How Black People Remade Mississippi
Kai Wright: Hey, gang. This is Kai. A few years ago, I reported a story in the Mississippi Delta about a Black family that had owned its land since Reconstruction, which is a remarkable fact given how many Black families in that region had their land taken away during the Jim Crow era. I spent some time in the Delta helping this family learn the history of their land, and in the process, I learned a ton about the history of economic inequality in this country. Anyway, one of the people I met while reporting the story has just died.
Pauline Lester passed peacefully in her home about two weeks ago, at the age of 93. She made a profound impact on me and on many others in her long fruitful life. In her honor, I want to share again the story of her family and of their land. Take a listen.
I met a new friend last fall. Hey, Vernita?
Vernita: Hey. How are you?
Kai: A woman named Vernita Blocker. The thing about Vernita is she grew up country.
Vernita: I don't know if you've ever heard of this, but you could make snow creams, snow ice cream.
Kai: She told me all these rustic stories about stuff she did as a kid in Mississippi.
Vernita: How they did it, don't ask me. I was a little girl, but I remember it tasted good.
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 have eaten the snow ice cream. It was--
Kai: My mom's pretty country herself, and I 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 did 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 the ham of the hog and they would salt it down, and that ham wasn't put it in the refrigerator. That ham was put in a wooden box, and it was preserved through this real coarse salt process. That would be fresh meat for us to eat for several months.
Kai: Listen. This is the 1960s in rural Mississippi, and I got to assume life was not easy for Black folks there, but Vernita gives me nothing but rosy memories. She even laughs about the time their house caught on fire.
Vernita: We're not sure how it caught, but [inaudible 00:03:49]
Kai: But it burned all the way to the ground. 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: That, you guys, was when we got a bathroom. Until the house burned, we used an outhouse. All y'all have me talking too much, my family go have a fit. They go say, "You said all that? You're breaking out too much information." [laughs]
Kai: Here's the deal. Vernita's family and the land they raised her on, tell a piece of the Mississippi Delta story that I've never really heard before. 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. It's where Muddy Waters sat on his porch and helped create the sound that would become rock 'n' roll.
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 multiracial democracy into the state of Mississippi.
Fannie Lou Hamer: It was the 31st of August in 1962, that 18 of us travelled 26 miles.
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 looked back on and 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, Lily Lester. Vernita describes Lily, as I guess exactly the kind of badass 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.
Kai: Lily inherited the land from her own parents, Vernita's great grandparents. It was 40 acres, and Lily taught her family to be fiercely proud of it. 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 on to the land, don't ever sell it.
Kai: 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. As far as when it took place, I would like to know more about that.
Kai: "40 acres and a mule," you would have surely heard this phrase. If nothing else, is 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 Lily's land. Very few people received that promise, and even fewer actually got the land. When Vernita told me that this 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.
Speaker 1: Those giant corporations like Chevron and Amazon who paid nothing in taxes, we can have them pay.
Kai: Who are its rightful owners?
Speaker 2: How does that 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's presidency was rooted in 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, left, right and center.
Joe Biden: Ordinary and middle-class Americans build 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. 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. We'll tell the story of how they did that. Right after a break.
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 crisscross those fields on what seems like hard, unforgiving ground, but actually, water lurks everywhere, standing in swampy pools under those tree lines, seeping in the ravines dug around the cotton fields. The delta is fertile.
Elbert Lester: Don't mind coming down here.
Kai: Yes, you see the tracks. I start my trip here by going to see Vernita's family land. Elbert Lester is my guide. He's Vernita's uncle, Lily's youngest child, and he's basically a 94-year-old teenager. He's just bouncing around these back roads and fields like he's looking for his next adventure. Half the time I was chasing behind him.
Elbert: This is it?
Kai: That's it here.
Elbert: This is it?
Kai: Do you mind if we get out?
Kai: You would come in down there, right?
Elbert: That's right. That's where you came in. There's a cornerstone in the middle of that road right there by that tree.
