S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.
S2: Welcome to Reconstruction. A Slate Academy.
S3: I’m Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent. And I’m Rebecca Onion. A Slate staff writer, a few years ago we hosted the Firstly Academy on the History of American Slavery. In this series, we’re going to pick up where we left off with the end of the civil war and the end of legal slavery in America. That’s the period known as the Reconstruction Era, when freed former slaves, northerners and a few willing white southerners attempted to rebuild the former slave states of the South. Reintegrate them into the United States and rethink what it meant to be a citizen. A super complex, important and in our opinion, underappreciated period in American history.
S4: I had no other time in our history have people been forced to contend with social and political change on that scale all over the south and north, as well as the West Americans for negotiating a radically transform world.
S3: So what do people do when they’re put into a situation like this? In this series, we’ll be talking about some things that people tried, a social and political experiments that were launched by freed black Americans and their allies, black and white. Sometimes those experiments succeeded either over the short or the long term. But more often, for reasons out of the experimenters control, they ended up failing.
S5: And their failure haunts our politics to this day.
S6: So the reconstruction era you might classically think of as lasting from 1865 to 1877. There’s a lot of debate among historians about that periodization. And as we’ll see in the course of this series, that story is not quite so simple. We’re going to be looking at how reconstruction was attempted in different communities across the south and elsewhere. But if you’d like help keeping track of the broader political history, so sort of what happened on the federal level with lawmaking and elections and such? Or if you just need a refresher course on the political history of the period after the Civil War, we put together a background episode, which we’re calling episode zero and a timeline reflecting those events which will be up on the site. You can find that and everything else you need to know about the series at Slate.com slash reconstruction.
S7: You can also find a reading list, Rebecca and I have divvied up the source material in each episode, we will share what we’ve learned and then turn to an expert for a broader view. In this episode, we’re talking about land.
S6: So toward the end of the civil war, General Sherman, and of course, you know, William Tecumseh Sherman met with a group of black leaders to ask them what free people would need to succeed after emancipation. One major answer he got from that group was that free people would need their own land to farm and to own. In response, the general issued the special field order number 15, which decreed that confiscated land ex Confederate land on the coast of Georgia and South Carolina should be distributed to free people to farm. Even before then, some free people had begun forming communities and farming the land for themselves. For their part, radical Republicans in Congress pushed for land redistribution as part of their plan for reconstruction.
S7: But not everyone was onboard with this plan. The president, Andrew Johnson, opposed it. He led a love of the land to fall back into the hands of its old owners. And moderate Republicans in Congress were afraid that confiscating land would set a bad precedent. Some confiscated land was sold to white northerners who became known as carpetbaggers. And in some places, even when the owners wanted to sell and black people had the money to buy, social pressure and racist local or state laws prevented land from going to them.
S6: So we’re going to begin the series by talking about two places where free people carried out experiments and landowning. So we had one and Davis than Mississippi and another in Alabama at Cameron Place. Later on, we’ll be joined by Amy Mirelle Taylor, who is a historian at the University of Kentucky.
S8: To put these stories into context, Jamal, you read about Davis’s band, which had I could see from my cursory reading of the story of really surprising origin.
S9: Yes, I read The Pursuit of a Dream by Janet Herman. It was published in 1981. And it deals with an experiment that that indeed has origins in what I think is something that I did not even anticipate when I was reading. And basically, it begins with Joseph davis’, oldest brother of Jefferson Davis, who would become the president of the Confederacy. Joseph Davis was the slave holder, but Joseph Davis was an interesting slave holder. And that he held to sort of at the time invoke ideas about humane cooperatives, utopian societies. And he hoped to create a plantation that would embody some of these ideas. Yeah. Go on. Herman describes it. Davis is hoping to treat his enslaved people as workers, as human beings. B. Plantation had several innovations, for example.
S10: B, enslaved people were allowed to have their own court in which they would administer justice or a form of it.
S9: And Davis would not punish any enslaved person unless he had the consent of the. That the enslaved people on that court. He made an effort to keep his enslaved people well-fed.
S1: Herman and Rights had, instead of the quote, usual pack of cornmeal per week, each slave was allowed to take as much as he wished from the gristmill for his own use and defeat his chickens.
S9: Enslaved people on the Davis plantation were supplied with pork, occasionally beef and mutton. They were allowed to keep gardens and tend them. They were allowed to sell their labor outside of the plantation to other whites, and they were all to keep their earnings from that work. Davis insisted on his slaves actually learning skills, and he had a doctor on the plantation who tended to them if they got sick.
S1: So a relative to his contemporaries. This is always a this is always one of the things it’s hard to write talk about. But relative to his contemporaries, you could say that Joseph Davis was a good slave owner.
S8: Yeah, I’m glad you said another. Yeah, I mean, it’s hard because. OK. So did did he have a plan to free them?
