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A 19th century promise, and a 21st century betrayal. The past and present of 40 acres and a mule.
JACK HITT: Ok, Chenj, if we played word association with just about anybody on the street. And I say: 40 acres and a mule. What are they gonna say?
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: The deed to your house. (laughs) That’s what I would say.
JACK: All right, what else?
CHENJERAI: Well, growing up I heard 40 acres was a promise to Black people. And, I knew it was after slavery, so, kind of like Civil War. But it was kind of like ‘white folks aren’t going to talk about real justice after slavery, but we’ll give you 40 acres, to get you on your feet.’ But then nobody even got that.
Black people always talk about it.
[COLEMAN TAPE]: I’m still waiting on my 40 Acres and a Mule, and I know black people who are upset about that!
CHENJERAI: Sometimes you hear rappers say it.
KANYE WEST: We just trying to buy back our 40 acres.
[KANYE FADES INTO JACK’S LINE]
JACK: Yeah, when I was little, it felt like the answer to a question I hadn’t done the homework for. I wasn’t even sure 40 acres was a real thing. But it turns out it was. And it was more than a promise to black people. It was a federal order. Some black people got their 40 acres. Problem was, almost as soon as they did, white people started taking it back. And have been at it for more than a century.
But in a few places today, there are families fighting to hold onto the last few acres.
JACK: I’m Jack Hitt.
CHENJERAI: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JACK: This is Uncivil. Where we ransack America’s past…
CHENJERAI: And learn that even if you forget the past, it remembers you.
[THEME MUSIC FADES OUT]
[NOISE FROM TRUCK CAB]
JACK: Do I go straight or to the right?
NETTYE: Go straight.
CHENJERAI: One of the people fighting to hang on to her family’s land is Nettye Handy Evans. She grew up on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia called Sapelo. Nettye is 83 years old. She was a highschool teacher, and then a college professor. She's lived all over the world. But her childhood was spent here on this island.
NETTYE: Please forgive the bumps.
CHENJERAI: As we drove, Nettye told us about growing up on the island in the 40s and 50s.
She was raised by her grandmother, after her mom took a job in New York City. Nettye had polio, and it was hard for her to walk, but her grandmother refused to treat her differently than the other kids.
NETTYE: She would put things where I could see them. But nobody would help me. She said “No, she’s gonna make it on her own. No pity parties.”
CHENJERAI: Netty’s grandmother spent hours everyday working with her on her legs. The doctors at the time treated polio with thick casts to keep the legs straight. But they were hot and itchy, and grandma thought there was a better way.
NETTYE: She’d get a bucket of mud. And we called it marsh mud because it was the edge of the marsh. See how the grass is over there? When it was time for bed she would pile this mud on my knee. She would wrap it in newspaper, and then she take a thick towel and put over it and the next morning she’d take it off. And she’d repeat that process every day.
CHENJERAI: And Netty's grandma took care of her whole neighborhood the way she took care of Netty.
[CAR DOOR SLAMS]
NETTYE: And here we are. We are now in Raccoon Bluff.
JACK: The neighborhood was called Raccoon Bluff. In those days, there was just one little store and a post office on the island. Everybody knew each other's names, and almost everybody was related. Most people were descended from the formerly enslaved men and women who had lived on Sapelo long before the Civil War. They were part of the African-American culture on these islands known as the Gullah-Geechee.
If Netty’s part of the island had had a mayor, it would have been her grandma. She doled out advice. Reprimanded young men who were too forward. She even served as the community bank for people who were trying to save their money.
NETTYE: All of this area threw here wasn’t all grown up like this …
JACK: Netty's grandma raised her in a small wooden house on a four-acre plot in Raccoon Bluff. The house is gone now. It collapsed after grandma died. Today, big oak trees stand in its place, but Nettye remembers and shows us where the house was.
NETTYE: If you came in the front or to the right you would see a double fireplace. There was always a big trunk in that room, and that's where the deed was kept.
JACK: Was she proud of that deed?
NETTYE: Was she proud of it? That was wealth. That was truly wealth. The fact that you owned this, and you can pass it onto your children.
JACK: After growing up on the island, Nettye went off to college. Then on to jobs up North. But every summer, she came back to Sapelo. And after grandma died, she took over looking after the property and paying the taxes on it.
Then, about ten years ago, Nettye retired and moved back to the area, back home.