Kai: We're looking at a long, empty, collapsing A-frame.
Elbert: This was most of them houses.
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. Did they farm on this land?
Elbert: My mother sure did. They sure did. They farmed but home just this land here behind the house.
Kai: Vernita and everybody who grew up here on this land have already left the state. Elbert's now the land's caretaker, and he rents it out to a white guy to help keep the taxes paid. Elbert is a lifelong farmer himself, and just like Vernita, there is 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 wondered about that. I heard a fellow tell me, he said, "You know what?" He said, "If you move to New York, if you tell them folks that you got some land, they 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. Hello. How are you doing?
Pearline: Just a piece offering.
Kai: This all family? Y'all got a lot of community right here. That's a wonderful thing. Elbert's wife, Pearline, is 90 years old herself. The two of them have been married for more than 70 years. 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.
Pearline: 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 II. She was bored, so when she noticed this guy and his friends hanging around outside the church, she hit him up.
Pearline: We didn't know him, but we were trying to get to him, though.
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 Pearline 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.
Kai: These two are sitting in the front room of their farmhouse, literally surrounded by photos of kids and grandkids and great grandkids posed in graduation gowns and military uniforms. There is 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 is familiar, but I got to 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 kind of stuff with me. Stuff like the way Pearline was clearly excited by Elbert's macho youthful temper.
Pearline: Oh, he was a man. A heifer. He was. yes, Lord. He was a real heifer. He didn't bother nobody.
Kai: If you got on his wrong side.
Pearline: Yes, sir. The guys when they come over--
Kai: Elbert says he was just a product of the Marine Corps.
Elbert: That Marine Corps there ain't no fairness in fighting.
Kai: It taught him that winning is everything. A lesson that I came to realize has served him well as a Black landowner in the Delta.
Elbert: That's all that matters. If you push me in a corner, I had to come out fighting.
Kai: This is another thing that 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 Pearline are reminiscing about, these are the years after World War II. 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. When he and Pearline tell me this story, they repeat the dehumanizing language white people used to throw at them. Heads up. It goes like this. The sheriff pushed Elbert's son out of the way.
Elbert: My boy was standing by me. He tell 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: Boy, I didn't sleep none that night. I rolled all night that night. If it hadn't been for my daddy, I probably wouldn't have been living. If I'd got my hand on him.
Pearline: 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 would be done about it. They go and find some kind of way to say, "Oh, no, that nigger did this, that nigger did that." Couldn't ever do nothing but yes, sir, no sir. You couldn't do nothing to them. Couldn't do nothing, did know to stay out of trouble.
Elbert: They was always right.
Pearline: They were right. You were always wrong.
Kai: Millions 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. Where did they get the land? Like I said, Elbert and Vernita know that Lily inherited it, but they don't know what came before that. After visiting the land itself, I went into town to start looking for an answer at the county courthouse.
It was like the building itself wanted me to understand the world in which this family lived. Built in 1910, it's a landmark 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". To access Lester maps and property records. These days, Black people are behind the desks inside.
Speaker 3: Hello, sir. How are you?
Kai: I'm well, how are you?
Speaker 3: Good. Can I help you?
Kai: Yes. I am trying to look up some property records. The current deed is in the name of Lily Lester.
Speaker 3: L-E-S-T-E-R.
Kai: L-E-S-T-E-R. The tax assessor finds Lily's deed and it confirms the family stories that Lily got the land from her parents. Their names were Charlie and Eddie Dobson, and they did, in fact, own 40 acres. When they died in the 1940s they gave their land to Lily and her sister, but anything before that, that's not in the electronic records. I go down the hall to the courthouse library.
Speaker 4: All those books on this wall to right there, all those are deed books. You just pull the 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 2 feet high, 6 inches thick, worn leather binding. Basically, I got to look for either Charlie or Eddie 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.