S9: Davis had no plan to free the people on Davis Bend. Although it is interesting that while there were white people did try to escape, which again, gets to the typical broad point that there’s not really such a thing as a good slave owner because these people are enslaved there. Davis was known for having over a large number of long lived slaves. Mm hmm. So people who were on the plantation for multiple generations who lived until 80, 90, 100. This kind of gets to the conditions on David spent, which were just better than they were on other plantations. So that’s the background. That’s the background of is the antebellum right era. This is the antebellum era. It’s David’s been in Mississippi, swampy, not the most inhabitable place, but cheap land.
S10: And Davis, with his enslaved people, work to turn it into something arable. And that could produce a good amount cotton. And it did produce a healthy amount of cotton. It was a successful plantation.
S9: A key figure in all of this was a man named Ben Montgomery. Ben Montgomery was born in Loudon County, Virginia. He was sold south where he was acquired by Joseph and Jefferson Davis, who at the time of this movement in the 1830s are rapidly accumulating and slave people for this plantation. And Ben, over the course of his time on Davis Bend, became a basic close confidant of Joseph Davis. TV extent that later on Jefferson Davis feels you get this is the Jefferson Davis almost feels a little jealous because they would have been roughly at about the same age or Jefferson of an older but not too much older. And Joseph Davis was about 20 years Jefferson’s senior. So there’s sort of a father son relationship between Joseph Jefferson and Joseph trusted Ben Montgomery so much that there is something of the same. Now, Ben Montgomery is an important figure because after the civil war and after base of the Union Army destroyed much of Davis’s band, recognizing it as the plantation owned by Jefferson Davis. Sure. After the Civil War, Ben Montgomery, essentially with Joseph Davises, help purchases the land and begins to elaborate on this vision of a utopian community. Except for Ben Montgomery and his family, he has two sons, one of whom ended up Isaiah Montgomery, fought in the Union Army. Ben Montgomery believes that he could make this work. And Herman speculates somewhat that Ben Montgomery, who had spent by the time you hit 1860, has been basically two decades in the close company of Joseph Davis is observing, examining. He was a skilled mechanic, working on all the machines, sort of surveying, kind of had an intimate knowledge of the entire operation and believe that he could basically do it better. And so Ben Montgomery, with the help of Joseph Davis and this is important. Joseph Davis ends up being a kind of patron to Ben Montgomery in the aftermath of the war. Writing on Ben’s behalf to union officials demanding fair treatment, there was a union army official in the area who is basically hot, quite hostile to Ben Montgomery. And Ben, with the help of Joseph, basically maneuvered around him to get the resources they need, which included relocating the post office at the general store that Ben Montgomery ran and then he had run prior to the war to and then restarted it.
S1: So Joseph is a patron, provides sort of cheap loans to Ben to get this off the ground. And you get a sense it’s it’s really interesting. You get a sense that even though Joseph no longer is at the plantation, he’s still invested in its success. He wants Ben to succeed. And so he offers him all the help that he can. And in fact, at the end of Justice Joseph Davis’s life, Ben is still in close contact with him and try to provide some money to him, knowing that Joseph Davis was sort of not quite impoverished, but not as well-off as a lot of Ben. So the tables kind of turned a little bit. Yes. It’s an it’s a really fascinating and interesting relationship. They we’re in the 1870s at this point. And the Davis band is now basically a cooperative run by Ben Montgomery, his family. Some some of the people who had been enslaved on David’s been who had returned and knowing between knowing that Ben Montgomery was there, others who had been contraband during the war and stayed. And there’s no Ben Montgomery actually spent quite a bit of time basically navigating power struggles and establishing himself as the kind of leader of this plantation. And they grew cotton at Davis, Ben, and they are quite successful at it for a time. Their cotton Herman recounts an incident, I guess, where David Ben Cardin is shipped off for cotton competition and wins the highest prizes. And local journalists don’t acknowledge it. Instead, heaping praise on cotton shipped by a white planter in the area. So things are basically pretty good for a couple years. He has good harvests. They’re able to pay down the loans they took up from Joseph Davis and begin to advance. And then can a fate where not fate, but chance hits them. Bad harvests, crop diseases, flooding. Ben Montgomery makes can be a fatal business mistake of trying to acquire new land and does so just at the time where he he began to losing revenue from the hit to his cotton crop. And he just doesn’t have access to the kind of capital that would allow him to weather the storm. He basically exhausted in a previous period of agricultural decline. And Davis bent he had basically exhausted his resources with lenders in the area. And for a time he basically had a very the highest credit rating he could have. And part of what’s interesting about all of this, I mean, it’s this is a this is a pretty substantive book. And so I’m obviously glossing over a lot. But I do want to make the observation that precisely because Davis Ben was somewhat on the frontier of Mississippi and Mississippi, it’s kind of the frontier of the slave trade. When Davis Ben is established and the ties between the plantations antebellum are pretty close, people are working together on the regular to keep flooding from happening. Caring or repairing stuff, Ben has a kind of a decent reputation amongst some of the whites there. And that assist him as he attempts to to make good on the dream of Davis, Ben. Anyway, by 80 pithily 1870’s, economic forces are changing political climate in Mississippi.
