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Homestead Act of 1862 – Closest Thing to Reparations, Part III (FINAL)

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow

As we stated in the previous two parts, American descendants of the vicious American Holocaust known better as Slavery gathered immense portions of land. The great Booker T. Washington would encourage freed slaves to work the land that they owned and invest profits from it and build an economic infrastructure to help empower ourselves after slavery.

It appears that too few listened to his advice or admonition. Most freed slaves and their descendants who received these precious acres of land by way of the Homestead Act of 1862 and through means of inheritance were destined to lose the land.

Today, several members of Congress are trying to pass a resolution or law that would grant reparations to descendants of slaves. This is no big thing as it was first introduced in Congress back in 1989. They discuss it, kick it around and let the thought fade away eventually. Maybe it is too late for us. We had the opportunity to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and virtually blew the opportunity. We would get free land and then squander it or lose it through trickery or a soft form of land theft. Sometimes it may have been through worse tactics.

Take the case of another one of Harry’s great grandfathers. Harry Watkins of Bellevue, Louisiana owned 225 acres of farmland. How he got it we do not know, but in 1873 he used it as collateral for a loan of $250. The loan agreement is in the records held at the local courthouse.

The terms of the loan were this: He would agree to pay back the loan within two years or the land would revert to the lenders. The lenders were two whites. For some reason, Great Grandfather Harry Watkins defaulted on the payment. When the due date arrived, he was nowhere to be found. In fact, Harry disappeared and so did our 225 acres. Not many of my family members talk about it. The story goes he got frustrated and left the family and the land.

We don’t think so. Our fear is that Harry Watkins was murdered, and his bones are lying somewhere in Bossier Parish, Louisiana. Why would he abandon his family and the 225 acres? One thing that is very interesting is the fact that Harry Watkins was totally illiterate. On the agreement the two white lenders signed as witnesses. Harry put his “X” in his signature block and the two whites claimed they were witnesses to his “X.”

The saddest thing about this is that our great grandfather wasn’t the only one who would just disappear. So, we total the amount of property that was once owned by two of Harry’s great grandfathers and one of his grandfathers and we come up with 545 acres. What is left of that is 40 acres.

Fortunately, Harry and his cousins got together and decided to formally cut up the last 40 acres. Grandfather Thomas had eight children, so we turned the 40 acres into 8 lots of 5 acres each. We contacted an attorney and performed a “Voluntary Secession.” That way we would be less vulnerable to adverse actions or trickery. Five acres is less inviting to land thieves than 40 acres.

Down South, you must be vigilant to keep your property from being taken away. For example, there is a process known as “Adverse Possession.” According to Wikipedia the definition of Adverse Possession is: “Adverse possession is a method of acquiring title to real property by possession for a statutory period under certain conditions, viz: proof of non-permissive use, which is actual, open and notorious, exclusive, adverse, and continuous for the statutory period. It is governed by statute concerning the title to real property (land and the fixed structures built upon it).”

Harry’s grandmother, Fannie Wat- kins Alford, had acquired property in Stephens, Arkansas. One year she mailed payment for property taxes on the land. The tax collector (sheriff) sent the payment back as someone had already paid for it. This is a danger sign.  If someone pays property taxes on your land for three consecutive years (in most states) they will have rights to ownership.

I found a copy of the letter my grandmother sent to the Sheriff demanding he take her payment and send the other person’s money back. She won that fight. Years later my father bought the land from my grandmother. We drove up to look at it one day and found someone building a home on the property. My father went to court and the judge made the trespasser pay my father fair market value for the property. You must be vigilant if you are Black and own property in America.

Too many Blacks have squandered their rights to land. We call it “Disrespectful Inheritance.” There are more than a few cases of people living out West or up North who have little regard for family land. When a relative dies and the land is willed to them, they will quickly cash it in and ignore the possibility of investment or turning it over to their heirs.

There are more than a few cases of a family member dying and leaving good property for their heirs. The heirs without evaluating the value will call a local realtor to sell the property immediately. In northwestern Louisiana it was not unpopular for an heir to fly in from Los Angeles, meet the realtor at the airport, sign the papers, receive the check and fly right back out to LA. Then he would go to the nearest Mercedes Benz dealership and instantly spend all of the money. What a waste!

In sum, we believe that we had our chance at reparations through the Homestead Act of 1862. No one in this nation is going to agree to reparations for descendants of slaves. Let’s move on.

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: Emails: [email protected] [email protected].

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