KAI WRIGHT: Hey everybody. Election season has officially begun -- and that means we are back! And this season, we’re gonna really lean into one part of our mission: to explain the roots of the deepest, oldest debates in American politics and society. Because you know, there was this moment in middle school that’s always stuck in my head. I had a teacher and he was lecturing about the Civil War, and he was kind of going on about it being a war over states rights. Now, I was way too young to really know the history, but still, as I listened to him, I felt like -- this is wrong. Somehow black people were being erased in this, and that mattered. Because how we tell the story of the past, absolutely shapes what we think about the future.That’s the idea that inspires this whole season. I’m Kai Wright, and welcome back to The United States of Anxiety -- a show about the unfinished business of our history, and its grip on our future.
KAI: I met a new friend last fall.
KAI: Hey, Vernita.
VERNITA BLOCKER: Hey, how are you?
KAI: I’m good...
KAI: A woman named Vernita Blocker. And the thing about Vernita is she grew up country.
VERNITA: And so I don't know if you've ever heard of this, but you can make snow cream -- snow ice cream.
KAI: And she told me all these rustic stories about stuff she did as a kid in Mississippi.
VERNITA: Now how they did it, don't ask me. I was a little girl, but I remember it tasted good. [laughs]
KAI: you could not pay me to eat some ice cream made from snow that fell from the sky any place I have ever lived.
VERNITA: Kai, you would’ve eaten this snow ice cream! It was good [laughs]
KAI: I mean, my mom’s pretty country herself, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the South -- so I can relate a little. But Vernita’s childhood? In the Mississippi Delta? This is another level for me.She was raised by her grandparents, who were farmers.
VERNITA: Mostly cotton. Most of the time they planted cotton. And that’s what they grew on the land.
KAI: That was the cash crop -- which didn’t make much cash. So the rest kept them fed.
VERNITA: My grandmother always had a large garden. And she also had hogs, and she had chickens as well. They were very resourceful in using everything that was on the land. They would take like, the ham of the hog and they would salt it down. And that ham wasn't put in the refrigerator. That ham was put in a wooden box and it was preserved through this real coarse salt process. And so that would be fresh meat for us to eat, you know, for several months.
KAI: And listen, this is the 1960s in rural Mississippi and, I gotta assume life was not easy for black folks there. But Vernita gives me nothing but rosey memories. She even laughs about the time their house caught on fire.
VERNITA: We're not sure how it caught.
KAI: But it burned all the way to the ground. So they bought an old house from a neighbor - like, a whole house -- moved the whole thing to their farm, and then renovated it themselves.
VERNITA: And that, you guys, was when we got a bathroom. So until the house burned we used an outhouse. Oh, y'all got me talking too much. My family gonna have a fit. They gonna say, you said all that?! Y'all bringing out too much information!
KAI: So here’s the deal. Vernita's family - and the land they raised her on - tell a piece of the Mississippi Delta’s story that I've never really heard before. I mean, we know the Mississippi Delta, right? It’s the birthplace of the blues -- the place where black Americans did our usual thing: turning pain into poetry. It’s where the legendary Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil, at a highway junction about 20 minutes from Vernita’s childhood farm.
[Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” plays]
KAI: It’s where Muddy Waters sat on his front porch and helped create the sound that would become Rock n Roll.
[“Got My Mojo Working” plays]
KAI: And by the time Vernita was a little girl, it’s where Fannie Lou Hamer was organizing Freedom Summer, risking her life to try -- failingly -- to bring multi-racial democracy into the state of Mississippi.
FANNIE LOU HAMER: It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us travelled...
KAI: There is a rich...but hard and grim history of black life in the Delta. Vernita, though, she felt quite safe and secure -- because she was sheltered on that farm, in her grandparents’ care.
VERNITA: For me it was just a way of life. I never thought I was poor until much later in life, I look back on it, I was like, “We were really poor. We really didn’t have much.” Because I felt like we didn’t want for anything. We had clothing. We had shelter. We had transportation. I don’t feel like I was deprived as a child.