Speaker 4: 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. I cracked the first book, book number 10. I turn to the deeds. It's not in alphabetical order. Well, that sucks. They're grouped by letter, just not in any particular order. I got to look through all the deeds till I hit a Dobson. Darby Dinamen, Darnell, Dicky, Davis, Darnell, Durham. Eventually I start thinking maybe they're not in here. Maybe the family doesn't know where Charlie got this land because nobody knows, because it's actually lost to history. Okay, running out of books. Then I think I found it. I think this is it. Charlie Dobson. Now, his name is misspelled, and I can't quite make out the word 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. I go over to the wall of deed book, and I turned to page 575. Charlie Dobson, the Y & MVRR company, the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Company. He bought it from the railroad company. $320.
In 1904 which I guess that's not what I expected. A small Black farmer, just one generation removed from slavery, and he's 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 of life, not as people buying land from large corporations. Which begs a couple of questions. Who were Charlie and Eddie 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: He's one of the world's leading historians on the era known as Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War.
Eric: 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 was 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.
Eric: 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: 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.
Eric: Then Andrew Johnson comes in after Lincoln is assassinated, a deep, deep racist who had no interest in what the rights of Blacks were going to be and [fades]
Kai: And Johnson takes it all away, gives it back to the former slaveholders. More than that, he stops any real effort at federal land redistribution.
Eric: But 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 Eddie, 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-- Back then, how did he even get that money to purchase land in 1904?
Kai: Good question. To begin figuring out Charlie and Eddie'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. It's a family that has the land that they bought still in their family today that the [fades]. 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.
John: Tell me a little bit more about what you know about the Dobson family.
Kai: I have traced it back to a guy named Charlie Dobson [fades]. 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 Eddie migrated to the Delta from North Carolina. They appear to have been born in the 1870s. Again, first generation born after emancipation. That means Charlie was about 20 years old when they moved. Eddie was younger.
I imagine them flush with the certainty of their youth, packing up to trek some 700, 800 miles trying to make a life somewhere. 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 exciting because, "Hey, what's there to lose?" John Willis says, whatever the Dobsons felt, they were actually quite typical of the time. They were at the tail end of the first mass migration of Black Americans.
John: A lot of people were moving around after slavery.
Kai: More than 3 million people formerly enslaved looking for opportunity.
John: Movement was the rule, not the exception. We know that there are really three main sorts of places that ex-slaves went after they were 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.
John: The third place that slaves went were places like the Delta.
Kai: Places with undeveloped available land.
John: Not long after he was born, the Delta was still 90% wilderness. 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. What's been going on throughout his life by the time he buys that land is that Black farmers had been moving in and working their way up from renting often to being able to own their land. It's a weird situation.
It's not like any other part of the south we know of. These are farmers who were 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. 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: Still, how in the hell did two thirds of this fertile land end up in the hands of Black owners like Charlie and Eddie? The answer, and I did not see this coming, is tax policy. That's next.
Kai: Okay, 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% of the 19th century. The entire global economy revolved around the manufacture of yarn and cloth made from cotton and US slaveholders were the undisputed kings of that trade. The numbers are staggering.
When the Civil War began, cotton accounted for 61% of the total value of US exports. There is no comparable industry today. The Civil War was a fight over money. 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. To me, this is the most maddeningly forgotten moment in American history.
Formerly enslaved people walked off plantations and took offices ranging from sheriff to county supervisor to congressman, but what I didn't realize about it when I started trying to piece together Charlie and Eddie Dobson's life was just how actively these new governments tried to redistribute the south's wealth. I mentioned this to Eric Foner. 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.
Eric: Yes, absolutely. The one that did the most was South Carolina, which set up an actual state land commission to buy up land and not give it away, but sell it on very favorable 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.
Eric: Plantation owners used to have these enormous tracks of land. Much of it was forest or just not being farmed. Before the Civil War, they paid almost no tax on their land.
Kai: It cost them nothing to just squat on all the state's natural resources, but after the war, the new government said, no, you didn't earn that land in the first place, so now you got to pay for it.
