Reclaiming Property Lost through Violence

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A legal project in Chicago is helping African Americans trace and verify claims to property their families may have lost through intimidation or violence.

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Over the years, minorities have been stripped of land that they laid claim to. On countless occasions, violence or legal maneuvering have forced these landowners to give up their holdings. Now with a little help, some African-Americans in the Chicago area are trying to verify their claims to Southern property. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Most of her life, Sandra Crawford has lived in Chicago, but her great-great-grandfather lived in Abbeville, South Carolina. Crawford's large eyes sparkle with tears and pride when she tells her family's story. Anthony Crawford was a wealthy black farmer who owned more than 400 acres of land. He was lynched in 1916 after he got into a dispute with a white store owner. Sandra Crawford says she learned about her great-great-grandfather's ordeal from a family matriarch. She made it her business to find out more.

Ms. SANDRA CRAWFORD (Chicago Resident): That's actually how I found out about that land. I read the article, the original article that was printed in 1916 telling about his lynching and how his family was ordered to--his 13 children were ordered to leave Abbeville within 48 hours of his lynching. And therefore, the 427 acres of property that he owned was just pretty much lost at that time.

CORLEY: Crawford is among almost 100 African-Americans in the Chicago area taking steps to reclaim ancestral land in the South. Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush organized this effort, called the ROSA Project. ROSA stands for the Reclamation of Southern Assets. Ruby Wheeler(ph) has lived in Chicago 43 years, but she believes she and other relatives are entitled to mineral rights on property in Mississippi.

Ms. RUBY WHEELER (Chicago Resident): On my great-grandfather's property, they have been drilling oil since 1944, and we have never, never received any kind of check or anything from them.

CORLEY: Hers is about one of 90 cases DePaul University law professor Ray Waters and his students are investigating. They discussed their findings so far at a recent press conference. Waters says descendents lost land in the South for many reasons: problems with taxes, squabbles within families, official misconduct or even fraud. The most frequent problem, he says, involved records.

Professor RAY WATERS (DePaul University): We need to get down into these courthouses, get down into these tax assessors' offices, get down into these recorder of deeds' offices and find out where the chain of title is and, in many of these instances, who stole the land, when and what type of recourse do the clients in Chicago have.

CORLEY: Waters says the ROSA project aims to make it easier for blacks to reclaim property. Because property laws vary from state to state, one goal is to move these cases through the federal court. That might not work, says David Dana, who teaches law at Northwestern University. He says the ROSA project is likely to face some of the same obstacles Jews did as they tried to reclaim property lost during the Holocaust. Dana says even though the property black Americans owned may have been wrongly taken, if the land has passed through a number of hands over the years, the question will be, who has the better claim?

Mr. DAVID DANA (Northwestern University): A lot of the African-American landowners may not have had any documentation at the time. I mean, they weren't allowed to vote, they may not have access to any legal services. So they may have owned land but never got an adequate documentation to go back now.

CORLEY: Participants of the ROSE project say they don't expect an easy battle. They hope to sign on African-Americans in other Northern cities who claim ties to land in the South. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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