KAI: The land itself belonged to her grandmother: Lillie Lester. And Vernita describes Lillie as, I guess exactly the kinda bad ass she’d have to be, as a black woman owning her own land in Jim Crow’s Mississippi.
VERNITA: She was the type of person that was a go-getter. She was like a business person. She believed in taking care of business. She was very serious about that. So...
KAI: Lillie inherited the land from her own parents -- Vernita’s great grandparents. It was 40 acres, and Lillie taught her family to be fiercely proud of it.
KAI: For those of us who didn't grow up in a rural environment where land really meant something, what is the emotional attachment you think, both for your grandmother and yourself -- Why that was such a big deal that you guys had this land?
VERNITA: Ownership. You own your own land. That's something to be proud of. We were surrounded by people who did not own land. They lived on someone else's land. They lived in someone else's house. And it was just always drilled into me, as long as you have breath in your body to just hold onto the land. Don't ever sell it.
KAI: But you know, when I asked Vernita how her family got ownership of the land in the first place, she said this really unexpected thing.
VERNITA: the land came about when the government gave black families 40 acres and a mule, but as when as far as when it took place, I would like to know more about that.
KAI: 40 acres and a mule. You’ve surely heard this phrase, if nothing else as the name of Spike Lee’s production company. It’s an idea that began circulating right after the Civil War ended -- that freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule. But it is really incredibly unlikely that this is the source of Lillie’s land. Very few people received that promise, and even fewer actually got the land. So when Vernita told me that was her understanding, I got really curious. I went to Mississippi to learn where it came from. And I found a story about an old, fundamental fight in American politics -- one that remains at the center of the current political debate: We do not agree on who owns this country’s staggering wealth.
ELIZABETH WARREN: Those giant corporations like Chevron and Amazon who paid nothing in taxes? We can have them pay.
KAI: Who are its rightful owners?
BERNIE SANDERS: How does it happen that when the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 92% half a million people are sleeping out on the streets tonight?
KAI: Donald Trump has fostered a nostalgia for whites-only prosperity.
DONALD TRUMP: The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
KAI: But everybody on the political stage today -- left, right and center…
JOE BIDEN: Ordinary middle class Americans built America.
KAI: ...is asking, in some form, how we can most fairly distribute the incredible resources of the United States. That is a question that dates all the way back to the aftermath of the Civil War. And for at least one promising moment in those post-war years, it’s a question the country actually answered for itself. Vernita’s family stepped into that moment, and somehow, they held their ground where very few others could.
[Sounds of driving and talking]
KAI: The landscape of the Mississippi Delta is vast. Miles and miles of crop fields roll out to the horizon. The expanse is broken up only by thickets of trees that, here and there, mark off property lines. Long stretches of unpaved roads criss cross those fields -- on what seems like hard, unforgiving ground...
[Car bangs loudly over terrain]
ELBERT LESTER: Good gracious!
KAI: But actually, water lurks everywhere -- standing in swampy pools under those tree lines, seeping into ravines dug around the cotton fields. The Delta is fertile.
ELBERT: Somebody’s been coming down here.
KAI: Yeah, you see the tracks.
KAI: I start my trip here by going to see Vernita’s family land. Elbert Lester is my guide. He’s Vernita’s uncle, Lillie’s youngest child. And he’s basically a 94 year old teenager -- I mean, he’s just bouncing around these back roads and fields, like he’s looking for his next adventure. And half the time I was chasing behind him.
ELBERT: Mm hmm. This is it.
KAI: That’s it? Here?
ELBERT: This is it.
KAI: Do you mind if we get out?
[car turns off, climbs out, walking in leaves]
KAI: So what...you would come in down there right?
ELBERT: That’s right. That’s where you came in at. It’s a corner store in the middle of that road right there by that tree.
KAI: We’re looking at a long-empty, collapsing, A-frame.
ELBERT: That’s my mother’s and them house.
KAI: You can see the remnants of a wide veranda that was likely the building’s most proud gesture. It’s the house the family got after the fire -- when Vernita finally got her indoor bathroom. It’s surrounded by a thicket of trees, and beyond that acres and acres of fields.
KAI: And did they farm on this land?
