Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow
We now continue from where we left off last week.
We had just discovered Harry’s grandfather and great grandfather were recipients of a land grant (360 acres for two grants) located in Bellevue, Louisiana. It was shocking news and we could find no one in the family who knew about this. All they knew was that grandpa left us 40 acres – not the 160 acres that he received from the Homestead Act grant. Great grandpa Cicero had land, 160 acres from a Homestead Act grant, at the time of his death, but that got steered away from our family. In fact, if we had not found this out through our research, no one would have known the difference.
These Homestead Act land grants were issued in 160 acre “chunks.” Smart people would make applications in succession, tying 160 acres to a previously awarded grant, and do that repeatedly. That’s how many of the newly arrived immigrants from Europe would arrive in America and journey out West or down South and soon became great farmers owning square miles of land to farm on and become wealthy.
Black recipients (freed slaves and their descendants) were not going to be allowed that opportunity. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between.
Our curiosity took us to the Bossier Parish (Louisiana) courthouse which kept all land records. These southern courthouses could tell the true story about land transactions. You could dig up some dirt or trickery about land ownership. That’s why so many of the small courthouses would become totally damaged through mysterious fires. One of the most notorious cases was the fire of 1890 in the Bureau of Archives where so many census records were destroyed. These fires just did not “happen” on their own.
It was easy to track grandfather Tom Alford’s land grant. Almost immediately, (like a few months) after he was awarded his 160 acres, he began to sell portions of it. Twenty acres, 25 acres or so at a time. Before long he was left with just 40 acres.
It was more than coincidental that the person who helped our grandfather with the Homestead Act application was a realtor named Mr. Roos. We went to the curator and sought her advice on this guy. She claimed, “Old man Roos is everywhere in these transactions. He was a rare Jew in this part of the country and did not make too many friends.”
As we continued our search, it became clear that Mr. Roos was making a career of helping freed slaves get Homestead Act land grants and start immediately selling parcels of that awarded land to white people. It was kind of a pass through. The outreach that was intended through this Homestead Act was for freed slaves and newly arrived immigrants or settlers. That became a “borrowed event” for the Black applicants. Like our forefathers in this case, they were completely illiterate and at the “mercy” of third-party participants like Old Man Roos.
Tracking the land awarded to great grandfather Cicero Alford was more mysterious. This is how it was verbally told to us.
Cicero Alford was born in Noonan, Georgia on the Alford plantation. Plantation owner James Alford moved his plantation to Alabama, just across the Georgia state line. Soon after, he moved to Bossier Parish, Louisiana. As he aged it is rumored he decided to protect a portion of his biological grandchildren who were results of his affair with his female slave, Paulina. He “married” Paulina to Cicero. Soon after Cicero was awarded that 160 acres homestead grant.
We guess it became quite clear that any inheritance was going to Paulina’s children only. It appears that his land was destined for Paulina’s children (mulattos) she gave to him. Harry’s father once told him that this was common in the Jim Crow South. Exposing such a scheme would surely cost someone his or her life.
What is so curious is that Paulina’s grave lies in our family plot. It is kind of isolated from the rest of our deceased relatives. None of her children are buried there. Did they pass over for whites? Where are they?
We found the formal will of James Alford at the courthouse. There is no mention of his children from Paulina. There is a very successful lumber company in Bossier Parish. Harry sometimes plays with the idea of matching his DNA with the owners of Alford Lumber Co., who are white. Are they cousins? Who knows?
The fact is that many descendants of slaves participated in this Homestead Act of 1862. It appears that the enormous amount of land transferred to Black ownership did not prosper or flourish amongst the generations thereafter, like those of white recipients.
Next week, let’s wrap this up with examples of how piece by piece they brought that newly won land into white ownership. The benefits were mostly short lived.
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the NBCC. Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.