Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history, and its grip on our future.
Ron Insana: Financial markets are divorced entirely from the main street reality that's going to hurt small business mightily over the next many months.
Michel Martin: The wealth gap is where historic injustice breeds present suffering.
Andre Perry: Our relationship to the concept of asset is ownership. We were owned to make white people money.
Coleman Hughes: I worry that our desire to fix the past compromises our ability to fix the present.
Mehrsa Baradaran: Frederick Douglass, he says you cannot capitalism without land because if you don't have land, you actually don't have freedom. Whose property is the state protecting and whose property is not protected?
Solana Rice: We're not talking about Jeff Bezos type of wealth, we're talking about being able to, not only get five but save and determine your own future.
Kai: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright. As we slowly begin to look forward and to think about what's coming in our ongoing conversation over what kind of country we really want to be, my mind keeps going back to a story we told on this show way back in February, and I want to share it with you again this week. It's a story about economic justice or how we've tried in the past to achieve economic justice. It can be hard to remember with all the distractions and spectacles of the Trump era that economic inequality remains a defining challenge all over this country. This story, it's a reminder that that problem has been with us for a really long time, and we have found some solutions to it in the past.
The story is also about family and on this holiday weekend when so many of us may be missing our families, either our birth families or our chosen families, I have taken comfort in remembering this wonderful family I met way back at the start of the year, and I hope you'll enjoy spending time with them as well. We'll be back live next week. I met a new friend last fall. Hey, Renita?
Renita Blocker: Hey, how are you.
Kai: A woman named Renita Blocker, and the thing about Renita is she grew-up country.
Renita: I don't know if you've ever heard of this, but you could make snow crane, snow ice cream.
Kai: She told me all these rustic stories about stuff she did as a kid in Mississippi.
Renita: Now 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 at any place I have ever lived.
Renita: Kai, you would have eaten the snow ice cream, it was good.
Kai: My mom's pretty country herself and I spent a lot of time in the South, so I can relate a little, but Renita's childhood in the Mississippi Delta, this is another level for me. She was raised by her grandparents who were farmers.
Renita: 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.
Renita: 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 or the hog and they would salt it down. 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. 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 Renita gives me nothing but rosy memories. She even laughs about the time their house caught on fire.
Renita: We're not sure how it caught.
Kai: It burned all the way to the ground, so they bought an old house from a neighbor, a whole house, moved the whole thing to their farm, and then renovated it themselves.
Renita: That too, guys, was when we got a bathroom. Until the house burned, we used an outhouse. Oh, you all got me talking too much, my family going to have a fit. They gone say, "You said all that? [laughs] You are breaking out too much information."
Kai: Here's the deal, Renita'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, 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 Renita's childhood farm.
It's where Muddy Waters sat on his porch and helped create the sound that would become rock and roll.
By the time Renita was a little girl, it's where Fannie Lou Hamer was organizing Freedom Summer, risking her life to try failing only to bring multiracial democracy into the state of Mississippi.
Fannie Lou Hamer: It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles.
Kai: There is a rich but hard and grim history of Black life in the Delta. Renita though, she felt quite safe and secure because she was sheltered on that farm in her grandparent's care.
Renita: For me, it was just a way of life. I never thought I was poor until much later in life. I look back on and I was like, "We were really poor." We really didn't have much
because I felt like we didn't work 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, and Renita describes Lily as, I guess, exactly the kind of bad-ass she'd have to be as a Black woman owning her own land in Jim Crow's Mississippi.
Renita: She was a type of person that was a go-getter. She was 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, Renita'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?
Renita: 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 land, they lived in someone else 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: When I asked Renita how her family got ownership of the land in the first place, she said this really unexpected thing.
Renita: The land came about when the government gave Black families 40 acres and a mule, but as far as when it took place, I would like to know more about that.
Kai: 40 acres and a mule. You 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 Renita 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.
Participant: 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'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: Everybody on the political stage left right and center.
Joe Biden: Ordinary 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. Renita'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 our break. I'm Kai Wright and this is The United States of Anxiety.
I'm Kai Wright and this is The United States of Anxiety. This week we are revisiting a story we told at the beginning of the year about a Black family I met down in the Mississippi Delta and what their family history can teach us about the struggle for economic justice today. When we left off before the break, I was just about to head down to the Delta for the first time. 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, sipping into ravines dug around the cotton fields, the Delta is fertile.
Elbert Lester: The government have been coming down here.
Kai: Yes, you see tracks. I start my trip here by going to see Renita's family land. Elbert Lester is my guide. He's Renita's uncle, Lilly'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, and half the time, I was chasing behind him.