ELBERT: My mother and them? Sure did. They sure did. Hold up. This is they land behind the house, back behind here…[unclear muttering as walking in leaves]
KAI: Vernita and everybody who grew up here on this land have left the state. So Elbert’s now the land’s caretaker; and he rents it out to a white guy to help keep the taxes paid. Elbert’s a lifelong farmer himself, and just like Vernita, there’s a mysticism to how he talks about land ownership.
ELBERT: My granddaddy told me...he said, buy you some land. I never did forget that. I never did forget that. I wondered about that. And I heard a fella tell me, he said you know what, he said if you move to New York, if you tell them folks there you got some land, they’ll recognize you. I don’t know why, but they will.
KAI: Elbert took the advice. He’s got 90 acres of his own, where he raised 13 children.
[Sounds of Elbert’s family gathering]
KAI: Hello. How you doing… this all family?... y’all got a lot of community around here… that’s a wonderful thing.
KAI: Elbert’s wife, Perlean, is 90 years old herself. The two of them have been married for more than 70 years. And you know, I got a sense of why land ownership has meant so much in this family as I listened to them talk about their life together.
PERLEAN LESTER: After he came out of service, that’s when I met him. At church.
KAI: She met Elbert while ushering at a military funeral -- this was just after World War 2. She was bored. So when she noticed this guy and his friends hanging around outside the church, she hit him up.
PERLEAN: We didn’t know ‘em. But...we was trying to get to know em though! [big laughs]
KAI: Elbert had just gotten out of the military. He’d been part of the first cohort of black men to serve in the Marines, and Perlean says he acted the part -- to this day, he is a man who walks with ample confidence.
ELBERT: I guess that’s the reason I got her. I guess that’s the reason.
KAI: These two are sitting in the front room of their farm house, literally surrounded by photos of kids and grandkids and great grandkids, posed in graduation gowns and military uniforms. There’s a black Jesus portrait, and the Obama-family photo I’ve seen on the walls of dozens of black homes around the South. The room is like a shrine to black family pride. It’s familiar. But I gotta say, listening to two 90-something year old black people giggle about being in love -- that’s new for me, probably for a lot of people. My grandfathers -- they died early. My grandmothers lived to their 90s, but their internal lives -- their indiscretions and guilty pleasures -- they didn’t share that kinda stuff with me. Stuff like the way Perlean was clearly excited by Elbert’s macho, youthful temper.
PERLEAN: Aw, he was mean and hateful then. He was hateful
KAI: This one here?
PERLEAN: Ooooh yes lord! He was real hateful. I mean, he didn’t bother nobody.
KAI: but if you got on his wrong side.
PERLEAN: Yes sir.
KAI: Elbert says he was just a product of the Marine Corps.
ELBERT: That Marine told me there ain’t no fairness in fighting ...
KAI: It taught him that winning is everything -- a lesson that I came realize has served him well as a black landowner in the Delta.
KAI: That’s all that matters.
ELBERT: That’s all that matters. If you push me in the corner, I come out fighting.
KAI: And this is another thing very few of us get to hear from our black elders: What it felt like to live in Jim Crow’s world. The emotional scars they accumulated while staying alive. The period Elbert and Perlean are reminiscing about, these are the years after World War 2. Elbert was actually one of hundreds of thousands of black service members returning to their communities full of pride -- a little too much pride for white folks. It was a precarious era for black people, full of countless little conflicts that could turn deadly. Like the time Elbert, his young son, and his father went into town and passed the white sheriff on the sidewalk. And when he and Perlean tell me this story, they repeat the dehumanizing language white people used to throw at them, so heads up…. It goes like this, the sheriff pushed Elbert’s son out of the way.
ELBERT: My boy was standing by me. He shoved my boy. “Get off this so and so street.”
KAI: The Marine in Elbert was ready to fight back. But his father grabbed him, just in time to prevent an irrevocable mistake.
ELBERT: Boooy! I didn’t sleep none that night. I rolled all night that night. If it hadn’t have been for my daddy, I prolly wouldn’t been living.
KAI: Because you would’ve…
ELBERT: If I’da got my hands on him!