And that’s when her lawyer told her something that shocked her:
NETTYE: Well you don't own the property. How could I not own the property?
JACK: Her lawyer had gone to the courthouse, and he was sure it was true. But Nettye couldn’t make sense of it.
NETTYE: If the taxes are paid and they have never been delinquent why don't we own it?
NETTYE: When I think of how my grandmother would pinch pennies to pay the taxes on that land every year … and for some person … not an African-American … but some person who is new to the whole horizon … to tell me that I am not eligible for it … it’s disturbing. My siblings and I have been robbed.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JACK: When we met Netty, she was still trying to figure out how this had happened. So we started asking questions: And our hunt for answers brought us back - all the way back - to the Civil War, and those original 40 acres and a mule.
CHENJERAI: So, let’s start in 1864.
The Union General William Sherman was marching across Georgia, burning down plantations, and had just leveled half of Atlanta. Now he was heading to the coast, and word of Sherman’s march was spreading throughout the state.
KATE MASUR: A lot of enslaved people were following the news, and coming to understand that that conflict could result in their freedom.
CHENJERAI: That's Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern. And she says enslaved people from all over the state started fleeing their plantations and making a run for Sherman's army, thinking, ‘If we follow this guy, maybe we'll get free.’
KATE: So by the time Sherman’s Army landed in Savannah, there were thousands, by some estimates 25,000 African Americans who had come along with the Army and were now in the surrounding area.
JACK: There’s actually a recording of one of those 25,000 newly freed people. A man from Sapelo, who some of people we met when we were there remember well. A linguist interviewed him when he was passing through in the 1920s.
In a thick Gullah accent, the man introduces himself: He says my name is Shadrack Hall.
SH: My name is Shadrack Hall. Shadrack Hall. That’s my full name.
JACK: He describes slave owners moving him from plantation to plantation, to keep him away from the invading Union armies. He says, “they carried us to Macon and after Macon, they carried us to Milledgeville."
SHADRACK: They carried us to Macon. And after Macon, They carried us to Milledgeville.
JACK: And when Sherman’s army passed near Milledgeville, Shedrick escaped the plantation.
He says, “The Yankees come and we got free.”
SHARACK: The Yankee come and we got free.
CHENJERAI: So now you have Shedrick and 25,000 other newly free people with Sherman in this huge encampment by the coast. He suddenly had as many civilians with him as soldiers, and he wasn't happy about it.
KATE: Sherman was feeling like the large numbers of African Americans who were now surrounding his forces were a burden.
CHENJERAI: And it’s not like Shedrick and the other newly free people liked being there. There were all kinds of challenges.
KATE: Soldiers who were unsympathetic, soldiers who treated them poorly, soldiers who deprived them of rations.
CHENJERAI: So Sherman called an emergency meeting. They met at a house in Savannah.
KATE: It was 20 African-American religious leaders, from Georgia and a few other states nearby.
CHENJERAI: And Sherman had invited them to basically ask them … what should we do? This was a big deal. White government officials didn't ask black people for advice. It was such an unusual thing that a transcript of it was published in newspapers all over the country.
The black leaders asked a man named Reverend Garrison Frazier to speak on their behalf.
KATE: He was about 67 years old at the time, and he had spent his whole life in slavery until he purchased his freedom in 1857.
JACK: Sherman sat across from Frazier and asked:
“In what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.”
CHENJERAI: And Frazier answered:
“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.”
KATE: It was just four days later that Sherman issued Special Order 15.
CHENJERAI: Special Order 15 put Frazier’s idea on paper, specifically: each family shall have a plot of not more than 40 acres of tillable ground. Later, the army offered a surplus mule. And there it was: 40 acres and a mule.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JACK: Now asking the federal government to give land to freed blacks in the South was radical, even dangerous. And Frazier knew this, so he didn’t ask for just any land … he wanted a place set apart from Southern whites.
Here’s exactly what he said:
CHENJERAI: “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.”
JACK: And Frazier had a place in mind: a string of islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia… Including Sapelo.
CHENJERAI: The families on Sapelo drew up the boundaries of their farms and got to work. The soil had been ruined by years of cotton farming, so they repaired it with seaweed and planted new crops. They built a school, and a church.
But then, less than a year later … the government took it all back.