Elbert: Yes, this is it.
Kai: Is 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 come in. There's a cornerstone in the middle of the road right there by that tree.
Kai: We're looking at a long empty collapsing A-frame.
Elbert: That is the mother of them house. This was the mother of 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 Renita 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 and them? Sure did. They sure did. They farm, but in a distant land behind the house even.
Kai: Renita and everybody who grew up here on this land have already 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 is a lifelong farmer himself and just like Renita, 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 wondered about it till the end. I heard a fellow tell me, he said, "You know what?" and he said, "If you moved in New York, if you tell them folks that 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.
Kai: How are you doing?
Pauline: There's a peace offering.
Kai: This all family? Y'all got a lot of community around here. That's a wonderful thing. Elbert's wife, Pauline, is 90 years old herself. The two of them have been married for more than 70 years, and I got to a sense of why land ownership has meant so much in this family as I listened to them talk about their life together.
Pauline: 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.
Pauline: We didn't know, but we was trying to know 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 Pauline says he acted the part. To this day, he is a man who walks with ample confidence.
Elbert: 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 Blacks 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 Pauline was clearly excited by Elbert's macho youthful temper.
Pauline: Oh, he was a mean heifer. You was.
Elbert: Oh, man.
Pauline: Whoo, yes, Lord. He was a real heifer, but he didn't bother nobody.
Elbert: Didn't bother nobody.
Kai: If you're not on his wrong side.
Pauline: Yes, sir.
Kai: Elbert says he was just a product of the Marine Corps.
Elbert: That Marine Corps, it ain't no fairness in fame.
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. That's all that matters.
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 Pauline 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, little too much pride for white folks. It was a precarious error 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 Pauline tell me this story, they repeat the dehumanizing language white people used to throw at them, so heads up, it goes like this, the sherrif pushed Elbert's son out of the way.
Elbert: My boy was sitting by me. He said to my boy, "Get off this so and so on 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 only got my hand on him.
Pauline: No, you couldn't put your hand on white people. They always would lie, 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. Or they go and find some kind of ways that, "Oh no, that nigger did this, that nigger did that." Could never do nothing but yes, sir, no, sir. You wouldn't do nothing to them. You couldn't do nothing. You did know how to stay out of trouble.
Elbert: They's always right.
Pauline: They were right, you 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, but where did they get the land? Like I said, Elbert and Renita know that Lilly 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, and it was like the building itself wanted me to understand the world in which this family lived. Built in 1910, it's a landmark sight 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. Okay, tax assessor maps, property records. 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: Yes, so I am trying to look up some property records.
Tax Assessor: Okay.
Kai: The current deed is in the name of Lilly Lester.
Tax Assessor: L-E-S-T-E-R
Kai: L-E-S-T-E-R. The tax assessor finds Lilly's deed and it confirms the family's stories, that Lilly got the land from her parents. Their names were Charlie and Addi Dobson, and they did, in fact, own 40 acres. When they died in the 1940s, they gave their land to Lilly and her sister, but anything before that, that's not in the electronic records, so I go down the hall to the courthouse library.
Tax Assessor: All those books on this one 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. Basically, I got to look for either Charlie or Addi 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.
Tax Assessor: 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. I cracked the first book, book number 10 and I turned to the Ds. It's not in alphabetical order, well, that sucks. They're grouped by letter just not in any particular order, so I got to look through all the Ds till I hit a Dobson. Darby, Denemin, Darnell, Dickie, Davis, Darnell, Dum, Davis. 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, I'm running out of books here. 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, so I go over to the wall of deed books. Okay. I turn to page 575. Charlie Dobson, the Y&MVRR company. The Yazoo and 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? 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 Renita.
Renita: Oh, wow. All the time I've thought that the land was given to them. 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 Addi 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 more like compensation for the labor they had done. That was their idea of economic freedom to go along with this 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's assassinated, a deep, deep racist who had no interest in what the rights of Blacks were going to be.
Kai: Johnson takes it all away, gives it back to the former slaveholders. More than that, he stops any real effort at federal land retribution.
Eric: 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 Addi, probably children of formerly enslaved people making real estate deals with interstate corporations.
Renita: How was he able to purchase? 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 Addi's lives, I called up another historian, a guy named John Willis, who, several years ago, had the same 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 the 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: I have encountered one of those families. It's a family that has the land that they bought. It's still in their family today. I give him the quick recap. Renita's
grandmother inherited the land in the 1940s. Renita 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 about the Dobson family.
