Since the beginning of time, all of humanity has depended upon land. Our common ground. Biblical references are replete with mentions of “the promised land” and expectations of land stewardship and inheritance. And the American Indians’ spiritual view and respect for the land is legendary. Over time, in this country, in particular, land ownership became a vital and irreplaceable asset to communities, and with each generation, the pride and security of owning land was woven into the very fabric of American life. It was the very bedrock of progress. But this nation, for all its claims in the beautifully crafted language in our founding documents, “we the people, in order to form a more perfect union”, is in need of a fresh look at our whitewashed history. Revisionist interpretation notwithstanding, America has not lived up to its professed ideals, and some of the ugly realities cannot be sanitized or censored, or erased from our collective psyche.
Beginning in 1776, the United States took more than 3 billion acres of land from American Indians. Land their ancestors had occupied and cultivated for generations. White settlers, ruthlessly ravenous for the land on which they wanted to grow cotton, tobacco, sugar and other crops, found the federal government eager to comply with their demands.
Lands Originally Held by American Indians — Until…
At the direction of President Andrew Jackson, after the Congress signed his Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law, the Indians were forced at gun-point to leave their homelands and walk thousands of miles across the Mississippi River to a segregated area called “Indian territory”.
The Trail of Tears
More than sixty different tribes were forcibly removed and sent off onto an aptly named Trail of Tears. These massive land thefts, utilizing treaties negotiated through trickery, deception and extreme coercion, resulted in unspeakable hardship, often in the dead of winter. This ultimately was the extinction of 16 million indigenous people.
“The Trail Where They Cried.”
In 1838 Cherokee people were forcibly moved from their homeland and relocated to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. They resisted their Removal by creating their own newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, as a platform for their views. They sent their educated young men on speaking tours throughout the United States. They lobbied Congress and created a petition with more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures against Removal. They took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that they were a sovereign nation n Worcester vs. Georgia (1832). President Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court decision, enforced his Indian Removal Act of 1830, and pushed through the Treaty of New Echota. In 1838 Cherokee people were forcibly taken from their homes, incarcerated in stockades, forced to walk more than a thousand miles, and removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died and many are buried in unmarked graves along “The Trail Where They Cried.” Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The Disappearing American Indian Landscape
“It was not hard to see that the white people coveted every inch of land on which we lived. They wanted the last bit of ground which supported Indian feet. It was land…Treaties that have been made are vain attempts to save a little of the fatherland, treaties holy to us by the smoke of the pipe — but nothing is holy to the white man. Little by little, with greed and cruelty unsurpassed by the animal, he has taken all. The loaf is gone and now the white man wants the crumbs.” ~~~Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota chief, Author, Educator, Philosopher
1865–1877 The Reconstruction Era
Along with the emancipation of more than 4 million slaves came the promise of “40 acres and a mule per family” to the newly freed people and ownership of some of the very land they had been forced to work without pay. But even with the freedom from bondage, they faced cruel discrimination and mortal danger in their attempts at land ownership. Although some of the land seized from Confederates was given or sold to the freedmen, the post-war promises of land reform were never honored. Soon thereafter, the land that the freedmen had settled was confiscated by the U.S. government and by order of Abraham Lincoln’s successor to the presidency Andrew Johnson, returned to disenfranchised Southern plantation owners. Forcible gun-point evictions by federal troops were frequent, and an additional constant threat was “whitecapping”, a violent tactic engaged in by marauding gangs of nightriders. Angry white supremacists who drove the landowners off their farms and took the place for themselves. Yet another constant threat was the presence of racist bounty hunters hired to return the former slaves to their masters for a continued life of involuntary indentured servitude, which after ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments was a federal crime.
The 40 Acres Promise
Torn From Their Land
The reign of terror continued in a post-Civil War atmosphere of residual resentment, hatred and violence, making black landowners targets, not only from angry mobs and the KKK but very often from the U.S. Government as well. Illegal seizures and land takings and worse took place with absolute impunity. Yet the freedmen and freedwomen persevered, and according to U.S. federal census records, black people, mostly in Southern states, acquired millions of acres of property during this period, and by 1910 farm families had acquired between sixteen and nineteen million acres. Over the years, many “freemen of color” had wisely seized the opportunity, planning and working tirelessly to save enough money to purchase land. Many worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers and railroad workers. Thus began the first major wave of African-American land ownership.
During the years after the Civil War, former slaves, “free men and women of color” and their descendants accumulated millions of acres of land throughout the South and roughly 16 million acres overall throughout the United States.
In this country, it has long been held that the ownership of private property is the very foundation of prosperity and therefore, of freedom itself — unless you yourself are considered property by the very men who drafted the Constitution. Nevertheless, between 1865 and 1895, former African-American slaves, men and women who had endured the horrors of the Middle Passage, the anguish of captivity, and the indignities of involuntary unpaid indentured servitude, somehow managed not only to survive but also to gather the where-with-all to acquire acres of land and gain a large measure of autonomy.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, (aka: the Freedmen’s Bureau) was established to provide assistance to former slaves and poor whites in the South. One of the agency’s first acts was to free up 45 million acres of confiscated or abandoned public land in an attempt to settle the emancipated slaves. But the bureau’s activities were severely thwarted by the politics of race, and shortly thereafter, terminated. Soon, angry Southern whites, determined to reassert white supremacy in their communities and return to their preferred way of life, established their own laws called The Black Codes which restricted black people’s movements and opportunities. Among the threats that not even the Emancipation could protect black people from was illegal reinslavement. During that time the freedmen could be arrested on the pretext of “vagrancy” and forced back into similar situations of involuntary unpaid labor. Or worse. The simple possibility of being noticed was accompanied by the threat of lynching at a time when the rate of lynching for access to property and farmland was at an all-time high.