S11: The backlash against black political power had barely begun in earnest and independently. Economically, independent blacks like the Montgomerys and the blacks at Davis Bed were threatened somewhat and by the 1880s. Davis had basically fallen victim to all of these winds. And Ben Montgomery, who had made no provision for this kind of failure, ends up, you know, dying, having failed to an extent.
S8: So what ended up happening to the rest of his family and the rest of the people there at Davis? Ben?
S11: So Ben Montgomery had two sons, Isaiah and Thorton Montgomery, and they at first kind of took different paths. Isaiah Montgomery was in Vicksburg, Mississippi, attempting to build something of a small black community. Jordan Montgomery had gone out west North Dakota to establish business ventures. Eventually, they both they both worked together to found a new all black kind of utopian community in Mississippi or near Mississippi called Mound Bayou, named for the large Indian mound at its center where the two bio’s converged. They convinced their cousin to give up a small store that he owned and buy a hundred forty acres of land at the site. And both Montgomery’s and their cousin began to advertise this venture to blacks in and around Vicksburg.
S12: So they set up this colony, this colony with a philosophy of self-help and independence and especially independence and white interference. It was very much inspired by their father’s example. And Isaiah was old enough to have been enslaved on Davis Bend. So he has that memory as well. And they basically turn this into something of a refuge at a time when conditions for blacks in the south and nationwide had gotten very bad. This is a period that historians called the nadir of the African-American experience. And so for the remainder of the 19th century, for the first few decades of the 20th, there is this somewhat thriving black community on the kind of the outskirts of Mississippi isolated from whites. Both Montgomerys were somewhat prominent. They had links to the remaining Republican politicians, black public and politicians in Mississippi. They were equated with Booker T Washington. So they weren’t isolated, but they did work to keep themselves at a distance from whites.
S13: So that that frontier aspect of it, again, it’s working to their advantage. Yes.
S12: Be under the radar a little bit there on Guimaraes got involved somewhat in politics. And Isaiah was elected and seated as both the only black person, the only Republican at Mississippi State Constitutional Convention. He wasn’t able to do anything to stop the the otherwise all-White and Democratic Convention from disenfranchising black Americans. But he made a favorable impression on people who saw him try as best, although he was he did receive criticism from black leaders like the venerable Frederick Douglass, who thought that Isaiah had been too trusting of white Mississippians. So this is all a long way to say that the Montgomerys. Tried their best to thrive. Mambi, who was something of a refuge but visitors in the 1930s and 40s hit it. By that time it had declined to not very much, kind of a kind of a old, shriveled farming town. And that was that was the end of it. I want to end on Herman’s conclusion to the whole book. And she writes.
S14: Isaiah Montgomery’s revival of the dream at Mambi Bayou created a colony that prospered for 25 years and provided a refuge, an example of black success when the fortunes of the racetrack at the low ebb. The small landowners in the community could escape much of the crushing burden of oppression that hampered in most Mississippi black. The turn of the century here, as a Davis been told, well, separation was not possible in a complex, interdependent world and eventually forces B.M. economies control brought about its decline.
S8: So I’m finding all this super interesting to hear about, in part because the example that I read about is seems like they were doing a much less sort of self-consciously utopian thing.
S15: So I read a book called A Mind to Stay White Plantation in Black Homeland, which is by Sidney Nathans. And it’s pretty new. I think it’s actually 2017 book and that’s about some land in western Alabama. And it was owned in the antebellum period by a North Carolinian named Paul Cameron, who did sort of the same thing you described with the Davises and which we talked about a lot in the History of Slavery podcast, where he got, you know, excited about cotton in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1830s and forties and ended up buying a bunch of western lands in the 1840s to try to profit from the sort of next big thing. So he ended up bringing one hundred fourteen enslaved people to Alabama in 1844. And so there is one man among those enslaved people named Paul Haggis. You know, Nathans ends up using him sort of as the linchpin of the story, in part because Nathans was able to find relative, you know, a descendant of Paul Haggis who’s still living on this land in Alabama, whose name is changed a little bit. Her name is Alice Ha Gress.