John: In some of these Delta counties, the taxes went up as much as 1200% 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. Now you can maybe see where this is headed. Remember, there were 3 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.
For more than 20 years, the Delta becomes a magnet for ambitious Black migrants who are 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'd never heard that about Charlie.
Kai: From what we can tell from the census records, they migrated together. I think [fades] And got themselves to just the right place when the railroad company decided to offload its land too. They had built this real line to Chicago and the people in Chicago looked at their holdings and said, "We don't need this land. We're not going to pay for this land," and so they started selling it off at $8 an acre and it should have been $25 an acre.
Vernita: Oh, that's amazing. What a steal. Gave them a break. I love it.
Kai: It sounds Charlie was a savvy shopper. Charlie and Eddie both, but it's his name on the deed. 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.
John: 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 soon be back in the woods where you can live your life without oversight and reproof. 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, that became a problem. Charlie and Eddie Dobson are among the very last group of Blacks 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.
John: 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.
Kai: The blues guitarist, Robert Johnson may not have actually met the devil in the delta, but Albert Lester sure feels like he's seen Satan here. Christianity is a deeply important part of both Vernita and Albert's lives.
Vernita: Now, I can quote scripture, but don't ask me what book and what verse and all that. I have to Google it or something. My uncle can tell you what book, what verse, what chapter, everything.
Kai: In Black Christianity, particularly in the South, there are a few teachings more important than the idea of grace. Albert struggles with this. He struggled with it his whole life. He says he really doesn't want to 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.
Albert: All the evil they have done to our peoples.
Kai: The evil they have done.
Albert: It's so many innocent Black people that have died.
Kai: Many black people have died.
John: 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 Eddie arrived. Charlie would've been keenly aware of it, even as he signed the deed to their land. All he had to do was glance at a newspaper.
John: They would reprint whatever's interesting and overwhelmingly, the white newspapers of the Mississippi area printed up news about lynching. He would no doubt hear about these things because they were over reported as if to reassure whites of their continued dominance.
Kai: Soon he wouldn't need a news report to tell him that times were changing. Charlie and Eddie had a son, Willie Dobson. He would've been Albert's uncle and Vernita's great uncle. He's listed his 10 years old in the 1910 census. Sometime in that decade as a teenager, he got on his father's mule and he rode out to meet his girlfriend.
Albert: The white lady said he rode that mule across her field.
Kai: A white woman accused him of trespassing on her land.
Vernita: He told the white lady that 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.
Albert: He shouldn't have 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. 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: As Albert told me, it wouldn't have 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 cotton seed. Ham Peterson, lynched in Missouri for speaking disrespectfully about some white people. All of them murdered so whites could reestablish an exclusive right to power and wealth in places like the Delta where Black Americans had begun to thrive under Reconstruction policies.
John: 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've 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: It's 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 all together. 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 Eddie and not their daughter Lily and not their grandson Albert, they all stayed and they kept their land despite it all.
Vernita: Land, 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. 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 next slaves needing a handout and left our democracy with unfinished business.
Speaker 2: 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.
Kai: It was harvest time when I was in the Delta. Acres and acres had been picked clean. Big six foot high rolls of cotton were just everywhere, laid out in fields, lining the roads ready for the gins to start processing, and almost all of it is owned by corporations now. Albert's own farm is all but surrounded by them.
Albert: Yes, we talking and trying to buy it all back from there.
Kai: He gets offers to buy them out, both his farm and the family land, good offers. Even at 94 years old, he is not interested. 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 want to keep it?
Albert: [inaudible 00:41:08] If it's possible I buy some more, if it is possible I buy some more.
Kai: This land has been home to six generations of this family now, and Albert Lester, he intends to keep passing that on.
Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. We originally published this episode way back in January of 2020 in the run up to the presidential election. You can find our full archive of shows on our website at notesfromamerica.org, just click over to the tab that says archives, and you'll see each of the early seasons of this show before we were on the radio, when we were just making a podcast.
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[00:42:53] [END OF AUDIO]
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