Alabama family recovers land taken by state decades ago

June 1, 2002

By BILL POOVEY Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- A black family whose land was seized by the state
under a 1964 court order can return to the farm as its "rightful owners,''
Gov. Don Siegelman said.

Siegelman transferred ownership of the land to the family Friday, saying it
had been taken "by a legal technicality.'' The family had said for nearly 40
years that the land was rightfully theirs.

"It is a great moment for the family but equally it is a great moment for the
state of Alabama,'' state Sen. Hank Sanders said Friday.

Siegelman reviewed the land-taking claim by Willie Williams of Sweet Water
after it was detailed in an Associated Press story. In December, [2001] an AP
series documented the loss of 24,000 acres by black Americans, through
violence, trickery and legal maneuvers. The series, "Torn From the Land,''
uncovered 107 land takings during an 18-month investigation.

"Thank you for bringing this matter to the public's attention,'' Siegelman
said while signing what he described as an unprecedented land grant by an
Alabama governor.

The Williams family lost the western Alabama land after the state claimed the
property belonged to the government because of a 1906 federal designation as

Williams was not immediately available for comment Friday.

The property is now vacant and overgrown. Some of it has been opened to
timber cutters, state records show.

The AP reported that the family held an 1874 deed and had records to show
they had been paying taxes on the land for generations. Records show that a
judge in 1965 said allowing the state's claim would create a "severe
injustice,'' but nonetheless signed an order giving the property to the

Williams' great-grandfather, named George Washington, bought 240 acres in
1874. The purchase and his conveyance of the land to his children in 1900 are
documented in well-preserved, handwritten courthouse records.

State officials secured "quiet title'' to the 40 acres Williams' father
inherited, based on a 1963 U.S. Bureau of Land Management notice. That notice
said a 1906 federal patent classified the Washington property as swampland
owned by the state.

Then-Circuit Judge Emmett F. Hildreth wrote in a Dec. 13, 1965, letter to
state conservation officials that evidence showed the families had "been in
possession of these lands about three generations. The effect of a decree
favorable to the state of Alabama would be to dispossess these people and
deprive them of these lands. Such action would create a severe injustice.''

Letters and internal memos on the case in files of the State Lands Division
in Montgomery are peppered with references to the family's race. They show
officials adamantly opposed allowing "the negro defendants'' to keep the
land, even while acknowledging that the family could trace its ownership back
to 1874.

In 1967, Hildreth, who is now dead, signed a decree awarding ownership to the
state, but allowing Williams' father, Lemon Williams, and his wife to remain
on the property as long as they lived.

Willie Williams, 51, said that up to his death in 1983, his father was still
pleading for the family not to give up trying to reclaim ownership of the
land, where they grew beans and cotton.

Siegelman said that "when George Washington bought this property he did
everything a reasonable person would have done, got a title and paid his

On the Net: The AP series can be found at:

Alabama Legislature: House Joint Resolution 54 at

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