S8: You know, Nathans is kind of looking at this one family over over the years. So sort of the same way that you described with Benjamin Montgomery Haggis When the war comes is a middle aged, kind of like, trusted figure on the plantation. He has a couple of brothers there also. And Cameron has for years sort of been putting him in charge of things a little bit. But he it’s not the same quite exactly the same thing, because the relationship you’re describing between Davis and Montgomery sounds like something pretty singular. Yes. This more sounds like something that probably happened on a number of plantations where the owners, like, fancied themselves to be a little lenient or liberal. You know, it Nathans is a good job of sort of describing how Cameron initially, when he first started farming, believed himself to be like an enlightened slave holder. And then as time goes on, he becomes more and more disappointed with the money aspect of things. So he he basically felt like he had been cheated and to buy his land in Alabama. He was really disappointed by how poorly it was yielding. And he felt like, you know, wherever there’s a complicated story like, you know, his wife’s uncle had led him to believe that it was going be a better plantation than it was. So he started sort of treating people worse and worse. And he also became an absentee landlord. This is even before the war. So you can imagine during and after the war, when there’s so much sort of uncertainty and flux around things. And an owner who’s already sort of like not really wanting to be owning this land is basically like, oh, my God, how do I sell this? So he he basically is leaving the land to an overseer and a white overseer, I should say, who tries really hard to make it produce. But he encounters all these difficulties. And Nathans is like, well, basically, you know, the weather was really bad in that it was super dry and then super wet. And there’s also an infestation of the army worm, which was is apparently terrible for cotton. And but the overseer is sort of blaming it on the enslaved people, saying, like all, they won’t work at all now that the union army is coming. And, you know, I can’t make them do anything. And so after emancipation, there was sort of a number of people who’d been working on the Albay on plantation who left, and then there were some who stayed. So one of the things that’s most interesting to me about this story is the the period of years where it was seems like it was very uncertain what was going to happen there, which is between I would say like eighteen sixty four and some sixty like the early 1870s where it wasn’t clear that Cameron was going to sell. Cameron want to sell the land, but it wasn’t clear that he was going to sell it to the free people. It wasn’t at all clear what was going to happen to the free people, but they stayed. A number of them, a number, the families there. They seemed to sort of believe that they’re sort of like trying to figure out their options. You know, there’s a couple of instances in which they make proposals to Cameron to try to buy parts of the land from him. Or, you know, at one point they they come together and they have raised enough money to buy an acre that they’re going to put a church and a school on. So there is sort of like this collective sense of, you know, how can we make this place our own in a way where they’ve been, you know, again. Paul Hargrave had been there for 20 years. So it wasn’t like a Joseph Davis situation where the enlightened ex-slave holder made like a. Bold decision to try to help the free people. This was more like Cameron was living in North Carolina and he just was like disheartened and upset by everything going on. And he really wants to sell the land. He decided to split it up and sell it. And he appointed a nephew. Actually, his wife’s nephew to do that. And his wife’s nephew, who lived nearby the plantation in Alabama, ended up selling it to the free people. And it basically it turned out that kind of no one else would buy it because, A, the land had not been producing for a couple of years and was sort of seen as like not great. And then B, all the people who had had plantations before the war were really unable to find labor and like deal with labor because they wanted to treat labor like slaves, basically. And so it sort of got into harnesses hands and the hands of a couple other families who had been on the plantation in this sort of roundabout way. You know, it wasn’t because Cameron was kind, it was just because he got frustrated and just decided to wash his hands. And the nephew, you know, he sold the land on credit and he actually ended up it took them a while to really succeed. You know, I think Nathan’s right that Hargis took until like the mid eighteen eighties before he was able to pay off the land, because, I mean, it’s not like the land changed in quality. Once they purchased it and they still had to be farming this land, that was marginal. But this is sort of like a not necessarily an organized community, but like a group of families that had affinities for each other, that had this sort of like a maybe I maybe to call it a settlement. And that’s actually something I want to ask Amy Taylor about is, you know, how many of these situations where free people ended up owning land were pre-planned place where people decided beforehand, you know, OK, I’m going to work this part of the land and I’m going to get X number of bushels or I’m in a profit in this way or you know, how we’re gonna share the profits or how’s that going to be? Just sort of sounds like that’s what David’s band must’ve been like. Yes. And then this situation, the old Cameron place, it’s it’s just like a couple of families who, you know, they mutually helped each other out in various ways. They weren’t pooling their resources in the same way.
S1: So I think you’re right to say that what happened at Davis, Ben, was more intentional, more sort of self-directed and self-consciously utopian. What happened? Alabama. But I think there are broad themes that are similar to both through this this search for autonomy.
S14: This search for a kind of independence and a recognition that it seems. And let me know from running for office.
S12: But a recognition among the people in Alabama that that independence shift necessary for them to thrive.
S8: Yes. There is a definitely sort of a group understanding of that. And it interesting that Paul Haggis, you know, even right after the war, you know, he sort of was refusing to sign a contract with the overseer who, you know, before he was able to buy the land. He was refusing to sign sign contracts. And there was a sense that, you know, it sort of brings you back to the fact that, you know, right after emancipation, there was this feeling of like, OK, what’s it going to be like now? You know what? What are my obligations going to be as a free person and how am I going to make it work here? And the fact that it sounds like not just in these two places, but it sounds like there’s just a widespread sense the land is going to be like the key and that the land that’s wanted is like the land where people were living, which sort of surprises me. And I don’t know why. I guess I would sort of have projected the idea that if you were enslaved somewhere, you might want to leave it. You know, if something bad happened to you somewhere, you might want to run away or go away or start over someplace else. But it sounds like rather than that being the case, in a lot of cases, people really wanted to stay.
S14: Right. I can imagine it being a little complicated. Right. This was the place where you were enslaved and this was the place that you were held in bondage.