PERLEAN: No you couldn’t put your hand on white people. They always was lying, they could tell a lie on you and send you to prison or kill you or do anything, but nothing to be done about it. Oh they gone find some kinda way to say, “Oh no, no, no. That nigger did this, that nigger did that.” Couldn’t never do nothing but, “Yes sir, no sir.” You couldn’t do nothing to em, couldn’t do nothing, you know, to stay out of trouble.
ELBERT: They was always right.
PERLEAN: They was right. You was always wrong.
KAI: Millions of of black families decided not to deal with that -- they packed up and left. But this family decided that rather than leave, rather than go North or wherever else, they would stay on their own land -- and use it as a shield against the wild, random power white people held. But where’d they get the land? Like I said, Elbert and Vernita know that Lillie inherited it. But they don’t know what came before that. So after visiting the land itself, I went into town to start looking for an answer at the county courthouse. And it was like the building itself wanted me to understand the world in which this family lived. Built in 1910, it’s a landmarked site now. It's a handsome, if intimidating structure...stately, with tall, white columns along the front, and a large inscription across the top: “Obedience to the law is liberty.”
KAI: Okay. Tax assessor maps. Property records.
KAI: But these days, black people are behind the desks inside.
TAX ASSESSOR: Hello sir, how are you?
KAI: I’m well, how are you?
TAX ASSESSOR: Good. Can I help you?
KAI: Yeah, so I am trying to look up some property records.
TAX ASSESSOR: Okay.
KAI: So the current deed is in the name of Lillie Lester…
TAX ASSESSOR: L-e-s-t-e-r?
KAI: The tax assessor finds Lillie’s deed and it confirms the family story—that Lillie got the land from her parents. Their names were Charlie and Addie Dobson, and they did in fact own 40 acres. When they died in the 1940s, they gave their land to Lillie and her sister. But anything before that? That’s not in the electronic records. So I go down the hall to the courthouse library.
CLERK: All those books on this wall?
CLERK: To right there. All those are deed books. And you just pull that book...
KAI: They’re these huge, musty, old books -- like something out of Harry Potter. The General Index of Land Deeds: Quitman County. Each one is like two feet high, six inches thick, worn leather binding… And basically, I gotta look for either Charlie or Addie Dobson’s name in each book, until I find the citation for their deed, and then I can go look up the deed itself -- to finally see where they got the land.
CLERK: And if you want a copy of the deed, we can make you a copy of that deed.
KAI: Okay! Well I got my work cut out… Thank you!
KAI: So I crack the first book -- book number 10. And I turn to the Ds.
KAI: Oh that -- it’s not in alphabetical order. Well that sucks…
KAI: They’re grouped by letter, just not in any particular order. So I gotta look through all of the Ds until I hit a Dobson.
KAI: Darby, Deninmen, Darnell, Dickey…
KAI: And eventually I start thinking...
KAI: Book six. [Thump]
KAI: Maybe he’s not in here... Maybe the family doesn’t know where Charlie got the land because...nobody knows, because it’s actually lost to history.
KAI: [pages turning] Okayyy. Running out of books here. [Thump]
KAI: And then…
KAI: I think I found it. I think this is it. Charlie Dobson. Now his name is misspelled...
KAI: And I can’t quite make out the words scrawled next to his name--the part that says who held the deed before Charlie….But it’s got the citation where to find the deed itself, so I go over to the wall of deed books.
KAI: And I turn to page 575.
KAI: [Page turning] Charlie Dobson. The Y&M VRR Company. The Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Company.
KAI: He bought it from the railroad company!
KAI: In 1904... Which...I guess that’s not what I expected? A small black farmer, just one generation removed from slavery, buying land from an interstate corporation? But there it is: 1904, Charlie Dobson signs a contract to pay an Illinois-based railroad company $320 over five years for 40 acres of land. I couldn’t wait to share this with Vernita.
VERNITA: Oh wow. All the time I’ve thought that the land was given to them. The fact that -- it’s very significant Kai, because in 1904 my great-grandparents purchased land. That’s very significant.