In the United States, after reaching its peak in 1910, African-American land ownership dwindled tremendously. The magnitude of black land loss cannot be overstated, but it is rarely talked about. And with the notable exception of the 2001 Associated Press investigative report, “Torn from the Land”, the lengthy history of involuntary black land loss has been largely ignored, omitted from or greatly distorted in conventional history books. It is beyond dispute that the United States laid its very foundation on stolen native land and resources, and there are millions of acres in heir property that families have been deprived of. In their 18-month investigation, the AP reporters uncovered hundreds of cases documenting this hidden chapter of America’s history.
With meticulous investigative precision, the AP reporters delved into and proved numerous complaints from African-Americans about land thefts as well as the role of the U.S. government in many of the takings. In a series of forensic title searches, leaving no stone unturned, the reporters revealed numerous cases of land and property theft, many associated with violence and even murder.
The result of these involuntary land losses translates into millions of descendants of African-American slaves who have been cheated out of generational wealth that is their birthright. And the United States Government is past due for a reckoning for its role in the takings.
The United States is accountable. Whether involved through tricking and coercing American Indians into signing bogus treaties ceding millions of acres of their land, or taking millions of acres from former slaves through continued brutality and violence. This rancid wound continues to fester today and left alone, it will remain a permanent part of America’s history. The pattern of denial associated with the after-effects of slavery continues to fuel discussion on the subject of race. But the fact is, slavery laid the foundation for this nation’s wealth. A nation predicated on the concept of white supremacy.
Time and time again, America dismissed and/or refused to honor the sovereignty of Indian nations, violating treaties repeatedly. But the nation’s debt to the American Indian has been well documented and represented in literature, films and pop culture. Moreover, the recent $3.4 Billion settlement from the federal government was said to “clear the way for reconciliation”. The agreement provides 350,000 American Indian beneficiaries with $1,000 or $800 payments, as well as a U.S. government-funded scholarship fund for the education of American Indian children. The government also used another $1.9 billion to purchase fractioned land allotments from current proprietors and return that land to the tribes.
Similarly, in a previous apology settlement with Japanese internment victims, the U.S. government, under the Reagan administration, offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. This action took place after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community for the Internment which lasted approximately four years, from 1942 to 1946.
No such apology or settlement offer has been forthcoming for 250 years of slavery, however, and America continues to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the active remnants of slavery’s legacy and its impact on African-American lives. Any mention of the long overdue outstanding debt stirs rancor and fear among whites.
The Reconstruction period was a disappointment in general, and for former slaves in the South, a dismal failure. The Emancipation’s language: “Henceforward shall be free” seemed only to ensure the absence of physical bondage. Other rights seemed to have been omitted from the fundamental principles of the Constitution, and its provisions were widely ignored by self-righteous racist reactionaries in the South. Whitecapping, night riding groups that in contrast, brazenly established and implemented their own restrictive laws to continue traditional racial restrictions.
The government’s empty promises did little to assuage the horrors of bondage and unpaid servitude, yet although the majority of the Negro population in the South continued on as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, some newly freed men and women of color were successful in acquiring property on their own.
Contrary to popular belief, however, not every black person in rural America was living in poverty. In spite of segregation and endemic racism, many achieved middle-class status by creating their own businesses or learning skills such as carpentry or welding. Even more owners of farmland achieved independence, reaping the benefits of their own harvests. Many became academics, matriculating in the few Negro colleges available to them and even going on to become teachers, doctors, and lawyers.
Charles and Willa Bruce: Beach Resort Entrepreneurs, Los Angeles, California Circa 1912–1924
Around 1912, an enterprising young African-American couple, Willa Bruce and her husband Charles, took their life savings, their combined earnings from working on railroads, and purchased some beach front property in the California city of Manhattan Beach. Shortly afterward, they opened a resort, which featured a lodge, a dance hall, and a café. At the time, many beach communities were restricted and off-limits to blacks, so as word spread about the new place, African-American beachgoers from surrounding areas arrived in droves to enjoy the beautiful facility and setting. Shortly thereafter, the KKK was recruited from out of state to intimidate beachgoers and drive out the Bruce family. But the Bruces stood their ground. With growing racial tensions and disruptions from angry whites in the community, the city of Manhattan Beach decided that the Bruce’s resort property would better serve the community as a public park. And in 1924, after it was seized by the city, which also condemned the property through questionable eminent domain proceedings, the Bruce’s Beach Resort was shut down and leveled. Reportedly, the Bruces received only $14,500 for a property valued at $70,000 in 1924 and left the city.
Bruce’s Beach: An Upscale African-American Beach Enclave in the 1920s
Tulsa and Rosewood: Unspeakably Reprehensible. Too Long Forgotten
The Greenwood District of Tulsa Oklahoma was the wealthiest black community in the country, and often referred to as “the Black Wall Street”. On June 1, 1921, a marauding group of angry and envious white racists burned the entire town to the ground. The back of this photograph bears the inscription: “Burning Little Africa”, “Running the Negro out of Tulsa.”