S1: But depending especially, I guess, in a place like Alabama or in Mississippi, where if you if you or your parents may even brought there a generation earlier and remained married or you may have been there for, you know, 10, 20, 30 years. That’s right. Is your home. That’s your land. You’ve been working that land. You know that land. And it makes sense to me that. Want to stay there, you want to stay there and kind of have the opportunity to do something with the land that you work to make you understand a you know, even if that comes with painful memories. And I think it says something right that it wasn’t that what it took to bring the majority of black Americans out of the rural south was basically a growing sense that they would never have the autonomy or independence that they wanted. And that’s sort of the psychology, at least that underlying that the great migrations of the 20th century. But it takes and it takes the better part of half a century for black Americans to begin leaving that land en masse.
S16: So now we’re going to talk to Amy Taylor, historian who’s studying landowning experiments in settlements during the civil war and after.
S8: And I’m really excited to talk to her in part because I’m hoping she can talk to us a little more about what the broader picture was in terms of landowning right after the civil war. You know, it’s really fun to get excited about sort of individual examples of where this happened, especially when there’s sort of like a flashy backstory, like with David’s band. But I just want to know, you know, where this is happening, how successful it was and what the broader picture look like.
S17: So here we go. We have on the line Amy myrl Taylor, who has written a book called The Divided Family and Civil War America and has a book coming out called Embattled Freedom Journeys Through the U.S. Civil War as Slave Refugee Camps. And welcome, Amy. Thank you so much.
S8: Thank you for having me. Maybe you could start out by just sort of giving a broader picture of the maybe the geographic distribution of where people ended up owning land, the kind of the ways that they ended up owning land that you’ve seen in your research?
S18: Well, certainly the impulse to own land was everywhere. I mean, this runs deep in United States history and certainly pretty much any enslaved person coming out of slavery into freedom envisions themselves as a landowner. Landowning is freedom. It’s independence. It’s working for oneself. So the impulse was everywhere and attempts to own land were everywhere. The story, though, of who actually was able to purchase land does tend to settle out with some geographic patterns over time. And if we fast forward towards the end of reconstruction, we can see that most landowning or the greatest concentration of landowners were in the upper south Virginia, Kentucky, basically outside of the cotton south. The cotton south is where you see white southerners holding on to that land ever more tightly. So that is one geographic pattern that plays out over time. As far as numbers or percentages go, one standard estimate that we tend to hold on to is that by 1880, about 20 percent of black households owned their own land. So that in the South or in the US, in the south, across the whole south southern state, also the former slave holding states. So depending on your perspective, I think that’s a pretty significant number. But, you know, again, that depends on your perspective.
S13: So does that include people who were free before the war? Or can you separate out the population that is free?
S18: Well, it does include people who were free before the war, got the free black population in the south before the war was about 6 percent of the black regulation. So clearly former slaves were a big part of that property owning group by 1880.
S17: And do we have a sense of whether people ended up owning land near where they had last been enslaved or were they moving? Because I know people were moving like crazy all over the place.
S18: Yes. So there are not really there aren’t really any great figures. No real good quantitative studies that can give us an exact view of what percentage of the former slave population was within certain number of miles of their former plantation. But there is there are smaller scale studies that show an inclination for former slaves very early after the end of slavery. So really during the war and right after the end of the war, tended to migrate back to the county from which they came to the neighborhood from which they came, not necessarily to the former master, but to the general area. But then we see over time we start to see more migration to two farther away places, basically as the prospect of land owning for some becomes very discouraging in the places where they came from. And so they migrate out west, they migrate out to other more remote parts of the south. So over time, that does begin to change. But initially there is a return back to where people came from.
S1: To what degree are you landowning, formerly enslaved people able to maintain any kind of independence? Because they still have to access markets, they still have to sell goods, possibly services and big it seems the other enslaved people wouldn’t be a large enough market. They have to have some kind of contact with whites in the area.
S18: Absolutely. So just purchasing land is just one of the big obstacles, and those who did purchase land especially fairly soon after the end of the war, first they find that the land itself might have been land that union troops had come through. And so livestock’s gone, fences are gone. You know, the fields have been pillaged. So there is an enormous amount of capital that’s needed just to get an operation up and running again. And so once one has already sunk so much money into the land, there’s not often a lot of leftover capital to get the operation going. So we see a lot of examples of some pretty ingenious kind of improvisation that goes on. I mean, just taking scrap metal and making the tools rather than being able to go out and purchase them and so forth, or people who have to revert cotton lands to growing food because they just don’t have any capital left to go purchase food. So a lot of that goes on. But also what starts to happen are a number of cooperative ventures and these aren’t formal organizations or anything but groups of landowners who come together and pull what money they do have to share tools to share any other sort of supplies that they might need. So they do this because, of course, they don’t have the capital. And, you know, borrowing money was a difficult prospect for anybody coming right out of slavery. They’re simply, on the one hand, not a lot of credit in the South after the war, but certainly not a lot of credit available to a former slave. So it’s in these improvised cooperation as sort of efforts that we can see an attempt to make do and to build.
S13: But it’s a very difficult long term problem for all of these farmers, whether northern blacks who are trying to help, like whether maybe, you know, a situation where organization of northern black people might try to extend credit or like figure out how to assist these people, or is that sort of impulse more focused on helping people who needed food right now?