Kai: I have traced it back to a guy named Charlie Dobson. 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 Addi migrated to the Delta from North Carolina. They appear to have been born in the 1870s, so again, the first-generation born after emancipation. That means Charlie was about 20 years old when they moved, Addi 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, 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 exciting because hey, what's there to lose? John Willis says whatever the Dobson's 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 three 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're freed. A lot of them went to the city.
Kai: To just get a totally new life. Others went to establish 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 were 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 Addi? The answer, and I did not see this coming, is tax policy. That's next.
Hey, everybody, so I want to ask your help with something. A huge part of what we're doing with this show is building a community. A community of people who want to share the joy and the work of creating and living in a healthy plural society. That's why we've started taking calls on the live show and soliciting your tweets and your voicemails here.
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I'm Kai Wright and this is The United States of Anxiety. We're off for the holiday this week, so we're revisiting a story we told at the beginning of the year about a Black family in the Mississippi Delta, the land they've owned since the late 19th century, and what their family history can teach us about the fight for economic justice today. Before the break, I had just discovered a radical innovation that led Black families to own two-thirds of the Mississippi Delta's crazy fertile land and the years after the Civil War. We pick up the story there.
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 revolves around the manufacturer 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 and understand, after the war, slaveholders not only lost their slave labor camps, they lost political power over the regions 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 Addi 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 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 a 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, and so before the Civil War, they paid almost no tax on their land.
Kai: It costs 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."
Eric: 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 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 who are willing to do the intense work of cultivating that land. I told Renita this seems to be what drew her great-grandparents away from North Carolina.
Renita: I knew that she was from there, but I never heard that about Charlie.
Kai: What we can tell from the census records, they migrated together and got themselves to just the right place when the railroad company decided to offload its land too. 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 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.
Renita: Oh, that's amazing. Okay, what a steal? Good, they gave him a break. I love it.
Kai: It sounds like Charlie was the steady shopper. Charlie and Addi both, but it's his name on the deed and they made a life on their 40 acres. They must've worked as day laborers on plantations closer to the river into 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.
Eric: 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 just will 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, which, well, that became a problem. Charlie and Addi 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.
Eric: 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 Elbert Lester sure feels like he seen Satan here. Christianity is a deeply important part of both Renita and Elbert's lives.
Renita: Now, I can quote scripture, but don't ask me what book and what verse and all that, okay? I have googled 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. Elbert 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 unchristian and their sins are not his burden to carry, but he's seen so much.
Elbert: All the evil they've done to our people.
Kai: The evil they have done.
Elbert: There's so many innocent people. There's so many innocent Black people who have died.
Kai: So many Black people have died.
Eric: 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 Addi 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.
Eric: They would reprint whatever's 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: Soon, he wouldn't need a news report to tell him that times were changing. Charlie and Addi had a son, Willie Dobson. He would have been Elbert's uncle and Renita'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: The white lady said he rode at me which caused her fear.
Kai: A white woman accused him of trespassing on her land.
Renita: He told 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, Willy told her she was wrong.
Elbert: He shouldn't have said that. They shot him so many times.
Kai: They shot him so many times. The family raced Willy into town to a white doctor who was willing to treat Black people, a German guy.
Renita: They had gotten 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 Elbert told me, it wouldn't have saved him anyway. The white mob had circled outside the place with rifles and if Willy 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 can reestablish an exclusive right to power and wealth in places like the Delta for 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 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: It's one of the reasons for that dramatic change in land ownership that John Willis saw 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 Dobson's their land and they moved to Chicago taking the blues with them, but not Charlie and Addi, and not their daughter Lily, and not their grandson Elbert. They all stayed and they kept their land despite it all.
Renita: 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.
White supremacy responded with violence and with erasure with decades worth of miss-education 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.
John: 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. Almost all of it is owned by corporations now. Elbert's own farm is all but surrounded by them.
Elbert: They reach out to keep trying to buy land, buy it from there.
Kai: He gets offers to buy him out, both his farm and the family land. Good offers, but 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?
Elbert: They didn't want nothing in town. If it's possible, I'd buy some more.
If it's possible, I'd 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.
Elbert’s story got me thinking about the legacy of the terrorism he describes, what it means today, so I called up Dr. Julianne Malveaux, a labor economist and the former president of Bennett College.
Julianne Malveaux: Think about this, in 1900, Black people had 15 million acres of land, now we have one million. What happened? Now some of it is taxes, but again, that was enforced in a discretionary way, but some of it is just intimidation and theft.