Prior to the early morning hours of January 1, 1923, the town of Rosewood Florida had been a successful, self-contained and self-sufficient black community. But, triggered by the old standby cause for action: “a black man looked at a white woman”, an angry white mob assembled and tore into Rosewood and burned it to the ground.
The Self-contained Self-sufficient Black Community: A Personal Connection
Alabama Department of Archives and History — Montgomery, Alabama
“We tell the story of the people of Alabama by preserving records and artifacts
of historical value and promoting a better understanding of Alabama history.”
Finding my family’s Alabama roots, embracing long lost loved ones, and connecting the dots that led me here.
According to the Thirteenth United States Federal Census on file at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Alabama, my maternal grandparents were born in Montgomery during this 12-year Reconstruction period.
My grandfather, Elijah Hartwell Frazier, Sr. in 1871, and my grandmother, Carrie Frazier (nee Reese), in 1877. Additional documents bearing their signatures indicate ownership of numerous houses and several pieces of land on the outskirts of Montgomery, including a portion of the acreage that is now Maxwell Air Force Base. An enduring family legend from numerous elders and reliable sources holds that the pioneering aviator brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright leased from my grandfather the land on which they established their Wright Brothers Flight Training School in 1910. As has been the case with other black families, our efforts to substantiate this connection have hit a brick wall. In more recent history, however, an easement issue relating to our family’s Day Street home is another example of the racial animus behind black land loss. Over several decades, as the city continued its widening of the highway in front of our house over my parent’s objections, we were met with claims by county clerk’s office officials that my widowed grandmother had “signed the land over to the city of Montgomery.” One look at the purported “X” “signature” on a document signed by an educated black woman as well as an early feminist and community activist, indicates otherwise.
After many years and numerous visits to the Archives, I found myself wishing I believed in time travel. Time after time as I sat for countless hours peering at documents and images on a microfiche screen, my heart soared at the recognition of names and dates that put all the family legends and folklore into personal and historical perspective. Handwritten records, bearing the names of my great-grandparents, and reading: “free man of color” and “free woman of color” confirmed all the stories that elders in our family had repeated to us as children.
With information unfolding before my eyes, my pride in my ancestors increased a thousand-fold. I was astonished at the amount of property they owned. Houses that they had built with their own hands. Homes, including my childhood home as well as others I had visited for so many years. My grandfather and his three brothers were entrepreneurs of the first order to be sure. Without a single exception, every male on my mother’s side of our family tree owned land and farms and businesses in and around Montgomery. And although I never met my grandfather, who died when my mother was just a teenager, my memories of my grandmother, though few, are nonetheless vivid and inspiring, so I’ve always felt that I know her and the formidable woman she was. I know her from all the stories I’ve heard all my life from my parents, older siblings and other relatives. From the paper trail that she left for me to find, now housed at the Alabama Archives where I traced my family’s lineage back several generations. Where I saw her signature on her marriage license and property documents. I know her from my family’s recollections of her complete devotion to the husband she loved and honored throughout decades of widowhood. And from stories of the deathbed promise she made to him to protect and defend the property he left her, to “… keep it for my children…keep it in the family.” And how she tried, albeit in vain, to defend and protect and save the properties for her family. Properties that were clearly not “sold” or “donated” but literally stolen from our family. The fact that the same fate would befall one of her grandsons decades later would’ve been impossible to imagine at the time. But given this nation’s history, not much of a surprise.
The pattern of land takings and property thefts in Alabama and Ohio that have impacted members of my family over three generations definitely strikes a personal note. So I bring to any discussion of this matter, my own eye-witness accounts of racially-motivated property thefts, illegal seizures and gun-point evictions, as well as over 15 years in and out of this nations courtrooms in fruitless efforts to defend and protect our constitutionally guaranteed property rights. One of the most shocking and egregious situations of rank racism and massive property thefts occurred over a period of several decades in Cleveland Ohio, beginning in the turbulent, riot-torn ‘60s.
At that time, America was a nation thoroughly disillusioned by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Awash in social unrest, civil rights and anti-war demonstrations; flower children; more political assassinations; and riots. Among blacks, there existed a paradoxical scuffle in the pursuit of social change. From stoic, non-violent resistance and a multi-racial Civil Rights Movement to stentorian cries for “Black Power!” and “Burn, Baby, Burn!”
Yet amid this national turmoil, in November of 1967 the City of Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes as the nation’s first black mayor of a major city. Local media reported a record turnout and Stokes won an impressive 96% of the vote. But the political honeymoon was short-lived and came to an end when the Glenville riots erupted on the lower East side. This was too close for comfort for the white establishment, many of whom had been of the opinion that Stokes’ visible presence as mayor would prevent or diffuse potential racial disorder. At around this same time in Cleveland, a unique and contentious situation of another sort was brewing.