S18: Well, a little a little bit of both, actually. And I think it’s really important when we’re talking about reconstruction to pay close attention to our timeline and how things changed over time. I, like many historians, see reconstruction beginning with the war itself. A lot of the work of integrating these former slaves into the American citizenry happens during the war. So I see that is really a beginning. And the war brings, of course, a lot of northerners into the south. Not just through the army, but missionary organizations, church organizations. One of the groups that’s sending a lot of people is the A.M.E. Church. And they start. So some of these northern African-American people, some of whom who had been slaves themselves and were now returning to the south, they bring quite a bit of support and a lot of it is support in terms of helping to set up schools and establishing churches. But there is financial support as well. There’s a lot of fundraising that goes on in the north, particularly during the war in this earliest period. And so money does come down and food comes down. Clothing especially what happens over time is it starts to kind of dwindle. You know, the war emergency really does galvanize the northern population in a way that is not really sustained through the rest of reconstruction. But there’s always gonna be there are always going to be some northerners, some philanthropic northerners who are helping some of these farmers. But quite frankly, it’s never enough.
S14: And these farmers, I mean, they really struggle for free, the enslaved people who own their land and who were working in these cooperatives, that they manage to make any sort of generational transfers like we did with our children and grandchildren, able to also maintain this land ownership, or was it such a precarious thing that that wasn’t it wasn’t able to sustain itself?
S18: Yes and no. I mean, the precariousness gets even more precarious over time. There is an economic recession in 1873. Cotton prices start to go down. And so more and more things start to happen to make these very precarious enterprises. But some do hold on and those who hold on do keep it in the family. There are still families today who have the land that their ancestors had purchased long ago. It’s not been, of course, an easy thing for the subsequent generations there during the period of Jim Crow. There were some problems with descendants. Being able to get the legal work done to hold on to title of the land because they don’t always have access to the courthouses or the local clerks weren’t very helpful and so forth. And even today, some families don’t actually have legal title to the land that has been passed down in their families from generation to generation. And I’m very clear example how we’re living with this history still today, because that’s a very vulnerable position for them to be in today.
S19: Thinking about the sort of a conversation among politicians during the war and right maybe right after about landowning redistribution. Sort of the general sense that I get is that there were some people in the administration who said, OK, this is, you know, our Earth administration or or Congress of Thaddeus Stevens, you know, are arguing for redistribution. And then it sounds like there were some people, at least in the example of the Sea Islands where who were union army officials who were advocating for people to be owning land for free, people to be owning land. And I guess I’m sort of wondering what the conversation was like sort of among Republicans about whether free people should be owning land. I also get the center. Eventually it became the case that people said, oh, it is just too dangerous to be redistributing land to people. Like that’s that’s a precedent for what we’re doing in capitalism that we don’t like.
S8: But it seems like in a way, if you have the large population of people who are newly freed and that loose ends in a way it would be, you know, besides being fair, it might sort of contribute to social stability to give them land.
S20: Right. Well, here again, we see a shift from war into reconstruction, that during the war itself, there’s actually what we might think to be a surprising amount of northern northern Republican support for seeing in formerly enslaved people become owners of their own land.
S18: And this dwindles over time. But during the war itself, yes, there’s there’s a certain idealism to it. There is you know, they don’t use the word reparations, but there is that kind of talk among the most radical of Republicans. But then there’s a whole segment of these northerners who are looking ahead and trying to think about how a post-slavery society could work in the south. How are they going to transition this whole region from a slave economy and a slave society to a free one? And so the idea of settling African-American people on their own land is land owners becomes one of the ways they can envision this as a free society, as a society based on free labor.
S20: So and this is something they’re they’re bringing with them from the north. I mean, this is a very northern principle and way of life free labor. So this is how it can work. So it has a very practical sort of argument here. But there are some other arguments that swirl around as well. An important one is even some of the most even abolitionist minded northerners who are so anti-slavery are also resistant to seeing the slave population migrate north. And that becomes a pretty important strain in northern politics. We don’t want to see them migrate north or they know their constituents don’t want to see this. So they want to prevent this. Well, taking those plantation lands, breaking them up and allowing former slaves to settle in the south is going to, you know, relieve the fears of some of those northerners and make the end of slavery more palatable to them. So there’s a political argument there as well.
S9: So you mentioned at the beginning of our interview that a lot of the landowning among enslaved people or firmly in peoples in the upper south. What what did the situation look like in through the deep south in your you know, Louisiana is Mississippi as Florida panhandle. What what was life like for formerly enslaved people in those in those places, which it’s my understanding, had both higher concentrations of black Americans, but also like more repressive atmospheres?