Kai: People, I think, are increasingly familiar with the fact of all of this anti-Black violence at the turn of the century and into the 20th century, but what did it mean for Black economics, not just the individual families but for the whole community?
Dr. Julianne: The violence, the lynching had a chilling effect on Black ownership. Many Black folks didn't want to own anything because they thought it put their lives in jeopardy. Richard Wright, he had a great passage where he talked about how a lynching even 500 miles away had an impact on his psyche.
He went on to say, "It dictated how I walked, where I went, everything I did."
Kai: I don't think enough about that, the way that it changed, the way Black people pursued opportunity because you had to weigh your life against this opportunity that you were pursuing.
Dr. Julianne: Judiciary, subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties will come to order. I welcome everyone to today's hearing on HR40.
Kai: You talked about this violence in a congressional hearing last year where they began talking about reparations for descendants of people who were enslaved.
Dr. Julianne: The journalist Abdi Will said that lynching was the first example of white supremacy because it was a tool of terrorism. It dampened the ability of African-American people to participate in the vibrant entrepreneurship of the late 19th and early 20th century with a chilling message that our economic success could be punished by the rope.
Kai: I feel like, in particular, not only are people able to forget the existence of this violence but the relationship to economic opportunity. That this is not just about hate in your heart, this was about competition for resources.
Dr. Julianne: Absolutely, and the reason why so many Black men were reenslaved through the penal system, and I say reenslave because that's what it was, is because they needed the workers. The Southern economy was built on Black labor. When enslavement ended, basically, for 12 years of reconstruction, Black people made significant progress, but then white folks had to try to figure out, "How can we stop this?" That's where you got Black codes and Jim Crow laws and all of that.
Kai: In the course of the story we've just told, Eric Foner makes the point, he says there was this giant change in political democracy during the course of reconstruction, but not economic democracy, and raised the rhetorical question of, can you have one without the other?
Dr. Julianne: We theoretically have a political democracy now, we do not have an economic democracy, but the access that people who have resources is different from the access to people who do not have resources, even in a political context. For example, in Mississippi, they close many polling places.
You can sideline people by changing the terms and conditions of political democracy just as they did the reconstruction.
Kai: As we start thinking about what is to be done now, as a consequence of this loss of wealth and this loss of opportunity that happened in reconstruction and in the decades that followed, how do we think about what the federal government would do in terms of repairing this damage?
Dr. Julianne: They need to look at the aggregates, the ratio of Black wealth to white wealth. When you look at that, we've made very little progress. If Black people saved everything they had except for their necessary expenses, if you only paid your mortgage, your utilities, and maybe your transportation and saved everything else, that will not close the wealth gap. That'll make you miserable, but that won't close the wealth gap.
Kai: It’s not going to close it.
Dr. Julianne: The only way you close the wealth gap is to give people money. HR40 was a legislation that I testified about. It's an action bill, it talks about how to recommend what reparations to look like and who should get it. Now, what form should that come in? I belong to NAARC, the National African American Reparations Committee, we have a little brochure that talks about individual reparations are great, but the other thing that's great is community repair. Repairing health access, repairing Black mental health, repairing our history from the perspective that we don't even have markers where every person was lynched.
Bryan Stevenson has his museum, which is wonderful, but people need to remember that this happened here.
Kai: As we talk about reparations, we're always thinking about it in terms of what it will do for Black people. Is there an argument to be made when it does for the entire United States and the American economy?
Dr. Julianne: Racial equity benefits, everybody. If we're willing to talk about the fact that there is structural racism, and then to talk about the fact that there is a case to be made for reparations, it will be good for everyone. I think reparations might trigger some economic expansion, and it changes the conversation. It changes the conversation so that neither Black people nor white people are walking around with the sense of agreeableness either way.
Kai: We're talking about generations of stuff that has been designed to keep Black people out of this economic system, does capitalism itself not work alongside racial justice?
Dr. Julianne: Predatory capitalism is based on exploitation. You're attempting to extract surplus value from people and from resources. The way that you do that, you pay people, the minimum wage even though they're worth more because you can get away with it. The people who tend to be at the bottom of this are the people who've been thingified, now this is a Dr. King word, thingified when you treat something as a thing and not a person, and Black people have been thingified. We've been seen as less than human, and so if we're seen as less than human, we can be treated as less than human.
Kai: That was Dr. Julianne Malveaux, a labor economist, and the former president of Bennett College for women.
The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Jared Paul mixed the podcast version. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. You can keep up with me on Twitter at Kai_ Wright, that's Wright like the brothers and as always, I hope you'll join us for the live show every Sunday at 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.