A black private-equity firm founder has sued one America's largest oil firms for $900million for allegedly depriving him and his family of the riches from oil-soaked land in Texas, that was bought by his ancestors who were freed slaves.
Kneeland Youngblood, 67, lodged the fierce lawsuit against multinational oil company ConocoPhillips over the disputed ranch land, which is 60 miles southeast of San Antonio in Karnes County.
He is fighting on behalf of his enslaved great-great-grandfather's descendants for royalty payouts - against a white family who claim they own all the land - which could be worth millions of dollars.
Princeton-grad Youngblood is co-founder of private equity firm Pharos Capital Group which manages $1.5 billion - and he is battling over a 147.5 acre tract of land in the Eagle Ford shale.
It is one of the most productive oil regions in the US - and ConocoPhillips ignored the Youngblood claim to the land and instead sided with another family, the Korths, the lawsuit claims.
Kneeland Youngblood, 67, lodged the fierce lawsuit against multinational oil company ConocoPhillips over the disputed ranch land, which is 60 miles southeast of San Antonio in Karnes County
Kneeland Youngblood (right) has started the legal battle to help some of the 200 black ancestors of his great-great-grandfather, who claim they have rights to oil-rich land in Texas
ConocoPhillips signed with the Korth family so that they could streamline oil royalty payments, cutting Youngblood out of the equation completely, they claim.
The land dispute is seven decades old - and the story begins in the period after the Civil War. Now, both sides are fighting for their legacy on the land - with one attempting to hold on to the investment of generations, and another seeking justice over what went missing during the Jim Crow days.
Kneeland Youngblood's great-great-grandfather, Louis Eckford, acquired the land in Karnes County in 1889 after he and his wife were freed from slavery following the war.
Ryan M. Lance, the CEO of ConocoPhillips
When he died in 1896, half passed on to his wife, Eliza, and the other half to their nine children.
After Eliza died, Fritz Korth, a white, well-known money lender on a nearby ranch, acquired her interest in the property as repayment for a $300 loan Eliza had taken from him. The loan was secured by a deed of trust on the land.
The descendants of Korth also claim he bought her children's shares too.
In 1939, Fritz Korth paid $735.50 for it after none of Eliza's children claimed the land after her death. The 147.5-acre tract therefore passed into the control of the Korths.
As a result, some 200 descendants of the Eckfords, including Youngblood, have not profited from the land. The Korth family, however, have prospered since they took over - and today, they run a cattle operation on the ranch.
The boundaries of the 147.5 acre tract of land in the Eagle Ford shale, which is 60 miles southeast of San Antonio in Karnes County, Texas, that was once owned by former slave Louis Eckford. After his death, the ownership has become muddled
Chico Korth (pictured) is Fritz Korth's great-grandson and a managing director at investment firm Recurring Capital Partners. He argues that the land belongs to his family, who took over in the 1940s
The Eckford descendants have argued that they did not start this dispute - it was the oil companies and their fervent interest in the land. And it was the Korths who stopped recognizing their co-ownership, even though it was on record
It wasn't until 2008 that the Korths were approached by oil companies who wanted to start drilling for crude oil. ConocoPhillips acquired leases with the Korths and signed leases with some of the Eckford heirs.
The Korth family then argued in court they owned the tract outright. ConocoPhillips sided with them, and some of the Eckford heirs settled with the Korths.
Youngblood's family first heard about the plot of land in 2011, when ConocoPhillips informed family members they co-owned it. Ever since, Youngblood, a former ER doctor, has been trying to formally establish their shared ownership rights.
This summer, a Texas jury confirmed that the Youngblood's family did indeed co-own the oil-rich land. It gave Youngblood the justification and impetus to sue the oil company for the royalty payouts the black family have missed out on.
Youngblood, who sits on President Biden's Intelligence Advisory Board, told the WSJ: 'If it goes to a verdict, I think we can get a lot more. This is about legacy.
Kneeland Youngblood (right) is now fighting on behalf of his enslaved great-great-grandfather's descendants for royalty payouts - against a white family who claim they own all the land - which could be worth millions of dollars
'We're not here to relitigate the Civil War. Regardless of the judgment, it's not going to change my life. But for many of my relatives, it could be transformative.'
The Eckford descendants have argued that they did not start this dispute - it was the oil companies and their fervent interest in the land that brought the ownership contention to light. And it was the Korths who stopped recognizing their co-ownership, even though it was on record.
Winning the lawsuit would mean honoring his ancestor's achievements after being freed from slavery, Youngblood says, especially since many black families have missed out on reaping benefits from Texan land after being dispossessed in the last century.
Chico Korth, Fritz Korth's great-grandson and a managing director at investment firm Recurring Capital Partners, told the WSJ: 'It seems very straightforward that if you pay taxes, and you're operating the land and you have a deed that stipulates that you are the owner of the land, then it's yours.'
The lawsuit against ConocoPhillips seeks to give the family $900 million in damages, including unpaid royalties and punitive damages. ConocoPhillips denied wrongdoing in court filings.