Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie's Will - Articles

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Posted by: Mitchell Byrd on May 29, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Jun 2009

Journal Name: June 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 6

By Glen Stowe | University Press of Mississippi | $22 | 309 pages | 2007

Inherit the Land is a narrative account of a jury trial in Monroe, Union County, North Carolina, in 1921. The trial is centered on the wills of two white women, Sallie and Maggie Ross, who devised their property to a black man and his daughter, Bob Ross and Mittie Bell Houston.

At that time in North Carolina most deeds contained restrictions against ownership by "Negroes" or "colored." In that world, and in the newspapers of the Jim Crow South, African Americans were considered a race apart, separate and unequal, to the point of speaking a language barely recognizable as English. No "black" person ever spoke in the local newspaper without the phonetics attributed to characters in Song of the South.

John Johnston Parker and Walter Clark tried to "break the will." E.T. Cansler tried to enforce the will. Many witnesses were called to testify that the sisters were mentally incompetent. The reason? No rational white person would devise valuable land to a "colored" person.

The jurors said that they had no opinion about white women leaving their land to black people. But even if they did, as most suspected, they took their oath seriously and did their duty.

Avoiding what must have been personally repugnant to each juror, this is yet another example of why our jury system works and must be protected.

MITCHELL A. BYRD practices law at Mitchell Aaron Byrd PLLC in Chattanooga.