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September 2, 2013

Descendants of slaves hold out against coal mining

DIRGIN, Texas — Ida Finley smiles wistfully, recalling how she used to cook for an entire East Texas community — nearly all descendants of slaves. The children would grab cornbread, greens and cookies from her kitchen while their parents grew vegetables in a tiny creekside village hidden among pine forests.

“It’s been so long,” she muses, gazing at old photos that dot the walls of her nursing home room some 30 miles from Dirgin.

Now, just weeks from her 102nd birthday, Finley faces the prospect of losing the land worked by her husband and his parents, slaves who toiled for a master.

For three years, Luminant Mining Co. has tried to purchase this 9.1-acre plot, which is currently owned by a bevy of relatives spread across the country. The company owns more than 75 percent of the parcel but can’t mine it because of a complex inheritance arrangement and the refusal of some family members to let go or accept Luminant’s offer.

Luminant says it has negotiated fairly with the owners, offering them more than the land’s appraised value, plus full compensation to Ida Finley and her granddaughter for homes they have on the land, which the company says they do not legally own. For the first time in its history, Luminant has sued some of the heirs, asking a court to equitably divide the land or force a settlement.

And some of the Finleys are gearing up for a fight.

“I don’t want to sell my family’s land. If I were to sell it, they would have to offer me a huge amount of money,” said Kay Moore, a Fairfield, Calif., woman who says Luminant offered her $3,000 for her piece of property, which the company says is 1/20 of the remainder.

“It belongs to me, and I’m not willing to part with that,” she added, recalling horseback riding trips and meals at Aunt Ida’s.

The company has acknowledged the family’s emotional ties to the land and said in a statement that it “strived for consistency from owner to owner to maintain our credibility. Most people found our offers to be more than fair.”

In many ways, the family’s story is about a way of life that disappeared long ago and a town 150 miles east of Dallas that has vanished into modernity.

Brushing the wispy white hairs from Ida Finley’s forehead is her granddaughter, Jacquelin Finley — a force behind the battle against Luminant and for preserving something from those long-gone days. Still living on the property in a decaying trailer with patched siding, Jacquelin remembers Dirgin before Luminant’s predecessor built the nearby reservoir. This is where Ida Finley, known to her family simply as Big Momma, raised her children and grandchildren and buried her husband.

In the early 1800s, Dirgin, like much of East Texas, consisted of large cotton plantations worked by slaves. In 1865, when the Civil War ended, Union soldiers entered Texas for the first time. The slaves were freed, and some masters sold or gave them land.

Ida Finley says “Old Man Martin,” the master, gave her husband’s parents more than 100 acres. Luminant says its records show the family bought the land from two Confederate Army veterans. Either way, sometime in the late 1880s, the Finleys came to own land in Dirgin. Living alongside them were other former slave families: the Menefees, Humphreys, Petersons, Barrs and Reeses among them.

When those Finleys — Dick and Puss — died, they left no will, and the parcel was evenly divided among their five children, including Ida’s husband, Adolphus.

Ida and Adolphus lived in a small white house with a front porch and a backyard dotted with fruit trees and a basketball hoop. After the crops were harvested, the children played baseball in the cleared fields. On Sundays, they went to church — either in a wagon or by foot.

“It was the best of times,” said Jacquelin Finley, who went to live with her grandparents in the early 1960s, when she was a baby.

In the 1970s, life changed.

Just as Jacquelin Finley was bused from Mayflower Elementary to a newly desegregated school in nearby Tatum, Luminant’s predecessor moved into the area. It had its eye on a multimillion dollar prize hidden deep beneath the green grass and pine trees: a low grade of coal known as lignite. To profit from it, the company had to uproot trees and build a power plant.

The company bought land. Ida Finley remembers the pressure applied on her husband, who finally sold 9.5 acres for $1,000 — the equivalent today of just over $4,300.

Feeling duped, he spent his final years sitting on his front porch gazing bitterly at the nearby reservoir that had flooded his land. Barely two years later, he died.

“That bothered him all those years until he died,” Jacquelin Finley said. “That’s my anger. Do I have a right to be angry? Yes. I want to see them go down.”

Life went on, though. The power plant was built. People moved away. The church congregations shrunk. Some of the Finleys remained, including Ida and Jacquelin. The crops were gone, but Ida’s little white house bustled.

Then, about three years ago, Luminant came knocking. The company needed to expand the mine to meet Texas’ growing energy demands.

The company said that because Ida’s husband died without a will, their children owned the land, and they had sold it to Luminant.

Under Texas law, when a landowner dies without a will, a surviving spouse receives the right to live on part of the land, but ownership passes to blood relatives, usually children.

Ida Finley, Luminant said, owned only the house, its porch now hanging forlornly near overgrown weeds, the steps broken and rotting. The quaint siding is broken and cracked. Looters scattered pictures, stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments, letters, shoes and clothing across the dusty floor, making off with more valuable items, like a refrigerator. Luminant says it offered Ida money for the home, but she declined.

Jacquelin Finley said Sunday that initially the company only offered her a new trailer but in recent days, through her mother, also offered an acre of land. Luminant denies that account, saying she only owns the trailer she lives in and that the company offered her a new trailer and an acre elsewhere toward the beginning of the negotiations. Either way, Jacquelin has declined to accept it, and doesn’t want to move. And for now Luminant can’t force her.

Looking recently at the dirt patch and pile of rubble that remains of the Methodist church she attended as a child, Jacquelin said Luminant would have to give her at least $1 million to leave — enough, she estimates, to fix her grandmother’s house and care for her there.

“It’s like I’m going against the world, and they’re the world because they own everything,” she said.

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