After having reorganized from an earlier 1957 formation, sometime during the early 1960s, University Circle Incorporated (UCI) and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, two reigning institutional Goliaths, joined forces and initiated plans to form an alliance to create a sprawling medical-educational metropolis and become one of the most dominant medical facilities in the country. Included in this mega-billion-dollar project was a far-reaching and prodigious plan to expand the world-renown Cleveland Clinic’s campus and connect it with Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, essentially creating their own private driveway. The only “temporary obstacle” to the master plan was a strategically located strip of land and properties with twenty-three wildly successful and thriving businesses perched right in the middle of the proposed expansion project. Having successfully “handled” such “temporary obstacles” with little resistance in the past, the powerful consortium’s expectation was for similar results. But this Euclid Avenue strip was owned and operated by a brilliant young African American entrepreneur who quickly proved to be a formidable force and anything but “handleable”.
To further complicate matters, this self-made millionaire businessman who had exhibited remarkable business acumen and a unique flair for acquiring real estate also owned and controlled several other businesses and key parcels of land fronting on and up and down Euclid Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Not only was he in their way, but as frequently reported in the local media, he fought against the expansion in epic court battles, launching at one time a $100 Million Dollar antitrust lawsuit against the Clinic and UCI.
“Clinic and University Circle Inc. Accused of Land Squeeze”
As reported in this July 13, 1977 front page story in the Plain Dealer: “Cleveland businessman Winston E. Willis yesterday filed a $100 million lawsuit charging that the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, University Circle Inc. (UCI) and others are monopolizing real estate and violating antitrust laws…the suit charges that the Clinic and others are forcing property values so low that they can buy it for less than it’s worth. The suit, filed in Common Pleas Court by lawyer Bernard A. Berkman charged:
The “Temporary Obstacle”
My brother, Winston E. Willis. This photo collage is from a 1973 feature article in a local Cleveland newspaper entitled: Winston Willis’ Miracle On East 105th Street. At the time he was a 33-year-old millionaire businessman and real estate developer. Although this piece in the mainstream press described him as “a shrewd and savvy young entrepreneur”, he was considered by Cleveland’s local white establishment as “an intruder” in the upscale University Circle area of Cleveland. The so-called “cultural oasis” of the city.
The lily-white sanctuary encasing Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, University Hospital, and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. In either case, he was one of the most successful business owner, operators in the country. He created and controlled a corporation, University Circle Properties Development, Inc. (UCPD, Inc.) that owned one of the most strategic and valuable real estate parcels in Cleveland and he was the largest employer of blacks in the State.
Under his solely-owned corporation at East 105th and Euclid, upwards of 23 successful businesses were running simultaneously and exhibiting tremendous success and often being referred to as “an inner-city Disneyland”, or “the black folks downtown”. Winston’s miraculous transformation of the previously crime-ridden area was both admired and resented by the white establishment of Cleveland. Many even spoke admiringly about his business acumen and drive. However, the fact that he was fearlessly outspoken with a tendency to call out racism whenever he encountered it, did not endear him to local government officials and would be his eventual undoing, as described in 105th and Euclid: The Winston Willis Story.
Beginning with his first major business venture in the University Circle area, Winston unwittingly set into motion a racially-motivated animosity toward himself that would continue for decades. From the moment he opened the Jazz Temple, a wildly popular coffeehouse night club directly adjacent to Case Western Reserve University in 1961, his presence in this ethnic controlled community was controversial and above all, unwelcomed. The blue-collar town was on record as being the third most racially polarized and segregated city in the United States, and the reputation was well-earned. During that time, it was virtually unheard of for a black person to own or operate a business in that part of town. In fact, blacks were barred from most local restaurants and taverns.
Yet Winston had the youthful courage and verbal joie de vivre to challenge the city’s ironclad racial restrictions and establish several successful businesses in the area. Even after The Jazz Temple was bombed and destroyed after years of constant harassment and threats, he continued to succeed, under the resentful and watchful eye of his institutional neighbors.
Winston first came to local prominence during extremely racially charged times — the turbulent, riot-torn ’60s. He was young. He was smart. He was aggressive. He was good looking and well-dressed. He was eloquently articulate and demonstrated that he had the capacity to think for himself. He was also black, and he was unafraid, which exacerbated their most inherent fears about the potential power of the Black man. Cleveland had never seen anything like him, and they didn’t know how to take him, or more importantly to them, what to do about him.
Although he was an acknowledged and outspoken disciple of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, Winston’s true allegiance was to economic empowerment and autonomous control of black communities. Having learned from every male role model in our family, he knew the value of owning land and its attendant power. Admittedly, his personal philosophy and vision were often obscured by his penchant for showmanship, but there was always, at the heart of his deeds, an inherent and genuine compassion for his people and their welfare.
It is a well-known fact in Cleveland that Winston Willis infused the black community with products and services and economic prosperity previously unavailable to them. From approximately 1968 until 1985, he owned more property and employed more people than any other individual business owner, black or white, in the entire city. At a time when minimal prospects for economic advancement existed for local blacks, he consistently offered work, a powerful work ethic, and job security, placing them on a road to more prosperity than they had ever known.
His rise to local success in such racially turbulent times is legendary, but his wealth and acquisitions triggered the resentment of Cleveland’s previously unchallenged ruling circle of powerful racist whites and unwittingly set into motion a vicious conspiracy to remove him by any means. They were relentless, they were vicious, they were determined, and they manipulated and violated laws to accomplish their goal. What started out in the early 1960s as a mildly adversarial rift between an outspoken young Negro and city officials soon escalated into a full-scale war.