KAI: Because, honestly, it’s just not how we’re taught the history of that era. If we learn about everyday black people at all, they’re portrayed as poor sharecroppers, scratching out a life. Not as people buying land from large corporations. Which begs a couple questions: Who were Charlie and Addie Dobson? And how unique was this land deal they found? First, to set the record straight on the whole question of the post-Civil War land-giveaway, I talked to historian Eric Foner.
ERIC FONER: I’m the author of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.
KAI: And he’s one of the world’s leading historians on the era known as Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War.
FONER: 40 acres and a mule. That phrase reflects the fact that African Americans thought that with the end of slavery should come -- they didn't use the word “reparations,” but it would more like compensation for the labor they had done. That was their idea of economic freedom to go along with this sort of legal freedom of the abolition of slavery.
KAI: The phrase itself echoes an order issued by a Union Army general near the end of the war.
FONER: So it comes from Sherman's order in January, field order 15 in January, 1865. The Civil War is still on, although it’s pretty clear it’s coming toward an end.
KAI: And as General Sherman famously marches through Georgia, taking Confederate land, thousands of enslaved people flee to safety behind his lines. That becomes untenable -- Sherman is not equipped to support thousands of starving people. So he meets with a bunch of black community leaders, who tell him, listen, we just need land and we will take care of ourselves. General Sherman figures, great, problem solved. He issues an order saying, give each person 40 acres of all that land I just seized in South Carolina. And an estimated 40,000 newly freed people get what becomes known as “Sherman land.”
FONER: But then Andrew Johnson comes in after Lincoln's assassinated, a deep, deep racist who had no interest in what the rights of blacks were gonna be.
KAI: And Johnson takes it all away -- gives it back to the former slaveholders. More than that, he stops any real federal effort at land redistribution.
FONER: In the end, it didn’t happen. You might say the political revolution went forward, but the economic revolution stalled once slavery is abolished.
KAI: So, no 40 acres and a mule... BUT...now here’s Charlie and Addie, probably children of formerly enslaved people, making real estate deals with interstate corporations.
VERNITA: How was he able to purchase land? I’m curious as to -- you know, back then, how did even get that money to purchase land, in 1904?
KAI: Good question. To begin figuring out Charlie and Addie’s lives, I called up another historian. A guy named John Willis, who several years ago had the same kind of head scratching moment that I had when I saw Charlie’s deed. He wrote a book called Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta After the Civil War.
JOHN WILLIS: I came across a strange statistic in the Census records, and this book really was an effort to figure that out. I had two questions: Why was it in 1900 that two thirds of the farm owners in the Delta were black? And why did it change so dramatically that nobody's ever heard of all these black farmers? Not just farmers, but farm owners.
KAI: Well, so I have encountered one of those families. Uh, uh, they, it's a family that has the land that they bought, um, still in their family today...
KAI: I give him the quick recap: Vernita’s grandmother inherited the land in the 1940s. Vernita assumed it came from 40 acres-and-a-mule, until I found Charlie Dobson’s 1904 land deal.
WILLIS: Tell me a little bit more about what you know about the Dobson family.
KAI: SO I have traced it back to a guy named Charlie Dobson...
KAI: Everything I know comes from the census records, which aren’t totally clear. But from what I can tell, sometime before the turn of the century, Charlie and Addie migrated to the Delta from North Carolina. They appear to have been born in the 1870s -- so again, first generation born after Emancipation. That means Charlie was about 20 years old when they moved. Addie was younger. I imagine them flush with the certainty of their youth, packing up to trek some 7, 800 miles, trying to make a life somewhere. And I wonder how that felt. Did it seem like an incredible risk? To be a young black couple traversing the South, presumably without much money? Or was it actually kind of exciting because, hey, what’s there to lose? John Willis says whatever the Dobsons felt, they were actually typical of the time; they were at the tail end of the first mass migration of black Americans.
WILLIS: A lot of people were moving around after slavery.
KAI: More than three million people, formerly enslaved, looking for opportunity.
WILLIS: Movement was the rule, not the exception. We know that there are really three main sorts of places that ex-slaves went after they're freed. A lot of them went to the city.
KAI: To just get a totally new life. Others went to established plantation belts where they could get work on farms...