S18: Well, when we’re talking about those regions, we’re talking about the regions with the major cash crops, of course, specially cotton. And during again, there’s change over time during the war. Some of the most vigorous efforts to redistribute land are happening in those very regions. And so the promise of owning land is there and alive and well for many formerly enslaved people. But then it really comes down to the lands themselves and the concern, particularly among white southerners of reviving their cotton plantations to restoring the operations they had before the war. And this makes them very possessive of their land and very concerned with trying to get African-American people to. Turned to some sort of position that, OK, maybe it’s not slavery exactly anymore, but can be controlled by these cotton planters, so they’re just trying to return to what they had. And so what it means is the dream of land ownership dies very quickly and for people coming out of slavery and those regions and. But we can’t assume that. Then they give up. We can’t assume that then nobody purchase land. They still did. And the numbers of landowners do increase over time, but they do it under such conditions, such intransigence. They do it, you know, in the circumstances we’ve talked about. They do it even amid the fact that they become targets for white violence once they do purchase their own land. I mean, there’s real enormous obstacles, but they still do. I think that’s, you know, in some ways sums up the story of reconstruction progress amid some of the most harrowing conditions and even tragedy.
S8: It’s right there. I want to ask a gender question. Sure. I feel like the examples that we read about, it seems like there were male led that men seem to have maybe because they were more commonly artisans who had a skill and could make money and then have some capital from that skill. They seem to be the ones buying the land. Is that a sort of correct blanket assumption? Were there women who were buying?
S18: Well, I’ll I’ll start with a statistic that I think is really telling. So before the war, there was a small free black population and one third of that of the property owners in that population were women. So women were 30 percent of black property owners before the end of slavery by 1870. They are eight percent. So the rate of property ownership really accelerates for men and beyond that, for women. So what’s gone on with women? Why would this happen? Well, there are a couple reasons. One is their access to capital. And here we can have to start with the civil war. The civil war creates opportunity for African-American men, but not so much for African-American women. Most notably serving in the Union Army. So some of these men, they come home, they’ve got backpay, they’re collecting bounties, they’re collecting. And this becomes an important source for them to then go purchase land. Or oftentimes what they do is they pool their land. A group will pool their money and go purchase. The women don’t have that. Now, some of them, a good number did work for the Union Army as launder SIVs and cooks and so forth, but not at the numbers of men. So that’s going on. Then there is something related to what you mentioned, occupation and occupational restrictions. They’re just more options for men in the post-war period than there are for women. And then also, I think women, what they encountered, what they realized very quickly is that free labor may be coming to the south, but free labor is something built on gender inequality because also the Freedmen’s Bureau, as they are helping men and women devise labor contracts, you know, to go work on a farm, to start to earn money and savings, their contracts to simply pay women less than men. I mean, it’s just basic, simple wage and equality there. So for all these reasons, women just can’t accumulate the money that men can. And then on top of that, northerners who are coming in, the federal government, whether it’s the army or the Freedmen’s Bureau, are bringing with them the assumption that the male head of the household is the property owner, and that if there’s any land that the government is selling, it’s going to go into the name of the male head of household. This is not something that former slaves necessarily embraced. It’s not necessarily how they envision their households even. But this was the way things were done in the free labor north. And so this would put African-American women in a completely different position as far as being able to become owners of property.
S6: How were they envisioning their households? The former slaves?
S18: Well, you know, these were families that had endured enormous amount of trauma, separation from the slave trade. But families that had continued to survive and adapt. So they were large, they were extended. They included people that might not be blood relatives, whereas you have these northern white Americans coming down in the Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau who. Idealise the nuclear family as that’s what a family was. And so when they looked out on the slave population in many ways, their policies were were continually trying to grip former slaves into these neat little nuclear households and would therefore, you know, devise a labor contract or a deed of land with that household in mind. But that’s not exactly how former slaves were living.
S8: All right. So I know that you wrote are writing about refugee camps during the Civil War. And I’m curious what the relationship is between those camps, which must be sort of like formed out of nothing under duress and the sort of like community impulse or landowning impulse like there, their connections to be drawn between that history and what happens during reconstruction when it comes to religion?
S20: Well, I think what happens was during the civil war and with the creation of these refugee camps is the origins of everything that we’re talking about in reconstruction. It really a lot of these communities emerge from a civil war refugee camp. Now, for anybody who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. And the reason why I think it all begins with the civil war is a civil war really breaks open the question of land in the south. And it does this as the union army comes in, makes its way deep into deep pockets in the South and the Mississippi Valley along the coast of South Carolina and begins to occupy over eight hundred thousand acres of land. And at the very same time, enslaved people from the very first month of the war start fleeing to wherever the Union Army is. Well, before Lincoln’s even talking about emancipation and they become people who are occupying this land. And as they do so, first in what are very makeshift refugee camps, I’m talking tents and real desperate effort to survive.
S18: But as they do this, they begin to imagine and they can imagine for the first time a post-slavery south in which the land, the plantations are broken up and people are resettled. And essentially the south is remapped away from the plantation south and into something in which they can be landowners, too, and form their own communities as well. So one example is on Hilton Head Island, where some of enslaved people had stayed when their masters left, but then more from other places started to come in. And by 1862, a new town had formed out of what was essentially a refugee camp. It was called Mitchellville. It was named after the union general who was involved in this effort.
S20: And there’s this map at the National Archives, this beautiful colored map that was created at the time that shows a diagram of this town. And with the streets laid out in a grid pattern and you can see that there are hundreds of new shelters that have been built, really cabins. And on the outskirts are the lands, the cotton lands that they are going to work and harvest. You can also see amid all the houses, church, school. So this is where you see some towns emerging very organically out of what was initially a refugee camp. But there’s a postscript to this story. I mean, this is what makes the story so complicated. And I don’t mean to get ahead of you here.