JACK: In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. And the new president, Andrew Johnson, tore up Sherman’s Special Order 15 and pardoned all the Confederate slave owners. Kate Masur again:
KATE: Once they had a pardon, they could go back and say, ‘Well I’m back, this is my land. And anybody who asserts they have a right to the land is nuts. Anything that happened here during the course of the war, distributing land land to freed people, all that stuff - none of that is valid anymore.’
JACK: And the military showed up, to make sure the the land was returned to its former owners, the same military that just months before had fought to free these black farmers.
[MUSIC FADE OUT]
CHENJERAI: This was the beginning of a hundred years of newly freed black people getting land and having it taken from them with violence. If it wasn't the military, it was a mob. A professor named Ray Winbush put it “If you’re looking for stolen black land, just follow the lynching trail.”
At the turn of the century, black people owned 15 million acres of land. Today, it’s about a million.
CHENJERAI: Sapelo is one of the places where black people resisted. They forced the white former owners to sell them back some of their original 40 acre plots. And not long after that, a portion of one of those plots would pass to Netty’s grandmother. And that’s the land Nettye grew up on.
NETTYE: See now it was not that wide over there, that’s because of the marsh coming forth, land that’s washed away.
JACK: Families like Netty’s eventually built 28 little villages on the island -- places called Hanging Bull, Moses Hammock, Chocolate, Bourbon, and Raccoon Bluff. Sapelo was an isolated self-sufficient Gullah island. That’s how things were when Nettye was born in 1935.
NETTYE: Shrimp boats would come into Sapelo. And they would blow their horns before they got to the edge, here, and the women would come with their pans, and they would give them all the shrimp they wanted.
CHENJERAI: For the moment it felt like the black farmers there had won. They’d fought for their freedom, and the right to own land, and held onto their 40 acres against President Johnson’s betrayal, the US military, and former slave owners.
But the farmers on Sapelo were about to face a new threat.
After the break: a fight with one of the richest millionaires in the 20th century.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JACK: In 1934, right before Nettye was born, a man named RJ Reynolds Jr. started buying up land on Sapelo. Reynolds was the heir to his father’s tobacco fortune. He was a notorious playboy, described by the New York Times as a “rich, athletic yachtsman,” whose name “meant scandal, mysterious disappearances, fast living and lawsuits.” A longtime resident named Cornelia Bailey told us she remembered Reynolds.
CORNELIA: My father couldn’t stand him. So I took my cue from Papa. If Papa couldn’t stand him then I couldn’t stand him either.
JACK: What did Papa tell you about Mister Reynolds?
CORNELIA: He was not for the people.
CHENJERAI: He especially wasn’t a man for the black people, because Reynolds had a plan.
CHENJERAI: Reynolds wanted to turn Sapelo into his own private fantasy island … a wild hunting ground for his wealthy friends. And from the moment he arrived, the black residents say he started pressuring them. For instance, a Sapelo resident named Ben Hall told us what happened when Reynolds started a ferry to and from the island.
BEN HALL: He was primarily responsible for blacks not being able to sit in the same area as white people when you got on the ferry. That was his stipulation, his rules. He still was, what I would term, a redneck, you know. (laughs)
JACK: I do know.
CHENJERAI: Reynolds didn’t just segregate the ferry. He segregated the whole island. The black residents of Sapelo said he forced all their families into one community, Hog Hammock, by convincing them to sell, or to swap their land.
Ben Hall remembers what happened to his uncle.
BEN HALL: Uncle Alan, he was the last person to move from Raccoon Bluff. And they would not allow him to ride the ferry to the mainland. That's the type of pressure they put on him.
CHENJERAI: Understand, the ferry is the only way on or off the island. And there was nothing Ben Hall’s uncle could do. So he was forced to sell his land to Reynolds for cheap.
JACK: And when threats didn’t work, Reynolds turned to other even more egregious tactics.
People say he forged signatures, even stealing land from children. Reed Colfax, a lawyer who’s been helping some of the black residents on the island, told us about a deal he says Reynolds cut with a landowner named Caesar Banks.
REED: He was three years old when he purportedly signed a deed transferring his interest in a piece of property to Mr. Reynolds. And his brothers and sisters also purportedly signed this deed. Many of them were six years old, seven years old, very young. Or that they were older, in school, yet their names were signed with an X.
JACK: Reynolds eventually did end up paying Caesar for his land.
