For 72 Years, Kentucky Landowners at Camp Breckinridge Have Sought Justice From U.S. Government. Why Stop Now?
Every third Friday of every month in a courthouse room in Morganfield, KY., the Breckinridge Land Committee meets. The group, which at one point included 1,000 heirs named in a class action suit against the federal government, traces its origins back 72 years, when their family farms were taken from them.
Sometimes, only a few of the remaining land heirs show up. It’s getting harder and harder, since the original heirs are now in their 80s and 90s. At the March 2014 meeting, the committee secretary, Jeanne Cleveland, a third-generation heir and busy librarian in the Henderson County School District, forgot the courthouse keys, so the group found its way to a local restaurant and convened there instead while eating catfish fry and drinking coffee and pop.
“People say we’re wasting our time, but I don’t buy that,’’ said Ruby Higginson, 87, who reinvigorated the Breckinridge Land Committee effort in 1978, vowing to try and achieve justice for her father, who lost 800 acres to the U.S. government, and her brothers and cousins, who continued the legal fight – to no avail -- through the 1950s and 60s.
In 1942, in the months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 740 farm owners in three western Kentucky counties were told to get off their land. The U.S. government, seeking to build a training camp for World War II soldiers, moved to “buy” 36,000 acres, but really, it was no fair sale.
The landowners had little time to react.In some cases, they had less than 30 days to clear out, move farm equipment, find new homes, sell off the cows and horses, find other work, since they not only lost their land, they lost their jobs, their way of life.
It was a horror-movie come to life, an almost incomprehensible and life-altering disruption and sacrifice. But despite their bitterness, anger, disbelief, confusion and grief, what kind of patriotism would they be showing to stare down their government in a time of war? Besides, they were told that once the war was won, they could buy their farms.
They had a month to move off their land, for which they were paid about $86 an acre, with no real chance to negotiate, especially for the mineral rights that everyone knew were worth millions. Geological studies had long shown that in addition to being topped with some of the most fertile soil in the America, these 36,000 acres contained coal, gas and oil deposits that wound up producing millions and millions of dollars in profits for the likes of the Peabody Coal Company, which bought the mineral rights via the Tennessee Valley Authority. The story of how the land was surplussed, and how the farmers never had a chance to bid back for their farms, is the crux of a long, serpentine legal matter that stymied the land heirs for decades.
What was set in motion from the moment Pearl Harbor was attacked is an ongoing fight by the Camp Breckinridge Land Heirs who, for 72 years, have sought to be recognized – and compensated – for the theft of their land and mineral rights. At one miraculous point in 2006, a federal judge named Susan Braden sanely ruled that the heirs were due $32 million, but that did not stand up. The heirs have taken all the twists, all the turns, in stride, even as they continue to live in a world re-ordered by the taking of their land 72 years ago.
“He loved that farm,’’ Mildred Watson told me about how her father handled the government agents who came their farm in 1942. This was in 2007, when I called her to talk about her lifelong pursuit of justice on behalf of the farmers. At that time, the Braden ruling was being appealed.
Watson was sanguine enough to know that the ruling would likely not be the final word and was neither bitter nor joyous. After working decades to bring justice to her family’s, a steely resignation infused her sense of resolve, no different from the other heirs who have long been conditioned to stay the course, no matter how badly defeated or out of options they seem.
But Mildred Watson became another Breckinridge Land Committee heir to never see justice in her lifetime. She died in 2012, just at the Breckinridge Land Committee was “celebrating” its 70th year in operation.
But Watson’s testimony is not lost, nor is the memory of what her father lost.
“He used to say ‘I’ll never have to move. I own my own farm while I am here but this land is not my land, it’s God’s.’ That’s what he’d say. So it broke his heart when they came and told us we had to move. What they told us they did not put down on paper, that we had to move and they said one day we would have the chance to buy it back, but this just all broke his heart. I remember he walked to the backfield and he walked and walked the yard. His whole life went up in smoke.’’
They have met nearly continuously in the name of their people, and their land.
They have had a federal judge finally rule in 2006 that they were due $32 million in compensation, only to have an appeals court overturn the decision.
They have seen their Louisville and Washington D.C. law firms worked hundreds of pro bono hours to find some avenue for restitution.
They have seen former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor assigned the role of mediator in 2008, only to have the process fall apart.
Still, they say: If the federal government’s tactic is to wait until every lastone of the heir dies out, it’s not going to work. They will carry on. There are new generations that know what happened, how the government not only did not sell them back their land, but sold it off in big chunks while they separately sold off the gas, oil and coal rights.