WILLIS: The third place that slaves went were places like the Delta.
KAI: Places with undeveloped, available land.
WILLIS: Not long after he was born, the Delta was still 90 percent wilderness. And when I say wilderness, I mean, it's subject to overflow from the Mississippi. It's covered in tall forests of hardwood trees. It's still got black bears and panthers roaming around. And what's been going on throughout his life, by the time he buys that land, is that black farmers have been moving in and working their way up from renting, often, to being able to own their land. And it's a weird situation. It's not like any other part of the South we know of. These are farmers who are owning at one point on average, 180 acres. At another point, the average was 160 acres. These are sizable plots of land. And this was the most fertile land known anywhere on the earth. And if you were able to gain control of some of this land, you had a good chance to be able to support yourself, and maybe buy more.
KAI: But still: How in the hell did two-thirds of this fertile land end up in the hands of black owners like Charlie and Addie? The answer...and I did not see this coming...is tax policy. That’s next.
KAI: Ok, so, taxes…. Here’s how it went down in Mississippi during Reconstruction. And stay with me on this, because what happened there is an excellent illustration of why tax policy has always been so consequential -- because it is used as a tool for designing society. First off, white slaveholders were the 1 percent of the 19th Century. The entire global economy revolved around the manufacture of yarn and cloth made from cotton, and U.S. slaveholders were the undisputed kings of that trade. The numbers are staggering: When the Civil War began, cotton accounted for 61 percent of the total value of U.S exports.There is no comparable industry today. So the Civil War was a fight over money. And understand, after the war, slaveholders not only lost their slave labor camps, they lost political power over the region’s insane wealth. New racially integrated governments took over throughout the Confederate states. And to me, this is the most maddeningly forgotten moment in American history. I mean, formerly enslaved people walked off plantations and took offices ranging from sheriff to county supervisor to congressman. Now, we will come back to that moment in electoral politics in a later episode this season. But what I didn’t realize when I started trying to piece together Charlie and Addie Dobson’s life, was how actively these new governments tried to redistribute the South’s wealth. I mentioned this to Eric Foner.
KAI: What's interesting to me is that former slaves themselves were articulating these ideas that sound radical and crazy to us now, but in 1865 and 66, they were being very clear: We created this capital. It belongs to us.
FONER: Yeah, absolutely. The one who did the most was South Carolina, which set up an actual state land commission to buy up land and not give it away, but kind of sell it on very favorable terms -- long-term mortgages, low prices -- and about 10% of the black families in South Carolina actually managed to get ahold of land. Now in Mississippi, they didn't have that, but they had pretty high tax on uncultivated land.
KAI: Taxes. Remember, the Mississippi Delta was mostly wilderness at this point.
FONER: You know, plantation owners used to have these enormous tracts of land, much of it was forest or just not being farmed. And so before the Civil War, they paid almost no tax on their land.
KAI: So it cost them nothing to just squat on all the state’s natural resources. But after the War, the new government said, ‘Nah, you didn’t earn that land in the first place. So now you gotta pay for it.’
WILLIS: And in some of these Delta counties, the taxes went up as much as twelve hundred percent between 1866 and 1874.
KAI: Which totally changed the math -- white plantation owners had to either rent out all that unused, uncultivated land, or sell it off cheap and fast. And now, you can maybe see where this is headed: Remember, there were three million formerly enslaved people, looking around for opportunity. And suddenly, thousands of acres of land on the market, with desperate owners ready to make a deal. So for more than 20 years, the Delta becomes a magnet for ambitious, black migrants willing to do the intense work of cultivating that land. I told Vernita, this seems to be what drew her great-grandparents away from North Carolina.
VERNITA: I knew that she was from there but I’ve never heard that about Charlie.
KAI: Well from what we can tell from the Census records, they migrated together.
KAI: And got themselves to just the right place when the railroad company decided to offload its land, too.
KAI: They had built this rail line, to Chicago. And the people in Chicago looked at their holdings and said, we don’t need this land, we’re not gonna pay for this land. And so they started selling it off, at $8 an acre. And it shoulda been $25 an acre.
VERNITA: Oh that’s amazing. Okay! What a steal. Good, gave him a break, I love it!