Mayor Carl B. Stokes was an old friend. And to his credit, during his time in office, he deflected every taking attempt against Winston’s properties that came to his attention. And although in his official capacity, he could not voice his allegiance to his friend publicly, he frequently revealed to him many of the behind-closed-doors conversations about Winston that he was privy to. During the Stokes administration, Winston’s business empire and the 105th Street and Euclid Avenue corner thrived brilliantly. But the moment that Stokes left office, it was open season on Winston Willis, and the reign of terror began. One local reporter put it this way: “Winston fought back like hell. But this was David and Goliath stuff. He came with a slingshot, and they came for him with sawed-off shotguns and automatic weapons and SWAT teams — and then bulldozers.”
After spending millions of dollars on high profile high power lawyers, and finding the doors of justice closed to him, it became clear that there was no legal remedy available to him in any Ohio court, so he erected a huge billboard on the side of one of his Euclid Avenue buildings exposing the racism he was encountering from local government officials and the entire judiciary.
His Very Own Social Network in the 1970s and 1980s
His initial posted comments on the billboard were bold, fierce, astute, and provocative, exhibiting both a fierce intellect and sense of moral outrage at the judicially-sanctioned racism being abided and protected. But to the local judiciary and power brokers, the statements were explosive and intolerable. It has often been said that my brother’s economic destruction was predictable. That he himself is ultimately responsible for his fate because of his provocative billboard statements and in-your-face success. That he kept poking his finger into the eye of the proverbial sleeping giant, as it were. There may be some truth to this theory. But having worked with him for many years in preparing thousands of legal documents, as well as having been at his side in courtroom after courtroom as he faced corrupt lawyers and judges, I cannot help but recall numerous disturbing and visceral moments as I witnessed the law being broken and manipulated and used as an instrument against him. But in a classic David and Goliath underdog vs. giant-type scenario, Winston stood his ground and defended his constitutionally guaranteed property rights. However, even after educating himself in the law and boldly taking on the perpetrators and exposing rank legalized discrimination in his community, and later toiling tirelessly and obsessively in obscurity, it soon became clear that he was powerless against the reigning elitist band of power brokers and institutional giants.
From 1982 until 2000, in a ruthless, ongoing pattern of judicially-sanctioned property thefts, every visible trace of Winston’s once-thriving Euclid Avenue business empire was literally stolen from him without a penny of payment as he and his businesses and family were literally swept out of the University Circle area. And after decades of illegal and fake “foreclosures”, SWAT-Team posse comitatus type gun-point evictions, attempts on his life, wrongful imprisonments, fires of “unknown origin”, and flat out judicial terrorism, the City of Cleveland/State of Ohio finally succeeded in taking every single piece of Winston Willis’ wholly-owned properties — without a cent of compensation — just or unjust.
In every court in the State of Ohio, he has been consistently denied his constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights, rendered civilly dead; subjected to judicially sanctioned property thefts as well as despicable human rights abuses.
True to his nature, however, my brother remained steadfast in his refusal to accept defeat, engaging in epic courtroom confrontations. In later years, after battling his way through the local court system, and having exhausted every other imaginable legal remedy, he made the decision to take his case to the United States Supreme Court. So, incredibly, with a legal team that consisted of just the two of us, and after instructing me and guiding me through the grueling and tedious process of preparing a pro se Petition For Writ of Mandamus, we successfully completed the petition, which was accepted and docketed by the High Court and then mysteriously denied several months later.
After decades of trying, it became clear that no agency of the U.S. Government, i.e., HUD, the Department of Justice or the United States Supreme Court has any intention of righting this wrong, I wrote an impassioned letter to President Obama informing him of my brother’s circumstances and describing exactly how his involuntary land losses had led him from a successful life as a successful millionaire businessman to living in abject poverty. To my surprise, the president responded to my letter. He also directed HUD to look into the matter. But HUD, in true buck-passing fashion, bounced the case all over the country from one region to another, before finally informing us “we consider this case closed.”Apparently not even the directive from the president was enough to move these agencies toward a fair and just evaluation of the judicially-sanctioned crimes committed against my brother by a corrupt and racist local government in Cuyahoga County Cleveland Ohio. It appears that they have all turned a blind eye not only to the rampant corruption but also to blatant misuse of federal funds involved.
So in the end, Winston’s powerful adversaries have been successful in defeating him in the legal arena. In legal parlance, and as Winston says: “they framed a mischief and called it law.” And their planned medical metropolis, a good portion of which rests on land that he still rightfully owns, is now a reality.
The most definitive protection of property rights in the United States Constitution can be found in the last clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Takings Clause, which includes a provision stating that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” And Thomas Jefferson’s writings on a personal right to property include the following:
“By nature’s law, every man has a right to seize and retake by force his own property taken from him by another by force or fraud… It was long retained by our ancestors. It was a part of their common law, laid down in their books, recognized by all the authorities, and regulated as to circumstances of practice.”
If the United States Constitution’s Fifth Amendment laws of just compensation are ever applied as they were meant to be, for all intents and purposes, Winston E. Willis and/or his heirs are actually by law, multi-billionaires.
The Closed Doors of Justice
For the past five decades, in the city of Cleveland Ohio, one man, Winston E. Willis, has waged a mighty war against corrupt local government officials and courtroom manipulations that led to racially motivated property thefts and the destruction of his vast business and real estate empire. He fought and he fought. And then he fought some more. At the age of 79, he is still fighting. Even knowing that he is virtually powerless against the reigning elitist band of power brokers and institutional giants. Where are the custodians of justice? The interpreters of the Constitution? The defenders of the rule of law? Where is the national outrage that something like this could’ve happened in the United States of America?
