Descendant of Freed Slaves Launches High-Stakes $900 Million Battle Against ConocoPhillips Over Oil-Rich Land

Black magnate Kneeland Youngblood alleges his family was deprived of the riches from oil-soaked land and is suing ConocoPhillips.

(Image: Pexels)

Youngblood, a successful financier and the co-founder of private equity firm Pharos Capital Group, is embroiled in a legal battle with oil giant ConocoPhillips. Youngblood claims that his family, descendants of former slaves, were deprived of their rightful share of wealth from oil-rich land in South Texas that their ancestors purchased. The lawsuit, seeking more than $900 million in damages, touches upon historical injustices and property rights, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Who is Kneeland Youngblood?

Youngblood grew up in a humble household, hailing from the suburbs of Houston. Following his time at Princeton University, he embarked on a career in medicine as an emergency room doctor. In 1998, he co-founded Pharos, an investment firm with a primary focus on healthcare companies. Today, Pharos manages approximately $1.1 billion in assets.

The Dispute

The roots of this legal dispute trace back to the years following the Civil War when Youngblood’s ancestors, the Eckfords, acquired land after their emancipation from slavery. Over time, the land ownership became muddled, and the rightful heirs’ claims were obscured.

Louis Eckford was a formerly slave and Youngblood’s great-great-grandfather. He bought the land in Karnes County in the 1880s. Half of it passed on to his wife, Eliza, and the other half to their nine children when Eckford died in 1896, according to the Texas Tribune.

Following Eliza’s passing, Fritz Korth, the head of the ranching family, obtained her ownership stake in the property. This acquisition served as repayment for a $300 loan that Eliza had borrowed from him. Korth’s descendants maintain that he also purchased her children’s portion, a contention contested by the Eckford family.

ConocoPhillips has denied any wrongdoing.

The focal point of the dispute lies in the Eagle Ford shale, a highly productive oil region. Youngblood and his family claim that ConocoPhillips disregarded their rightful claims to the property and instead collaborated with another family, the Korths, to expedite drilling and streamline royalty payments.

The Korths are additionally named as defendants in Youngblood’s legal action against ConocoPhillips and West 17th Resources, a mineral rights company.

This summer, a Texas jury said they co-owned the disputed land, which the Korths, who are white, have ranched and hunted on since around World War II. A final judgment was entered in this case in November, and the lawsuit against ConocoPhillips filed by Youngblood and his relatives is now expected to move forward in a separate court, a family lawyer said. 

Challenges and Legal Hurdles

Legal experts in the energy sector suggest that the lawsuit faces significant challenges. The size of the tract of land in question, at 147.5 acres, makes the requested $900 million in damages seem excessive, some legal experts say.

But if Youngblood prevails it could open the door up for the broader issue of land dispossession faced by Black communities during the Jim Crow era, a legacy that continues to impact property ownership disparities today.

Dallas-based investor Youngblood says he is righting a family wrong, which he says was perpetuated by one of the country’s largest oil companies. So he and his family are suing. And he wants $900 million,

“If it goes to a verdict, I think we can get a lot more,” Youngblood told the WSJ of the jury trial.

Even if he loses, Youngblood, 67 years old, says it will have been worth the effort because the case has brought his family closer as they try to honor their forebears’ achievement after being freed from slavery.

“This is about legacy,” he said.

Black Land Lost

Between 1910 and the end of the 20th century, Black farm operators nationally lost more than 90 percent of their land, according to Thomas Wilson Mitchell, a professor at Boston College Law School. In 2012, whites managed more than 86 percent of farms in Texas, according to Texas A&M’s Natural Resources Institute, while Blacks managed about 3 percent.

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