KAI: Well it sounds like Charlie was a savvy shopper-- Charlie and Addie both, but it’s his name on the deed.
KAI: And they made a life on their 40 acres. They must have worked as day laborers on plantations closer to the river and to town, and when they had time, I guess they would trek out into the forest to slowly chop their acres clear and plant their fields in the wilderness.
WILLIS: And, and honestly, that's one of the draws to buying land like that. Because if you're an African American farmer like Charlie Dobson, you don't want to be around the big plantations. You’d just as soon be back in the woods where you can live your life without oversight and reproof. So he's back there in the woods and he's living probably a lot like people did 20 or 30 years ago as they first began to clear this area. Now, the difference is that by the time he purchases this land there are a lot more railroads. In fact, there are not many places in the Delta in 1904 that weren't within about five miles of a railroad track. That's how much that wilderness is now truly connected to the national economy and transportation and migration.
KAI: That’s how much black people remade Mississippi -- they literally made space for themselves, and in the process they made it desirable…. Which, well -- that became a problem. Charlie and Addie Dobson are among the very last group of black strivers to benefit from the political reshuffling that came out of Reconstruction. They bought their land right in that period that John Willis noticed in the Census data when there was that huge change in farm ownership -- from two-thirds black ownership, to almost none.
Willis: The odd thing in this project the whole time was not just the statistics, not just the numbers -- the percentages of black farmers who owned land. But the reality of how much a contrast the area was then to what it became. It was a land of opportunity. And then it starts to become known instead as the birthplace of the blues.
[Robert Johnson music]
KAI: The great blues guitarist Robert Johnson may not have actually met the devil in the Delta, but Elbert Lester sure feels like he’s seen Satan here. Christianity is a deeply important part of both Vernita and Elbert’s lives.
VERNITA: Now I can quote scritpture, but don't ask me what book and what verse and all that, okay? I have to Google that or something. My uncle can tell you what book, what verse, what chapter, everything.
KAI: And in black Christianity, particularly in the South, there are few teachings more important than the idea of grace. Elbert struggles with this, he struggled with it his whole life. He says he really doesn’t wanna carry around hate for white people -- it’s un-Christian, and their sins are not his burden to carry.... But, he’s seen so much...
ELBERT: All the evil they have done, all the evil they have done to our peoples, our people.
KAI: The evil they have done...
ELBERT: It’s so many innocent people! It’s so many innocent black people have died.
KAI: So many black people have died….
WILLIS: There was a fairly well organized campaign of terror against all African-Americans in the area, but especially against farm owners.
KAI: It began right about as Charlie and Addie arrived. Charlie would have been keenly aware of it, even as he signed the deed to their land. All he had to do was glance at a newspaper.
WILLIS: They would reprint whatever was interesting. And overwhelmingly, the white newspapers of the Mississippi area printed up news about lynching. So he would no doubt hear about these things because they were over reported, as if to reassure whites of their continued dominance.
KAI: And soon, he wouldn’t need a news report to tell him that times were changing. Charlie and Addie had a son, Willie Dobson. He would have been Elbert’s uncle and Vernita’s great uncle. He’s listed as 10 years old in the 1910 Census. And sometime in that decade, as a teenager, he got on his father’s mule and he rode out to meet his girlfriend.
ELBERT: And the white lady said he road that mule across her field.
KAI: A white woman accused him of trespassing on her land.
VERNITA: And he told the white lady, the white lady that no, he did not cross the land, he went a different way, he went around their property.
KAI: Now, as a young black man at this moment in American history, being in a dispute with a white woman was a terribly dangerous thing. Nonetheless, Willie told her she was wrong.
ELBERT: He shouldn’t’ve said that. They shot him so many times.
KAI: They shot him so many times. The family raced Willie into town, to a white doctor who was willing to treat black people -- a German guy.
VERNITA: They had got money together to take him to this doctor to have surgery, to save his life. But the surgery did not work and he ended up dying.