Today, when these heirs drive through those rolling hills of Webster, Union and Henderson counties, see how their family farms are now riddled with oil derricks, natural gas wells and coal shafts: Energy supplies that have delivered hundreds of millions in profits for mine companies like Peabody Coal Company. No wonder they won’t give up.
Every third Friday, the stalwart group of land heirs holds its meeting. These people were all children or teenagers when the government agents came to nail notices on their front doors. Or, in the case of some of these survivors, they were U.S. Army soldiers, off fighting the war in France and Germany as their own families back in Kentucky were being forced to give up their treasured land.
“I came home and got off the bus and didn’t even know where to go,’’ said one man whose family had moved to a rental home in another town.
Today, as it has been for about 40 years, the Breckinridge Land Committee is chaired Higginson. For decades, Ruby has made the trip to Morganfield for the monthly meeting, even when she was living two hours away in Louisville. She now lives in a tidy townhouse in Evansville, IN., about an hour north, but still, every month, she calls the Louisville attorney’s office that performed millions of dollars in pro-bono work on behalf of the Breckinridge Land Heirs.
There hasn’t been anything to report since the 2009, when the U.S. Court of Claims ruled against the 1,000 heirs in the class action suit. Still, they meet. Every month Ruby asks the group’s lawyer for an update. The lawyers mail a letter, saying nothing new can be reported. Ruby reads the letter into the record. Someone votes and seconds the motion to enter the letter into the record. They mean business, even if they have no idea how justice will ever come.
The attorneys from Louisville write to say nothing is new
"There is no further appeal from this court," said Stephen Pitt, the Louisville attorney who represents the plaintiffs.
The only avenue now is an act of Congress, since the loss on appeal undermined the 206 ruling by Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden in Washington, D.C., who ruled that the land heirs were due $32 million. But even if Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell are sympathetic to the Breckinridge heirs, there is nothing about this Congress that would welcome taking up the 72-year case. Slipping a $32 million grant for the land heirs into any Congressional bill in the current state of Congress is too much to hope for.
Still, the land committee meets. Every third Friday of every month, they meet at the courthouse.
The work of gaining justice for the Camp Breckinridge landowners has fallen to a third generation. Jeanne Cleveland’s mother, her aunts and uncles are all in their 80s and 90s. She’s a busy librarian in the Henderson County school district, but finds herself unable to eschew the heavy burden of trying to find justice for her people.
On the 70th anniversary gathering of the Breckinridge Land Committee back in August 2012, Cleveland worked hard to commemorate the effort, along with taking over secretarial duties of the group that was performed by Mildred Watson, who passed away.
“These honest hardworking patriotic farmers, many of whose farms were passed down through generations, and sent their sons to fight in the war, never dreamed their beloved country, would cheat them of their heritage,’’ Cleveland wrote in to the Courier-Press in Evanston on the 70th anniversary of the Breckinridge Land Committee’s formation.
“They did what their government asked of them with the belief that they would return to farming their homesteads when the war was over.
“If the plan … is (as some have suggested) to ‘continue to stall until the surviving heirs who lived through the land seizure and relocation have died,’ then our government officials should rethink their plan.
“Their historical memories will live on. Generations of heirs are waiting to take up the fight for their ancestors. We will not die with these surviving heirs as they hope.
“The government took the land from the Native Americans and sent them to reservations. Japanese Americans moved to relocation centers have found reparation through the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act.
“Why were these Breckinridge Americans left to fend for themselves after doing everything within their power to help the country win the war?”
The question is unanswered by a government that, over the years, has had the means to overlook what it did. But the heirs of that land in Webster, Morgan and Henderson counties, they won’t forget. They continue to persevere in ways that are equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking.
“I’ve been saying this since 1978, when I started this part of the campaign on behalf of our land: When I die, they’re not going to bury me. Every third Friday of the month they’re going to wheel me into the meeting. They’re going to prop me up and my mouth will be working.’’
She laughs as she says this. She’s been saying this for so many years, it’s become a mantra. At this point, however, with the struggle to win recognition for the loss of her family farm, for the losses of all those 36,000 acres, Higginson can not be moved off what she knows is the truth. It makes the fight easy in that there is absolutely no chance she, or her fellow land heirs, are wrong.
“We’re not asking for a handout. We’re not asking for anything other than what was promised us. We were told we could buy our farms back for the price paid less damages. We were farmers and happy to be farmers. Money can not replace that.’’
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.