African American Land Ownership and Loss

African American man plowing with a pair of horses in Hampton, Virginia, circa 1899. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

Prior to the abolishment of slavery, the idea of landownership was an impossible dream for most African Americans, but in the years following the Civil War, African American landowners began to appear in Virginia’s chancery records. Unfortunately, these new landowners most often came to court because they were in danger of losing ownership of their property, or they felt they had been cheated out of the true value of their lands. With little support to aid in their pursuit of landownership, many minorities lost their property in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two such examples were found in the Patrick County chancery causes.

In 1872, Enoch Wilson, an African American, sold a parcel of land to Gabriel Hylton, a white man, at a price that was much lower than it was worth.  Hylton, regarded as a shrewd man and apparently not averse to taking advantage of others, vowed to pay Wilson $1.25 per acre for 217 acres of land.  The transaction even included an offer to allow Wilson to continue to reside on the property until his death.  Unfortunately for Wilson, the agreement was simply verbal and no money or documentation was ever exchanged.

Wilson’s grandson lived with him and was unaware of the verbal agreement with Hylton.  As the assumed heir to the property, he decided to grow and sell tobacco to generate income for his grandfather.  His tobacco sales led to a deal with Gabriel Hylton, and the revenue was used to care for Wilson.  When Wilson died, Hylton assumed ownership of the land, despite having yet to pay for it, and used it as a source of income until his death in 1875.  The court then issued a decree to sell the property, which subsequently was purchased by T. J. Gilbert.  Gilbert granted rights of ownership to C.J. Dalton and the two became the new property owners under a commission of sale.  The sale, however, advises T. J. Gilbert and C.J. Dalton that their purchase of the property was unfounded because no contractual agreement ever existed.

The only written contract accounted for Enoch Wilson’s initial purchase of the land.  The agreement with Hylton was never documented, and a deposition in the case stated that the property could have been sold for $3 or more per acre. Moreover, Hylton never made any of the agreed upon payments for the land.  Wilson’s heirs argued that the agreement with Hylton should be negated due to the lack of payment, but Wilson’s neglect to get the contract in writing caused his family to lose ownership.  This error cost him and his family a lot more than a few extra dollars an acre. His children and grandchildren were denied the opportunity to become landowners.

A similar situation arose in the case of Ruth Brim, George Brim, Anderson Carter, and Lucy Carter against William Epperson. The complainants (the Brims and Carters) were described as “uneducated colored people” who lacked understanding and placed too much faith in the defendant (Epperson, a white man).   The complainants desired to borrow $600 from the defendant.  To secure the loan, the complainants wanted to use their $1,500 home and tract of property as collateral.  The complainants essentially promised to hand the defendant their $1,500 homestead in the event that the $600 loan was not repaid.

This loan arrangement was not unusual. In fact, it was rather desirable from the defendant’s standpoint.  After all, an agreement with the potential of gaining property worth more than twice the loan amount was very promising.  For this reason, the defendant agreed to meet with the complainants to finalize the agreement.  Unfortunately, at the meeting, everything took a turn for the worse.

William Epperson had a change of heart and decided to use the agreement as an opportunity to take advantage of the complainants.  Rather than move forward as planned, he proposed that the complainants temporarily transfer ownership of the property before the $600 loan was given.  Epperson referred to the new arrangement as “the proper thing to do.”  At this point, the complainants’ lack of education and over-confidence in the defendant were a great hindrance. Because they did not understand the risk, the complainants agreed to convey sole ownership of the property to Epperson until the loan and interest were repaid.

Later, the Brims and Carters offered Epperson a partial amount to help expedite the repayment.  Epperson, however, refused the partial payment and essentially told the complainants that the land was no longer theirs.  It was then that the complainants realized the defendant had deceived them into thinking they would ever regain their property.  The chancery cause requested that the court force the defendant to transfer ownership of property back to the complainants.  The chancery cause also noted that the complainants were “uneducated colored people” and that, with this in mind, the defendant aimed to commit deception.

However, the result of the final decree was disheartening.  What appeared to be an open and shut case for the complainants, turned out to be their downfall.  The court ruled that the defendant would not only retain ownership of the property, but would also receive payment of $250 from the complainants.  The end result would be the complainants losing a total of $1,750, which included their home and property valued at $1,500.  This ruling undoubtedly proves that minorities were often vulnerable to mistreatment because of a lack of education and legal support.

Heirs of Enoch Wilson vs. Heirs of Gabriel Hylton, 1880-030, and Ruth A. Brim, etc. vs. William Epperson, 1912-008, are part of the Patrick County Chancery Causes, which are currently closed for processing.

-Sherri Bagley, Local Records Archivist

2 Comments

  1. Michael Rogers said:
    3 May 2014 at 6:05 am

    Enoch Wilson has been connected to Halifax county previous to his residence and ownership of land in Parrick county.
    Several years ago Dr GC Waldrep posted information on Enoch and his extended family on Rootsweb. Feel free to contact me using the email address provided.

    • Vince said:
      6 May 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks for taking an interest in Out of the Box. We appreciate the additional information.

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