KAI: But as Elbert told me, it wouldnt’ve saved him anyway. The white mob had circled outside the place with rifles and if Willie survived, they intended to kill him. This kind of violence was happening all over the South. Thousands and thousands of people were killed. You can now go to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama and you can read some of their names: Frank Dodd, lynched in Arkansas for annoying a white woman... Anthony Crawford, lynched in South Carolina for rejecting a white man’s offer to buy cottonseed... Ham Peterson, lynched in Missouri for speaking disrespectfully about some white people. All of them murdered so whites could re-establish an exclusive right to power and wealth in places like the Delta, where black Americans had begun to thrive under Reconstruction policies.
WILLIS: And so the place literally became a much more dangerous area for folks to be in. There were occasions where people were tied up, set on fire while they're alive; where equipment like drilling bores, that would have been used to drill for water, that they were literally drilled through by these machineries; and all sorts of terrible things, as body parts are cut off and handed out as souvenirs. It really is an appalling period in our history.
KAI: And it is one of the reasons for that dramatic change in land ownership that John Willis saw in the Census records. It’s also part of why millions of black people left the South altogether. In the Delta, they got on that same rail line that sold the Dobsons their land, and they moved to Chicago, taking the blues with them. But not Charlie and Addie. And not their daughter Lillie. And not their grandson Elbert. They all stayed, and they kept their land, despite it all.
VERNITA: Land. You know, that's something to be proud of. And we are very proud of it, that we have that.
KAI: When the Civil War ended, the real American project began. 1776 had been the birth of a slave republic. It wasn’t until 1865, and the roughly two decades that followed, when the United States adopted the ideas and principles that remain our patriotic totems -- one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The first step was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
FONER: Thirteenth Amendment. Section one. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This amendment abrogates all the state laws establishing and protecting slavery, but it leaves a vacuum: Then what? That's the question that has to be answered.
KAI: The answers came in large, sweeping changes to law and custom… and also in targeted, detailed policies like high taxes on uncultivated land. But white supremacy responded with violence -- and with erasure. With decades worth of miseducation that has made us forget, left us with myths about land giveaways and downtrodden ex-slaves needing a handout. And left our democracy with unfinished business.
FONER: What is the relationship between political democracy and economic democracy? In Reconstruction, not just the 13th Amendment, but in the next few years, you had a major step toward political democracy in this country: For the first real time, interracial democracy. But the economic inequality remained enormous, just as it is today.
TOM STEYER: I believe that the income inequality in this country is unbearable, unjust, and unsupportable.
KAI: And that gap? It can no longer be ignored.
ELIZABETH WARREN: Because what we really need to talk about is the bigger economic picture here.
KAI: It defines this country’s political debate.
DONALD TRUMP: We’re a movement for all Americans who believe in fairness and justice, equality and dignity, opportunity and safety.
BERNIE SANDERS: We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth, more income and wealth inequality since the 1920s.
[Sounds of birds and leaves crunching]
KAI: It was harvest time when I was in the Delta. Acres and acres had been picked clean. Big, 6 foot-high rolls of cotton were everywhere -- laid out in fields, lining the roads, ready for the gins to process. Almost all of it is owned by corporations now. Elbert’s own farm is all but surrounded by them.
ELBERT: They’ll sweet talk you and try to buy it from you.
KAI: He gets offers to buy him out, both his farm and the family land. Good offers. But even at 94 years old, he’s not interested.
KAI: Why is that? You could sell it for a lot of money. Why wouldn’t you? Why even now? I could see then, but why now, would you wanna keep it?
ELBERT: Well, they ain’t giving away nothing in town. If it’s possible, I’ll buy some more! [laughs] If it’s possible I buy some more!
KAI: This land has been home to six generations of this family now -- and Elbert Lester? He intends to keep passing that on.
The United States of Anxiety is production of WNYC Studios.
This episode was reported and produced by me, Jessica Miller, and Veralyn Williams.
It was edited by Karen Frillmann, who is also our executive producer.
Cayce Means is our technical director.
Our team also includes… Emily Botien, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, and Christopher Werth.
With help from…
Kim Nowacki and Michelle Harris.
Our theme music is written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Brand.
Stay in touch: You can hit me up on twitter, @kai_wright. Thanks for listening.