Under Alabama real estate law, anyone who owns interest “in a plot of land could sue the other landowners to force a sale.” In this case, James E. Deshler II purchased 1/15 of the Robinson family land, which granted him the legal right to try and acquire the entire plot.
Michael Robinson didn’t even know that his family owned the land until Deshler initiated the lawsuit. Robinson’s grandfather Joe Ely had passed down the 127 acres to his family members via an inheritance after he died.
Robinson was shocked, saying “I could not believe that someone we didn’t know now owned a portion of our family’s land.” Robinson, an advisor to corporations and nonprofits, knew it would be up to him to ensure that his family’s legacy was not lost.
“I didn’t want three or four generations from now for some member of the family to say, ‘Didn’t we have over 100 acres of land?’” said Robinson. “I didn’t want someone to say, ‘That generation didn’t fight to keep the land in the family.’ So we adopted this motto of: Not on our watch.”
Robinson convened a “land retention committee” consisting of more than 40 relatives, including his aunts, cousins, siblings. Because of the large number of interested parties, the lawsuit moved at a slower pace than usual.
“It was like herding cats for a while,” he said. Because if a family member died in the midst of the legal challenge, that land was inherited by their children. Then, the court was faced with the task of notifying everyone once again.
“But in the end, the lawsuit ended up being a galvanizing call for us,” Robinson continued.
And it was worth it. This year, the judge finally “dismissed the case in the Ely’s favor in August of this year. They were also able to reclaim Deshler’s 1/15 interest of the property.”
A victory for the Robinson family has even broader implications, considering the Black community’s history of losing land and disenfranchisement.
“To me, it had even more meaning that people were enslaved on that land, and now we owned it, and we had the opportunity to change the narrative, the legacy, and the history on that land,” Robinson proudly stated.
“Reclaiming the land is about reclaiming our birthright,” Robinson added. “I never met my grandfather — he died in 1959 before I was even born.”
“But it was so important for me to honor his legacy and the intent when he purchased that land. He could only dream or imagine where we are as people of color today. And I wanted to take the blood, sweat, and tears that went into that land and not let that die,” said Robinson.