Car Dealer Acquired Black Farmers' Land by Foreclosing on Loans

Associated Press Writer

LEXINGTON, Miss. (AP) - Down in the Delta, folks still talk about Norman Weathersby, a white Chevrolet dealer who acquired hundreds of acres of black-owned land in the 1950s and '60s in exchange for used pickup trucks and farm equipment.

''Old Norman was something else,'' said Rhodolphis Hayes with a shake of his head.

The 71-year-old farmer and other Holmes County residents recall the days when black farmers had to finance trucks and equipment from Weathersby because, they said, the local banks refused to do business with blacks.

Weathersby, they said, required that they put up their entire farms as collateral for the loans, and when a cash-poor farmer missed a payment, Weathersby would foreclose and take the farm.

The Associated Press documented eight cases in which Weathersby acquired land this way.

County land records show that Henry and Mary Friend put up 63 acres in 1958 for a $1,598 loan. The land went to Weathersby a few months later. Ed and Pattie Blissett lost their 50-acre farm in 1958 after they missed a payment on a 1956 loan from Weathersby for $1,785. The final note of $385 had been due in 1960.

It was easy for Holmes County blacks to default on their loans.

For one thing, several area residents said, the equipment and trucks blacks needed to run their farms often broke down shortly after they bought them from Weathersby.

''He'd fix it up so it could run between Lexington and Tchula (a 20-minute drive). Then it would die on you,'' said Griffin McLaurin Jr., 60, recalling how his father lost the family's 100-acre farm in 1966 because of a $4,000 loan.

''When the man called in for the money, he didn't have it,'' McLaurin said, and Weathersby forclosed. The son later bought back 7 1/2 acres of the land from Weathersby - for $4,253.15, records show.

Weathersby's close friend, William E. Strider, ran the local Farmers Home Administration - the credit lifeline for many Southern farmers. Hayes, McLaurin and others in Holmes County said Strider, now dead, was often slow in releasing farm operating loans to blacks.

''You have to do your land breaking, your fertilizing and your seeds, but if you don't get the money on time, you can't farm,'' Hayes said.

In the late 1950s, Erma Russell, now 81, had business at the FmHA office in Lexington. She was about to knock on Strider's door, she said, when she heard Weathersby and Strider talking.

''They said how they were going to get the colored folk off their land through foreclosures,'' she recalled. ''They were suggesting ways to have us 'volunteer' to surrender our land. All I could do was pray they wouldn't take it.''

The Russells paid up their loans and kept their 65-acre farm. ''It wasn't easy to get this.'' She glanced out her window to a spread of ebony soil. ''We had to struggle. ... We had to fight to get this, and we won.''

When he died in 1973, Weathersby left his family about 700 acres blacks had once owned, according to his estate papers, deeds and court papers.

Weathersby's son, John, 62, who now runs the dealership in Indianola, said he had little direct knowledge about his father's business deals and car loans. However, he said he was sure his father never would have sold defective vehicles and that he always treated people fairly.

''He helped people no matter what race,'' he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press Writers Shelia Hardwell Byrd and Ron Harrist contributed to this report.


2006 Associated Press