up to force their African-American neighbors to flee town. This became one of the techniques used to sabotage Black land ownership, a devastating trend in the 19th and 20th centuries that robbed Blacks of millions in generational wealth.
In 2001, results from an 18-month investigation of Black land loss in America were published by The Associated Press. It turned up 107 of these land takings, 57 of which were violent, the other cases involved trickery and legal manipulations. Here are eight of these heartbreaking stories.
Today, the town of Birmingham, Kentucky, lies under a floodway created in the 1940s. But at the start of the 20th century, it was a thriving tobacco town with a predominantly Black population. It also was a battleground during a five-year siege by white marauders called Night Riders.
On the night of March 8, 1908, about 100 armed whites on horseback raided the Black part of the town, shooting seven people, three of them fatally. The AP documented 14 cases where Black landowners were driven from Birmingham. Together, they lost more than 60 acres of farmland and 21 city lots to whites – many at sheriff’s sales, all for extremely low prices.
Pierce City, Missouri
In Pierce City, Missouri, 1,000 armed whites burned down five Black-owned houses and killed four blacks on Aug. 18, 1901. Within four days, all of the town’s 129 African-Americans fled, never to return, according to a contemporary report in The Lawrence Chieftain newspaper. The AP documented the cases of nine Pierce City Blacks who lost a total of 30 acres of farmland and 10 city lots. Whites bought it all at bargain prices.
A total of 330 acres plus 48 city lots owned by 18 Black families living in Ocoee, Florida, were lost after a violent Election Day attack on the Black community in 1920, known as the Ocoee Massacre. Some were able to sell their land at a fair price, but most were not. In 2001, the land lost by the 18 Ocoee families, not including buildings now on it, is assessed by tax officials at more than $4.2 million, according to the AP report. The true market value is probably a lot more.
After midnight on Oct. 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a Black farmer in Hickman, Kentucky, named David Walker. The mob burned his house down after Walker shot at them and refused their orders to come out, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.
Walker ran out of the burning house with four young children and his wife, who was carrying a baby in her arms. The mob shot them all, wounding three children and killing the others. Walker’s oldest son died in the flames. No one was ever charged with the killings, and the surviving children were denied access to the land their father died defending.
Land records show that Walker’s 2 1/2-acre farm was added to the property of their white neighbor. The neighbor soon sold it to another man, whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today.
Holmes County, Mississippi
According to county residents, during the 1950s and 1960s, Holmes County, Mississippi, Chevy dealer, Norman Weathersby, then the only dealer in the area, required Black farmers to put up their land as security for small loans for farm equipment and pickup trucks.
Weathersby’s accomplice, William E. Strider, ran the local Farmers Home Administration — the credit lifeline for many Southern farmers. Area residents told the AP that Strider, now dead, often delayed releasing the operating loans to Blacks.
When cash-poor farmers missed payments owed to Weathersby, he took their land. The AP documented eight cases in which Weathersby acquired Black-owned farms this way. He died in 1973, leaving more than 700 acres of this land to his family, according to estate papers, deeds and court records retrieved by the AP.
Sweet Water, Alabama
In 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming the cousins did not rightfully own two 40-acre farms their family had worked in Sweet Water, Alabama, for nearly a century.
The land, officials contended, belonged to the state. Circuit Judge Emmett F. Hildreth urged the state to drop its suit, declaring it would result in ”a severe injustice.” But when the state refused, saying it wanted income from timber on the land, the judge ruled in favor of the state.
The state’s internal memos and letters on the case are peppered with references to the family’s race. In the same courthouse where the case was heard, the AP located deeds and tax records documenting that the family had owned the land since an ancestor bought the property on Jan. 3, 1874. Surviving records also show the family paid property taxes on the farms from the mid-1950s until the land was taken.
Lincoln County, Mississippi
White farmers known as White Caps, angered by the prosperity experienced by successful Black farmers, often used violence and intimidation to force African-Americans off their land.
The Brookhaven Leader newspaper reported at the time that Eli Hilson of Lincoln County, Mississippi, got a warning on Nov. 18, 1903, when White Caps shot up his house just hours after his new baby was born. Hilson ignored the warning.
A month later, the 39-year-old farmer was shot in the head as he drove his buggy toward his farm, the newspaper said. The horse trotted home, delivering Hilson’s body to his wife, Hannah.
She struggled unsuccessfully without her husband to raise their 11 children and work the 74-acre farm, losing the property through a mortgage foreclosure in 1905. According to land records, the farm went for $439 to S.P. Oliver, a member of the county board of supervisors. Today, the property is assessed at $61,642.
Jasper County, Mississippi
In Jasper County, Mississippi, according to historical accounts, the Ku Klux Klan, resentful that African-Americans were buying and profiting from land, regularly attacked Black-owned farms, burned houses, lynched Black farmers and chased Black landowners away.
On the night of Sept. 10, 1932, 15 whites torched the courthouse in Paulding, where property records for the eastern half of Jasper County, then predominantly Black, were stored. Records for the predominantly white western half of the county were safe in another courthouse miles away. The door to the Paulding courthouse’s safe, which protected the records, usually locked, was found open with most of the records reduced to ashes. Suddenly, it conveniently became unclear who owned a big piece of eastern Jasper County.
In December 1937, the Masonite Corp., a wood products company and one of the largest landowners in the area, was granted a clear title for 9,581 acres of land, which has since yielded millions of dollars in natural gas, timber and oil, according to state records.
From the few property records that remain, the AP was able to document that at least 204.5 of those acres were acquired by Masonite after Black owners were driven off by the KKK. At least 850,000 barrels of oil have been pumped from this property, according to state oil and gas board records and figures from the Petroleum Technology Transfer Council, an industry group.