Black family fights Enron for profits from ‘stolen land’
(FinalCall.com)–When a Black family returns to federal bankruptcy court this month, seeking financial compensation for what it says was land stolen in a web of racism, corruption and murder, more than money will be at stake.
The descendents of Hamp Williams, a Civil War survivor, are asking that bankrupt Texas energy giant Enron compensate them for natural gas and oil revenues earned from disputed property in East Texas. Victory would represent a measure of justice, a bit of respect and vindication for an ex-slave, the family says.
The Hudnall/Guthrie lawsuit, filed by the great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of Hamp Williams, has been a long time coming, say family members. Great granddaughter Doris Hudnall, her siblings George and Melvin Hudnall, and her children, Angela and Michael Guthrie, are scheduled to return to court in New York on May 15 as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The family says its struggle, however, goes back to at least 1918, when Hamp Williams’ son was shot to death by a White sheriff. Hamp Williams and his family fled for their lives. They resettled in another part of Texas. Years later, Ms. Hudnall’s father migrated to California where some of her family live today. Ms. Hudnall lives in Las Vegas, Nev., with her daughter Angela. Her son Michael resides in Chicago.
The murder of Evans Williams, family members insist, was tied to efforts to steal land Hamp Williams scraped money together to buy for his children and their offspring. Over the years, unscrupulous people obtained the land illegally and it landed among Enron’s holdings, they say.
According to the family: Hamp Williams settled in the area in the late 1870s and earned money working for a White landowner, but dreamed of land that would be his. Hamp Williams started buying land in and around Carthage, Tex., in the late 1890s. He farmed, purchased and bred livestock and cut timber for roofing shingles and railroad ties. Much of his business was conducted in Shreveport, La., however, because he was a Black man and not permitted to sell goods inside his own county, say his descendants.
With the murder of his son, Evans, Hamp Williams loaded his wife and five children into a wagon and fled Panola County, Texas. He moved to Texarkana, Texas, and never returned to Panola County. In 1930, he died of what was probably pneumonia.
But Hamp Williams had amassed upwards of 2,500 acres of oil, natural gas, mineral and timber-rich property, says the family. Though illiterate, he also placed at least 1,200 acres of the property in a living trust, declaring his children and their offspring the rightful heirs to his estate, they say.
Ms. Hudnall, 61, recalls how her father, Douglass Hudnall Jr., would take his children on trips from California to Texas. He would point out property, telling the story of how the land was stolen, she says. When his father, Douglass Hudnall Sr., who had turned 21, and his uncles went to the Commercial National Bank in Carthage, they were laughed at, according to family lore.
Bank employees showed Hamp Williams’ boys money in the trust he had set up, says Ms. Hudnall. “There were so many zeros, my father said, that they couldn’t count how much money there was. And then my father said, his father and uncles were told, ‘Now what do we look like giving you niggers all this money? Now get out of here and don’t come back here no more,’ ” she says.
Melvin Hudnall, 52, said as he and his brothers began to research what Douglass Hudnall Jr. had told them, “it became more intriguing to us and we vowed to look into the matter, because we saw the pain in our father’s face to struggle all of these years in hardship for his family knowing in his heart that his father told him the truth.”
When his brother George went into Panola to investigate the history, he discovered tax records and land surveys that suggested what their father believed was indeed true.
Douglass Hudnall Jr. died in Feb. 2000, pleading with the family to stay together and stay the course.
“It’s our generation that God has chosen to bring this curse to an end,” said Ms. Hudnall.
The family says their research shows that Hamp Williams placed some assets in several trust accounts between Carthage, Texas, and Shreveport, La., possibly amounting to millions of dollars, and secured at least 1,200 acres of land from Panola in a trust known as “Fee Simple” title.
“Fee Simple includes the land in its entirety, surface and below. All of the oil and any resources were also tied to that trust,” Melvin Hudnall explains.
Before Hamp Williams’ death, lumber and oil companies maneuvered themselves onto his properties, say his descendents. Oil, natural gas, minerals and timber on his property were used for commercial ventures. Executors of the trusts, who were White lawyers, were charged with overseeing payments. Their job was to maintain the trust, until Hamp Williams’ surviving children and descendents reached legal age, says the family.
But that didn’t happen, and some keepers of the trust enriched themselves, were swindled, or killed in disputes with other Whites over the land, the family alleges.
In time, an oil and gas production company called ERSO Inc. was placed on the land, say family members. According to the family, Duke Energy now stands in its place. ERSO, owned by the Glassell family from Louisiana, spun off Enron and Enron subsidiaries, which controlled and profited from stolen Hamp Williams land, say his descendants.
“A Bill of Sale Conveyance” acquired by The Final Call for the development of Enron Oil and Gas Carthage Inc. dated March 31, 1995, shows well-drilling agreements with then-Enron Vice President Andrew N. Hoyle “at a measured depth of 9,700 feet on the Schlumberger Electrical Log in the Carthage Unit Well No. 27, M.S. Potts Survey, Panola County, Texas.”
M.S. Potts, or the Mary S. Potts Survey, is also known as land abstract 922, one of the known parcels of land originally owned by Hamp Williams, according to the Hudnall/Guthrie lawsuit.
According to the Railroad Commission Office in Austin, Tex., abstract 922, known as the “discovery well,” is said to have anywhere from 40-60 active oil wells on the property. Remaining parcels of land, roughly 13, alleged to belong to Mr. Williams also possess wells on them, say his descendants.
“Enron and/or affiliates unlawfully, through false pretenses and without permission or consent from the Plaintiffs, the rightful and lawful owners, caused to be placed several assignments, lease agreements, and royalty leases for the minerals on the subject property; actions performed with oppression, fraud, malice and with reckless indifference to the rights of the Plaintiffs,” says the suit filed by the family.
Last April, the Hudnall/Guthrie family successfully attached themselves to bankruptcy proceedings scheduled for June and were recognized as creditors as Enron imploded. The company crumpled under the weight of sham business deals, bogus profit statements and dubious accounting methods.
Under bankruptcy laws, Enron is allowed to restructure and hold a large cash reserve. Its cash reserve reportedly stands at $20 billion, not counting property and other assets Enron has sold to help pay its creditors.
The family’s initial request was for $50 billion compensatory and punitive damages. The next phase of proceedings is to determine just how much compensation as preferred creditors the descendants might be entitled to.
Enron tried to block the proceedings and filed several motions to dismiss the family’s request, saying the Hudnall/Guthrie family had not proven it was owed money.
“The case has no merit, especially as a preferred creditor,” replied Melanie Gray, Enron’s lead attorney in the suit. “This has taken way too much time. We don’t believe that there is any liability, so we’ve objected to protect the legitimate creditors of the Enron case.”
Bankruptcy court Judge Arthur Gonzales however, ruled last July that the family had a right to attach themselves as preferred creditors, prioritizing their claims to be heard. Enron lawyers have filed additional motions recognizing the status but asking that the family not be financially compensated.
Doris Hudnall and Angela Guthrie say they lost their homes while jumping costly legal hurdles and working with attorneys who they say had been bought off or intimidated by Enron. With over $40,000 spent in legal fees, trips, research and financial losses, the family established a defense fund in hopes of buttressing the massive financial drain.
They are not, however, willing to give up.
“The spirit Hamp Williams has been given a face and voice through our efforts. God is with us,” says Doris Hudnall, undaunted in her quest for family justice.