REED: Somewhere around 15 dollars for property that’s worth tens of thousands even back then. I don’t think Reynolds ever feared any aspect of the law coming after him.
CHENJERAI: To some of the black residents of Sapelo, what Reynolds was doing felt the same as what the plantation owners had done before. One more white man stealing land they’d bought and paid for.
By the time Reynold’s died, he owned 97 percent of the land on the island. And after he was gone, his wife gave it to the state, which turned most of it into a wildlife preserve. There were only a few parcels of land that Reynolds hadn’t been able to force black residents off of.
One of them was the four-acre plot Nettye grew up on.
JACK: In the years after Nettye moved away, her land had become more and more valuable. Developers started swooping in on islands like Sapelo, buying up land from Gullah people for cheap and building golf courses and beach resorts … places like Daufuskie, St. Simon, and Hilton Head. They stayed away from Sapelo for a while because it’s hard to get to. And since most of the island is a wildlife preserve, you couldn’t really put in a golf course or a resort. But eventually, people looking to build a big beach house on a remote island started coming to Sapelo.
[SOUND OF TRUCK CAB]
JACK: As Nettye showed us around Hog Hammock, She pointed out new vacation homes that have been going up in recent years.
NETTYE: This is a new house. It’s about 4 years old. And the new houses are usually up on stilts.
JACK: It’s a stunning thing to see: modern beach houses towering over the single-story homes of the people who have lived here for generations. And all this development has divided the Gullah people on the island. Some want to sell. Others want to fight it - build up the local economy, and convince their kids to raise families on the island.
Cornelia Bailey is one of those residents.
CORNELIA: So, what we're doing is, we're regenerating what used to grow here, and hoping it become a profitable business on Sapelo, such as the red peas, the sugarcane. And see if we can get the young people interested. And that will be a start.
CHENJERAI: Nettye understands the desire to fight the development. Sapelo is one of the only places where people who were given that original 40 acres and a mule have been able to hold onto it. And Nettye has family on the island. She stays with them when she visits.
But when Nettye saw some of her neighbors selling their land for hundreds of thousands of dollars, she couldn't help but think about her grandmother’s land. She grew up there. It was her home. But it was isolated, six miles away from where most people on the island live. The house was gone. And at a certain point, she started feeling like maybe the best way to pass something onto the next generation, would be to sell the land.
NETTYE: When I think of my nephew's, my nieces and those who are after me, they could use the money. if they don't want to go, I don't care what they do with it, but it's something that they could look upon and say, ‘well this is because of what grandma left us.’
CHENJERAI: So Nettye decided to put her land up for sale. She hired a lawyer and a real estate agent and right away two men made an offer. They had her sign some paperwork, and then, because the property was so old, she had to go to court to prove she was the one true owner.
This is when she got that phone call from her lawyer saying …
NETTYE: Well, you don’t own the property.
JACK: She’d lost in court. A judge had decided against her. When I asked Nettye why … she told me she didn’t quite get it herself, but that I could go the courthouse and read the decision. So, I did.
JACK: The decision is 350 pages long, and in it you see two of the many ways Gullah people are still losing their land today.
The first is a classic scam. The buyers who made Nettye an offer, were developers trying to make a play. Here’s how it works: they convinced her that they’d be able to sell the land for a lot more money then she would. So she should sign it over to them now, and later they would cut her in on the profit they made selling it.
She asked her lawyer for advice, and after he gave the go-ahead, She signed over Grandma Netty’s deed to them for ten dollars.
JACK: Yeah. we tried to call the developers and Netty’s lawyer, but they wouldn’t talk to us.
JACK: As I kept reading Netty’s decision, I noticed the attorney representing the state, Stephen Blackerby, calling out the developers for trying to scam her, saying what they were doing was, quote, “a common scheme on Sapelo.”
I met with Blackerby and asked him, had he heard of this kind of deal happening in any other part of Georgia.
STEPHEN: Blackerby: I can’t think of any instance where I’ve ever heard of that being done.
JACK: And for a second it looked like the state was gonna clear it all up and say Netty’s land belonged to her.
CHENJERAI: But that’s not what happened. The judge issued his ruling, saying ‘You don’t own the land, Netty. In fact, you never did. Because the woman you say you inherited the land from isn’t your grandmother.’
Here’s why: in 1912 … the woman Nettye called her grandma took in a cousin’s baby and raised her as a daughter. That baby was Netty’s mother. The judge called this an adoption and said there was no convincing evidence of it.
