Alabama governor returns land wrongly taken in 1967

Thursday, June 6, 2002

SWEET WATER, Ala. -- Willie Williams doesn't have big plans for the land. He'll hunt on it, and show it off to relatives at a family reunion later this month.

To Williams, that's a happy ending.

In 1967, Alabama took these 40 acres, which had been in this black family's hands since the 19th century. For years, Willie Williams struggled unsuccessfully to convince state officials that a wrong had been done -- until last week, when Gov. Don Siegelman acknowledged a "severe injustice" and signed a land grant, returning the land to its rightful owners.

"I hope to get the opportunity to thank him personally. He has lifted a big burden off the family," said Williams, 53.

The story of the Williams farm was brought to light as part of "Torn From the Land," a series of Associated Press stories last December that documented the taking of 24,000 acres of land owned by black Americans through violence, trickery and legal maneuvers.

Records show Willie Williams' great-grandfather purchased the parcel for $480 on Jan. 3, 1874. As a boy, young Willie plowed corn and cotton behind a mule on this land.

"It was our livelihood," he said.

In June 1964, a letter arrived. The State Lands Division had checked the title of the property with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency had replied that, as far as it could determine, the 40 acres belonged to the state.

In 1906, the letter said, the federal government had designated the 40 acres as swampland and patented the property to the state of Alabama. The attorney general sued for ownership, and a court ruled in the state's favor in 1967.

Over the years, family members repeatedly pleaded for the land's return. Their pleas were answered with form letters.

The State Lands Division in Montgomery monitored the case. Letters and internal memos from those files are peppered with references to the family's race. They show officials adamantly opposed to allowing "the negro defendants" to keep the land, even though they acknowledged in writing that the family could trace its ownership back to 1874.

Williams said his father, Lemon Williams, always said: "This land is part of our family. Treat it like your brother." And before he died in 1983, Lemon Williams beseeched his son to "get this land back."

Williams' daughter, CeLissa, 29, of Birmingham, said the state took advantage of her poor, black ancestors. "They saw an opportunity to capitalize and did," she said.

She said her father "would talk about it on the way to church" as they passed the land, which is still posted with rusted signs declaring it state property.

"He would say 'I just want to pass your history down to you and let you know this is yours.' He would show us where the property line would start and stop,"' she said.

"I knew it was a burden he was carrying," said her 30-year-old brother, Eric Williams. "Land is something that is never going to be made again."

After decades of driving by the land, Williams said he will be happy to "just walk around on it," do some hunting and possibly plant a garden, maybe a big one, all with his family. Williams said he has no plans to sell any timber from the land or to sell any of the acreage.

"There is good game in there," he said, adjusting the fit of a Chicago White Sox cap during an interview on his front porch. "When me and my son get our rifles and go hunt some down there, that is going to make my day."

Williams said he plans to have a family reunion and take his relatives to the farm in late June.

He said the family would likely pursue its claim that an adjacent 40-acre farm, once owned by cousins, also was wrongly taken by the state.

Williams said he was unsure if he might seek some kind of additional compensation from the state for the land taking, which he said denied his family its use while state conservation officials collected fees for hunting rights.

"This is the place my daddy left for us," he said. "It just makes me sick on my stomach every time I see the (state property) signs."

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