Another Winston (Winston Churchill) once said: “History is written by the victors.” Perhaps so. But to quote an old African proverb:
“Until lions have historians, hunters will be heroes.”
A Gaping Wound That Still Has Not Healed
Racial prejudice itself is a profound neurosis that is still with us. But when it results in such inhumane and barbaric violence it has clearly morphed into a full-on mental disorder. As stated by Dr. Alvin Poussaint, noted clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School: “…Extremely violent racists suffer from a delusional mental illness.” What else explains such inherent fear and resentment of people of color? This is what drove the destruction of Tulsa and Rosewood and the banishment of its successful, upwardly mobile black citizens.
The fact that these two relatively recent human atrocities, two of the worst moments in American history, have received so little attention is troubling, but also predictable. This is a festering wound that we had hoped would heal on its own. We kept it covered. Avoided looking at it. We refused to talk about it. But this wound on the body of this nation can no longer be covered up or ignored or pretended away. To expand on Attorney General Eric Holder’s “nation of cowards” remark, this is a subject that America has deflected or finessed for far too many years.
The magnitude of the atrocity of slavery is almost inconceivable in the modern world, and America is still in a state of denial about its legacy. Especially as relating to the resulting generational fall-out. But the reality cannot be dismissed with comments such as: “Slavery ended a long time ago. Get over it.” Anyone holding onto that opinion should consider this analogy: If a person is shot in the head and somehow manages to survive after a 9 mm bullet tore into their skull and left a gaping, bleeding wound, is the victim any less injured? Surviving and having to live with all the residual effects from that gunshot such as paralysis, loss of speech, and blindness would definitely impact their quality of life as well as the lives of their family. Who among us could say to that person: That gunshot to your head happened a long time ago. Get over it.”
The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement
In the summer of 1955, when the shocking news of the brutal murder of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Money Mississippi galvanized a nation of black people into forming a united front of cataclysmic outrage and protest, it launched a powerful social movement that ultimately changed history. But with all the strides and successes of the Civil Rights Movement, there is still a tremendous amount of unfinished business that remains. Not even the election of our first black president was sufficient balm or salve enough to soothe and dress the wound of racism, and the amount of disrespect he has been met with demonstrates that this wound has become gangrenous and is spreading.
Momentarily, during the Inauguration, as Barack Obama was sworn into office, we were under the naïve assumption that we had finally “overcome”, and that the wound was beginning to heal. But as we now know, the sickness has returned full-force and can no longer be ignored or sugar-coated with placebo elixirs of stirring speeches and platitudes. For as much as we wanted to believe that the lump in our throats on that cold January day was the unprecedented pride and exultation of having elected our first black president, recent events signal the return of a familiar bitter taste and we are gagging once again on the gangrenous, virulent bile of racism. No matter how hard we try to ignore it, the queasiness will not be abated and the toxicity is potentially as lethal as it always has been.
A great deal of the racial inequality addressed by the Civil Rights Movement is still omnipresent. As five justices of the United States Supreme Court recently demonstrated when they issued a ruling that drained the very life out of the Voting Rights Act, which was one of the signature achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 50 years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched his Poor People’s Campaign, we are still faced with troubling statics. Higher black infant-mortality rates, lower life expectancy, high unemployment, lower income, higher rates of imprisonment and mass incarceration. With the ultimate goal of what turned out to be Dr. King’s final crusade being to force the nation’s attention on the ongoing problems of joblessness, hunger, and inadequate health care, one can only conclude that the nation has turned its back and looked the other way.
In 1968, during the final weeks of his life, Dr. King’s focus was turning more toward reparations, as indicated in a recent video of a little known speech that surfaced on the Voice of Detroit website. The black and white footage shows Dr. King at a small gathering in Mississippi. Accompanied by his personal assistant, Rev. Bernard Lee and another close associate, Rev. Hosea Williams, he warmly greets a small crowd that gathered, and after briefly mingling and listening to their concerns and expressing his support, he informs his listeners of some facts they may not be aware of.
MLK: “…At the same time America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that! They provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that! They provided low-interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that! Many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm. And they are the very people that are telling the black man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with. And this is the reality. Now when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.”
Several weeks later, the plan for another March on Washington was overtaken by his assassination in Memphis. But five years earlier in his historic speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King had taken center stage and led the charge in reminding America of its long unfulfilled promise.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stinging Metaphor
It has been named one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century. And although most people tend to wrap his “I Have A Dream” speech in a blanket of utopian idealism, Dr. King’s opening remarks at the 1963 March on Washington pointedly addressed this nation’s outstanding debt to black people. This then was his “bad check” metaphor, as relating to economic justice. His carefully chosen words were direct, confrontational, and stunningly clear. As he had promised the small group in Mississippi: “…In a sense, we have come to our nation’s Capital to cash a check. …It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
In likening the Negro’s plight to an unfulfilled promise, a “promissory note” written by the founding fathers and reneged on by themselves and their successors, he drove home his point dramatically and with stunning precision. Pausing deliberately and intermittently between clearly stated words and phrasing, visually taking the full measure of every person before him as well as millions of his listeners worldwide, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. solidified his well-earned reputation as one of the greatest orators in history, boldly declaring, as his thunderous words rang out magnificently over powerful speakers:
MLK: “…In a sense we have come to our nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness…It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds”.
