Murdine Berry's Story, A Juneteenth Tribute

When I thought about how I wanted to celebrate Juneteenth this year, I decided I wanted to share the story of Murdine Berry. She was my aunt, my best friend, Baby Ruth to those that knew here well; and she brought awareness of Juneteenth to an entire community, creating a legacy that is still going strong.

As a life-long educator, Aunt Baby Ruth used a portion of her family’s land to build cabins that showed a depiction of life for African Americans in early America, both during slavery and after emancipation. She held Juneteenth celebrations for the entire community and opened the property for education and celebration. She did this freely, did not charge anyone and paid for everything. She believed that this is American history and that this story needed to be told, she was a trailblazer on this front, raising awareness since the early 1990s. She wanted to make sure that everyone knew about Juneteenth, that it wasn’t a black or white thing, but a humanity thing. These celebrations didn’t come easy though, the family land where the celebrations took place was almost taken and Aunt Baby Ruth fought for over a decade to prove rightful ownership.

On the first Juneteenth, there were people still working in servitude. They were emancipated on that day, starting a new segment of life with new possibilities. This was the case for Murdine’s great grandparents, James and Catherine Morney. In 1876, just 11 years after General Order No. 3, proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas, James and Catherine purchased about 120 acres of land outside of Dallas, Texas with several bales of cotton and their life savings. I can only imagine the significance owning that land had for them and how much they had gone through to get to that moment. They raised a family and farmed their land the rest of their lives. The land was their legacy, left to their children when they died in the 1930s. For many families, land was passed on in person, without wills or legal documents, as was the case for the Morneys. After their deaths, portions of the land were wrongfully taken amid questionable claims.

While this was happening, Murdine was growing up, getting a degree in education from Wiley College in Marshall and later went on to be one of the first Black graduates to earn a master’s degree from the University of North Texas. In the 1970’s Murdine started researching her family’s land records and learned that records pertaining to black ownership, particularly those involving freedmen, like her grandparents, were seldom kept or nonexistent. The family farm had been left to her by her Uncle Dee when he called her over to the property, stood with her outside, picked up the soil from the ground and put it in her hand. He said to her, “I’m going to pass the torch on to you. You must keep the land. Grandfather worked for it; his dying words were, ‘Take care of the farm.’”. After a string of attorneys and over a decade of fighting, Murdine won her court case, thanks in part to the handful of dirt given to her by Uncle Dee in what’s called “feoffment,” or “livery in deed,” which, by law, is the purest way to transfer a title. Aunt Murdine was able to save about 80 of the acres.

Today, the family land is some of the only freedmen’s land in Dallas County that is still in lineage. The entire family signed rights over to Murdine knowing she was willing to fight for the land and keep it from getting split apart. She was the woman for the job and the family stayed united for the common good. This isn’t something you hear of too often and we are fortunate to have this type of unity and love binding our family together. James and Catherine suffered as slaves to get the land, worked tirelessly as freedmen to keep the land and Aunt Baby Ruth fought endlessly to get the land back once and for all. She then used the land to help education the community. She believed that understanding where you came from is so important in the future of where you are going. The family still honors her legacy and holds annual Back to the Roots events on Juneteenth. The goal is to open the property for education tours to schools once Covid-19 restrictions have lifted.

I am thankful to have had such a community leader for an aunt, friend and beloved Baby Ruth. She is missed everyday but her legacy lives on.


Dallas News
Dallas Observer