JACK: In court, Nettye had provided all kinds of evidence that they were a family. She, her mother, and grandmother, were all named Nettye Handy. An early census documented them as a family. The county had sent property tax bills to all three Nettys for a hundred years, and the three Nettys had dutifully paid them. But all that evidence, Netty’s whole family story, the judge said, was nothing more than, quote, “inadmissible hearsay.”
I asked Nettye about those two words.
NETTYE: Don’t ask me please. Those are the pains I think about at night. I feel like they put a dagger in my heart.
JACK: The judge said Nettye simply didn’t have enough paperwork to satisfy his standard.
JACK: And this is another way Gullah people lose land that you see playing out in this court case. It isn’t just scammers - it’s the government, saying, ‘You don’t have the right paperwork.’ And sure, it’d be nice if Netty’s grandma had filed the proper papers...
CHENJERAI: But it wouldn’t have even occurred to her to do that. Why would she have to file paperwork to raise her relative’s baby? This kind of thing was happening all the time, family members taking in each other’s babies. It was one of hundreds of ways that black families struggled to stay together after centuries of being ripped apart and sold away from each other.
And even if Netty’s grandma had wanted to make this an official adoption, consider what that would have taken. She would have had to take the ferry to Darien, and find a black lawyer … in 1913. And if she couldn’t do that, she would have had to navigate the legal system on her own in Darien, a place that had lynched a man the year Netty’s Mom was adopted.
Blackerby, the attorney representing the state, said none of that was relevant.
JACK: So there’s a straight line of tax payment, name, child rearing, but the court says, well, we have our standards, and it doesn’t include any of those bits of proof. I guess my question is simply, do you think that’s fair?
BLACKERBY: Well, I, I, I think the process is fair, and the process is what matters.
Again we have to have uniform application of legal principles that are if they're the law they have to be applied uniformly by judges. There's not discretion to put aside legal requirements in a particular case. It's the absolute law of the land in Georgia.
JACK: And that seemed to be the end of it. That was 2010. But since then, some things have happened that make it feel like Nettye might have another shot at reclaiming her land. A few years ago, the county jacked up property taxes - in one case 1000 percent.
REED: Which appears from any perspective to have been a concerted effort to drive the Gullah-Geechie finally, completely off Sapelo Island.
JACK: That’s Reed Colfax, the lawyer working with black families on the island.
REED: But the Gullah Geechee responded, and they fought back.
JACK: A group of Sapelo residents went on the offensive, forcing the county to roll back the taxes to a reasonable rate. For once the shady tricks failed, and everyone on the island noticed.
REED: Things are changing and things are changing for the better. Those Gullah Geechie who stand-up and fight may be able to get some good results. And Nettye Evans, if she continues to push, and continues to fight, may be able to get property back.
CHENJERAI: Nettye does plan to keep fighting.
NETTYE: That land was the bulk of our inheritance. My niece was buried Saturday. She left three boys - Five, ten, and sixteen. By selling the land, we would make certain that there would be no obstacles in the way of them getting an education.
CHENJERAI: Nettye has a cousin who’s a lawyer in Boston and she’s started talking to her about restarting the case. But even if she wins and regains the right to her family’s land, she says she won’t sell all of it. She’ll hold onto a little piece - for the family.
JACK: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We had more help from Stevie Lane and Alvin Melathe. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Pat Walters, Jorge Just, Caitlin Kenney, and Alex Blumberg.
CHENJERAI: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers as well as Mt Zion AME Choir on Glebe Street in Charleston, SC.
We’d like to thank everyone in the low country for a fantastic week of recording. Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Rocko Walker, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
JACK: Fact Checking by Michelle Harris. Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
Special thanks to Ferris Cadle, Thomas W Mitchell, Buddy Sullivan, Lucy Lea, JR Grovner, Maurice Bailey, Tracey Walker, Chuck Evans, Jia Cobb, Reginald Hall, Fredw Hay, and Doc Thomas.
CHENJERAI: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook @UncivilShow.
JACK: I’m Jack Hitt.
CHENJERAI: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JACK: We’ll see you next week.
JACK: On next week’s episode of Uncivil:
FEMALE VOICE: Black people are the most inconvenient truth about America. And that is why there is, it is a national conspiracy to teach the Civil War in a certain way.
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