MLK: “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.”
Re-Submitting the Still Outstanding Check and Making the Case In 2019
It has long been heatedly debated whether some form of reparations are owed to the descendants of African-American slaves. Never more so than in recent months when both Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Ta-Nehisi Coates’, The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic ignited back-to-back national media firestorms dispelling myths about this country’s founding and dark history, exposing how America profited from slavery.
“Enslaved African-Americans built the modern United States, and indeed the entire modern world, in ways both obvious and hidden.” ― Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, in his groundbreaking, meticulously researched essay,
“The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America.” He also references the Torn From The Land, with mention of land takings. “…Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia as well as “oil fields in Mississippi and a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”
The fact is, all across this country there are multi-billion dollar earning, also 501(c)(3) organizations that are literally trespassing on stolen land. My brother’s case in point. As previously stated, in Cleveland Ohio, laws were manipulated and broken, properties were illegally seized and taken at gunpoint, and all protections of the automatic stay provision were violated, paving the way for several city blocks on Euclid Avenue to be stolen and handed over to the Cleveland Clinic.
This world-renowned medical metropolis is literally trespassing on land still owned by Winston E. Willis and subsequently, his heirs.
Heir Property: Connecting the Dots
The connection between the theft of millions of acres of black ancestral lands and deprivation of generational wealth cannot be denied. Nor can the direct results. Even with all of the strides and groundbreaking successes of the Civil Rights Movement, the African-American population in the United States continues to struggle with the residual fall-out from slavery economically. Similarly, the disparities in educational opportunities are also directly connected to this lingering legacy and its generational fallout.
Why should the five children of Winston Willis struggle to pay for their children’s college education with student loans when a world-renowned multi-billion dollar earning medical facility is literally trespassing on land that their father still rightfully owns? Land that he worked so hard to acquire and build a business empire upon, and to protect? Why shouldn’t the descendants of slaves reap the benefits of their ancestors’ 250 years of unpaid labor and involuntary indentured servitude? A fair pension in consideration of past “services” would be virtually incalculable. How exactly does one even attempt to calculate millions of hours of past due back pay?
In 1898, Callie House, a former slave woman established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association in an effort to collect pension benefits for former slaves and their families. The story of this brave and remarkable woman and her activism was resurrected by acclaimed historian Dr. Mary Frances Berry in My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (2005). Clearly, the notion of overdue compensation and reparations has been around for a while. But instead of visualizing outstretched black hands awaiting checks, consider the derivation of the word itself: “Reparation”. Every listed definition of the word includes one of these phrases:“ to make amends for; compensate: to repair a wrong done.” Yet the mere mention of the word makes many extremely uncomfortable.
THE DEBT: America’s long overdue outstanding debt to the descendants of African-American slaves.
“Reparations Ray” The Father of the Reparations Movement
When Detroit real-estate agent and community activist Ray Jenkins (aka “Ray Reparations Davis”) began his quest for reparations in 1967, he was widely ridiculed and laughed at. But truth be told, he had the goods. Finally, sometime in the late 1980s, after decades of research and hard work, and after having persistently harassed government officials, Ray was finally successful in guiding his reparations resolution through the Detroit City Council. Soon afterward, his lonely crusade was the momentum that triggered action from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) who drafted a bill calling for the establishment of a congressional commission to study the impact of slavery on African-Americans.
The Conyers Bill: H.R.40 — The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act
In November of 1989, United States Congressman John Conyers, Jr. introduced his Reparations Bill, H.R.40 which, unfortunately, has not made it to a House vote in 25 years of trying. Stating its purpose, the preamble of the bill reads: “To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a Commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE: To Address the Injustice Inflicted Upon People of African Descent. The Case for Repairing the Damage Done.
Congress should approve and enact the Conyers Bill, thereby authorizing an official congressional commission to study the impact of slavery on living African-Americans.
2. EDUCATIONAL FUND:
A free State college education for every descendant of African slaves. Instead of earning billions in profits from student loans, the United States government has a moral obligation to provide this government financing for education.
3. GUARANTEED HEALTH CARE:
Government-guaranteed healthcare programs and implementation of provisions in the Affordable Care Act. Including access higher-quality primary and preventive care services; access to many crucial preventive services without cost, including well-woman and well-child visits, immunizations, and health screenings.
4. LAND RESTITUTION:
As was recently provided to the American Indians, government issuance of land grants and the return of millions of acres of heir property to the descendants of African slaves.
The long-festering wound of racism, this nation’s long unpunished crime, must be looked at and attended to, and its damage reassessed. Only by repairing this damage can we acknowledge the debt the United States Government owes to African-Americans and the debt we owe to ourselves and our ancestors to continue to pursue it.
The long-festering wound of racism, this nation’s long unpunished crime, must be looked at and attended to, and its damage reassessed. Only by repairing this damage can we acknowledge the debt the United States Government owes to African-Americans and the debt we owe to ourselves and our ancestors to continue to pursue it.
