Friday, March 25, 2011

Are we neglecting the land?

Some collect death certificates, census records, and marriage certificates, compile a history, place it on a shelf and assume they have completed their genealogy.  At the same time, the family homestead is sitting dilapidated with weeds growing up around and no one left who feels a connection to the land or legacy left by ancestors.  Little do they realize they are neglecting a source of economic freedom which probably has their ancestors turning over in their graves.

Genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, proclaims that genealogy is not a hobby.  Her own knowledge of the purpose and struggle of African Americans to realize the dream of independence and freedom comes down to her from the examples set by her own ancestors who obtained and held on to land.

In 1803, the slave owner, "Old Fat" Levi Harrell and his son, Hezekiah, migrated from Darlington, SC to Georgia bringing the father of Robert Harrell with them.  He moved to Amite, Louisiana, and then to East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.  Antointette's 2nd great grandfather,  Robert Harrell (Dinah Robertson), purchased 200 acres of land in 1888 after sharecropping a short time.  He could neither read nor write.  He signed his name with an "X."

"Robert had a vision for his offspring, said Antoinette, "He wanted his family to own their own land.  Most people in rural areas believed in owning land.  Robert saved money and worked hard farming.  In his wisdom, he knew the land would provide food, a place to build homes, and help them keep some level of independence."

Antoinette standing on the land that her great grandmother Emma Mead Harrell purchased in 1902 & 1904.
Photograph by Walter C. Black, Sr.
"Sometimes family members move from the South to the East coast or West Coast. Some went to other urban cities  They neglected the land.  They did not help to pay taxes, and when they come back after retiring, they have no land or property left for which to return," said Antoinette.  She also informed me that the 1997 Agricultural Census showed 16,560 black owned and operated farms existed totaling 1.49 million acres.  That is down from the 15 million acres of land they owned in 1920.
Also according to a report by the Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, the leading causes of loss of land and property are:

1.  Heir property ownership
2.  Heirs do not know one another
3.  Heirs do not have a connection to the land
4.  Lack of estate planning
5.  Tax sales
6.  Partition sales
7.  Voluntary sales
8.  Inaccessibility to legal counsel

"Heirs do not live on or near the land.  Business matters are not discussed within the family.  If you had ten children, seven would leave and never come back.  Genealogy is more than researching.  It involves estate planning.  Young people should be taught to be mortgage-free which would keep free a large portion of their income,"  explained Antoinette.
Alexander Harrell (1821-1921), shared by Antoinette Harrell

Robert Harrell, son Alexander Harrell was born on December 24, 1821 and died December 12, 1921. Alexander and Emma Mead Harrell had ten children.  Two were Jasper and Palmer Harrell.   Antoinette's grandfather, Jasper Harrell and his brother, had a connection to another piece of land purchased by Emma Mead Harrell between 1902 and 1904 which has been in the family for 106 years.  He farmed, and cultivated the land. He took care of the family "cemetery and made the headstones for the graves for his parents, grandparents, and brothers."  He was one of ten children.  Eight left and went North.  Jasper and his brother, Palmer, were the only two who remained connected to the land.  In other words, the others just gave up their inheritance.

Jasper Harrell, Sr, shared by Antoinette
Palmer Harrell, shared by Antoinette Harrell

"When we give up our inheritance, we have nothing to pass down to our children.  Most are tired and do not want to keep up the hard toil of picking cotton or cultivating the land.  Those who stayed connected to the land are able to send children to college.  Most people in rural areas have a large percentage of young black children who attend college."

"The people in the South find it much cheaper to send their children to college because they maintain a greater portion of money. Most build homes, can, own water wells, own their homes free and clear," said Antoinette, "Most blacks owned land in the South.  I had a clear understanding about land in the family.  My mother and cousin, Arthur Harrell talked about the land. I lived on the land.  I had a connection to it.  Other cousins were called "city children,"  said Antoinette.

Harrell brothers, shared by Antoinette Harrell

The "city children" did not share the same connection to the land. They found their visits to the South boring with nothing to do, hot, and they thought it was too dark.  Some left and never returned to the homestead. Antoinette grew up with a fishing pond, trees, berries, lemons, walnut trees, herbs, spring water, fresh vegetables like juicy tomatoes, and more.  She never had to go inside for lunch. She could pick up the things that grew freely outdoors like fresh cucumbers.  "We learned in the South to enjoy vegetables because that is all we had," she said.

"The goal is to learn about family assets as well as family history.  Take a royal family for example.  A child born into a royal family becomes educated because it becomes mandatory that that child learns how to protect what that child has when he or she child grows older.  Genealogy is a necessary tool for ensuring family economic development.  We need to empower children with economic freedom,"  explained Antoinette.

Some things we need to do to according to Antoinette are:

  • educate children about land and property owned in the family
  • take children on a tour of the land
  • teach children about homestead exemption
  • collect oral history about the land, location, who purchased, how it was lost
  • start a family dialog about the status of the land (upkeep, caretaker)
  • set up a will
  • obtain legal service to clear or confirm title in the family group
"When someone dies in a family, we will not open up a succession.  More people die. Then one dies, and another dies.  After a twenty year span, fifteen people have died.  You cannot become the rightful heir until you have opened up a succession to become an heir. What does genealogy mean to me?  Empowering myself and my family by putting my family business in order," said Antoinette.

Antoinette also raises a very valid question which she has not found the answer to yet: " How were people who had between a 3rd grade and 6th grade education able to maintain more freedom, were entrepreneurs, and had so much common sense?  She also wonders:  How did so many people with so much more education, master's and doctorate's, lose so much land?  "I have not found the answer yet," she says, "We should analyze what we are doing. There is a great migration moving back.  We should never be disconnected from the place we know we will return."

"We can go off from these places, but don't let the property run down.  On my recent road trip, I saw too many abandoned houses that could give someone a place to stay or rent for college.  We are dishonoring ancestors who worked hard.  We trade in these homes for a three or four thousand square foot home that we cannot afford and end up losing."

"I am really grateful to those Harrell men, my grandfather, Jasper Harrell, great grandfather Alexander Harrell, and 2 great grandfather Robert Harrell.  I am grateful to my great grandmother Emma Mead Harrell who purchased land that is still in the family.  Genealogy is not a hobby.  It is a necessity."

"I am hoping with your help (Robin Foster) and this educational blog that you are writing that when people gather for the family reunion they will add discussing the land to the agenda.  Our ancestors believed three things:  1.  Own your own land, 2. Build your own home, 3. Have a family cemetery.  Everyone was not buried in the church cemetery. Some were buried on their own land," shared Antoinette.

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  1. Wow... What a great article. I recall when my grandparents died, it was so sad to see their home. My aunt lives next to it, so each time I went to visit her, I saw it. The homestead was neglected, peeling paint, rotted wood and overgrown grass. When they finally decided to sell it, as sad as it was, it was nice to see someone fixing the house up like it use to be. I guess everyone figured it would eventually be sold, so why bother to fix it up. I had so hoped the land and home would have stayed in the family, but did not happen. Again, wonderful article.

  2. Thanks for sharing you experience, Tina. I am glad you liked the article. Did your aunt live there at one time?

  3. Yes... it was the family home. I've learned to accept it. But, what the article says is so true. Kids move off and the days of going home to a home where you grew up are less seen these days. So many move now more often.


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