20th Century Land Grabbings and “Acquisitions”
During the 1920s, the popularity of Bruce’s Beach brought an influx of blacks from surrounding Los Angeles areas into Manhattan Beach. Soon, the City used the old tried and true tactic of condemning the area and claiming it for public use. The rumored $14,500 that Mr. and Mrs. Bruce reportedly received for a beachfront property that was worth at least $70,000 in 1924 was a paltry sum, which, if calculated by today’ standards would be in the millions. During that time, however, apparently, it was the maximum “just compensation” the City was willing to pay.
105th Street and Euclid Avenue: Cleveland’s Most Famous Intersection:
“…In the 1950s, nearby Hough and Glenville began to transform from majority-white to majority-black neighborhoods. The Euclid-East 105th area continued to attract a mostly suburban white clientele to its many entertainment venues. Along with the Alhambra, there were a number of theaters. The Circle Theater hosted a number of musicians and Keith’s 105th Street Theater showed motion pictures. The Circle Theater brought in big-time acts like Roy Acuff and his Grand Ole Opry. Keith’s 105th Street Theater and the Circle Theater helped give rise to artists and producers. At midcentury the Euclid-East 105th area also began to attract a growing African American clientele. The change was not without problems. In the early 1950s a series of bombings rocked the Towne Casino, a music club that attracted interracial patronage. The venue finally closed amid fears of attacks possibly calculated to stave off integration. By the 1960s, nearby University Circle institutional leaders and municipal officials eyed the district for urban renewal, envisioning an extension of their collective campus to replace this dense urban core.
After the Hough and Glenville riots of the late 1960s, white flight and disinvestment threatened to spell the end of the East 105th Street entertainment district. Not long after the riots, however, African American real estate developer Winston E. Willis stepped in and purchased many of the commercial properties around East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue, opening a number of adult-oriented businesses. However, Willis also opened a number of mainstream ventures, including the Scrumpy Dump Cinema and Winston’s Place Fine Dining. He managed the block of businesses through his University Circle Property Development Inc., whose UCPD signage mimicked that of the University Circle Police Department. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Willis was locked in legal battles with the city. His use of the old Keith’s 105th Theater as a billboard to rail against the nearby Cleveland Clinic’s expansionist planning as an affront to African Americans surely added to the resolve of his opponents. Through a number of city investigations, Willis was imprisoned and his property confiscated. In the early 1980s, nearly all of Willis’s properties were demolished to make way for the William O. Walker Center, sounding the death knell for the anchor of Cleveland’s “Gold Coast.”
“With the steady progress and reinvestment from both black and white Clevelanders, the UCPD and Winston’s opportunity corridor should have been admired and upheld by the city. However, buying up the property made Winston a target.”
Source: The Miracle on East 105th The Rise and Fall of Winston Willis’ Opportunity Corridor by India Pierre-Ingram for PressureLife Magazine
Corner of 105th Street and Euclid Avenue Today
Today, University Circle and Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, University Hospital, and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation all continue to thrive, and Winston E. Willis’ University Circle Properties Development, Inc. is no more. But the man himself, in addition to his entrepreneurial accomplishments, is as much a part of the tapestry of Cleveland’s history as either one of these entities. And even in his dotage, at the age of 79, he is as fiercely determined in his quest for justice as ever.
The absence of scholarly research on the matter of black land loss is puzzling and disappointing to me personally. And although I view this issue through the lens of my own family’s history and experience with involuntary land loss as well as having seen the evidence that self-serving oppressors crudely attempted to obscure, I believe the topic is worthy of study. Moreover, millions of acres of generational property are involved. In addition, mega-billion dollar, interest-earning institutions continue to trespass on stolen land. In light of the massive number of racially-motivated and illegal land takings, the need for investigation is striking and long overdue. Having reached out to legal academics and scholars all over the country, replies and expert opinions have tended to reflect an acute awareness of the issue along with serious misgivings concerning the likelihood of convincing government officials to take steps to right the wrong. In fairness, though, a monumental amount of time and painstaking research and man-hours would be required to tackle this issue. Nevertheless, it must be done, and my hope is to trigger a national conversation on the subject of involuntary black land loss and perhaps even build a movement to at last recognize the losses that our ancestors endured and the birthright that their heirs have been deprived of.
These were long-suffering, hard-working people. A people who survived slavery to achieve a remarkable measure of wealth through land ownership, only to have it all taken away. Often stolen through violence and at gunpoint. Today, situated all over this nation are multi-million dollar mansions, luxury hotels, baseball fields, and golf courses and hospitals, mega-million dollar earning organizations resting on stolen lands, while the rightful heirs to those properties never received a penny of compensation and their heirs continue to struggle economically.
It is of vital importance that every African-American knows their family’s land ownership histories, and subsequently their rights as heirs. This pattern of land thefts didn’t happen by chance. Before and after Jim Crow, these were deliberate acts to prevent black people from achieving and thus maintaining wealth and power.
“By nature’s law, every man has a right to seize and retake by force — his own property taken from him by another by force or fraud…” ~ Thomas Jefferson
Black land ownership in the post-Civil War era is often highlighted on the popular PBS-Henry Louis Gates, Jr. series, Finding Your Roots, as genealogists uncover and reveal numerous archived property records dating back generations. While these professionals and their work can be cost prohibitive, major universities and colleges, on the other hand, have the necessary resources to assign students and mount research projects devoted to the topic. With billions of dollars in endowments available to these institutions, and this nation’s outstanding debt to the descendants of slaves, it is certainly worth a try.