S18: But we have these these towns who that start to emerge in various parts of the south during the war, especially those that are way from military campaigns that have basically the security and the safety to be able to do this. But this is all done on those plantation lands that the union has acquired during the war. And then the war ends. And then the question becomes, whose land is this? Is this this is a question in the minds of these white northerners. Is this still the land of that plantation owner before the war, or has this become the land of those who’ve now been living there for several years and have built a town on it, have improved the land and so forth? And although there is, as we’ve talked about, a great deal of northern support or a good deal of northern support for letting African-Americans hold on to this land. Ultimately, though, that support diminishes. And the crucial moment comes with the ascension of Andrew Johnson as president, who determines that these lands in his mind belong to those antebellum plantation owners and all the land should be restored. And so what happens in 1865 to 1866? A lot of these towns. Actually get evicted from these lands and some of them completely disappear. And it’s this really harrowing story in some cases of individuals who have made this near new home and they’re imagining a whole new future here. And now they’re made to leave. And it doesn’t come without significant resistance from the freed people who have built these towns, who have put a lot into them, who see this as their land and lots of resistance in the form of public meetings and public protest and just simply refusal to leave. So this is a really important part of the story that really sets back the question of land ownership for a while. But of course, even those who are evicted, they still want land and they still are going to seek it and continue to do so in the reconstruction period.
S8: Andrew Johnson strikes again. Yes. Yes. I thought he was antagonistic towards big southern landowners.
S18: He was antagonistic towards big southern landowners for a time. And this is part of the reason why he stays loyal to the union and he serves as the military governor of Tennessee during the war. But he’s a complicated man. And let’s just say that. And, you know, at first when he becomes president, he creates his amnesty plan. You know how he’s going to bring white southerners back into the union. And his plan does actually seem to punish those big landowners. And just very briefly, his plan is that anybody, any white southerner who takes the oath to the union will have their voting rights and their property rights restored. But those who own more than $20000 dollars worth of land are excluded from this. So initially he. He excludes them. But there’s a little caveat to his plan. And it says, but if they appeal for a pardon, a presidential pardon, then they can potentially actually get their rights restored. And how do they appeal this? Will they appeal directly to Andrew Johnson? And so they do. And Andrew Johnson finds himself in this position in Washington with all these big wealthy landowners. He’s always been a bit critical and resentful of who are coming to him, basically groveling, you know, give me my rights back. And he liked it. And he gave and he basically pardoned all sorts of people. And and then very publicly became very conciliatory of these large landowners. So he undergoes this sort of transformation. And that’s a big part of the story of how land gets taken away from many of these freed people who had been claiming it.
S14: And then that that, of course, that kind of just structures the political economy of the south for the next couple decades.
S20: Yes, because the landowners are back with their big plantations. The. You know what free people were calling the great land monopoly, these land monopolies. They wanted the monopolies broken up, but they were not broken up.
S13: I find it interesting because when we were doing our sort of intro episode about the political history of reconstruction, there was a sort of a note somewhere that I read the grant.
S21: Didn’t, you know, do as much as we in hindsight would have liked him to do to stop redemption because he didn’t want to, like act out of the role of the presidency, like he didn’t want to be an overly powerful president.
S8: And and I hear that and then I hear the story about Johnson and the land. And I’m like, wait a second. Were people mad at Johnson at the time for doing what he did with, you know, pardoning all those people are.
S20: Absolutely. Absolutely. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, freed people. Absolutely.
S18: But Northern Republicans and what people like Thaddeus Stevens, let’s say we’ve talked about him already. They’re very angry with him. And then they’re angry when they start to see some of the immediate consequences of what Johnson has done. And some of the consequences are the white southern power structure that was in power in the states, in the southern states at the time of secession is now back in power in those southern states. And they start passing black codes, for example, laws that are trying to get African-American people back in as close to a subordinate position as possible. One of the black codes in some states was relevant to what we’re talking about here. Mississippi, for example, bans the sale of land to former slaves, makes it illegal. So this gets northern Republicans, of course, very angry. And this is where we see the coming of what we call radical reconstruction. And basically, they’re going to start reconstruction all over again. And Grant President Grant, of course, would oversee that process. So started all over again. You know, send those white southerners out of power, restructure the state governments under military supervision in the south and make sure this is done right in their view.
S8: But there wasn’t a way to reverse what happened with the land on the islands and say, oh, no.
S20: And you know, the problem, I think with it. So so the great moment of the federal government overseeing the redistribution of land really dies with Andrew Johnson. And it was never revived. Not very much. There’s a little bit I could talk about, but generally, no. And I think part of the problem is that among northern Republicans, aside from the the radicals who would love to keep that question alive, the more moderate Republicans who had once been during the war in favor of this, they start to kind of gravitate away.
S18: And why did they do that? Well, some of them they look at, you know, slavery is gone. It’s been defeated. The federal government’s supremacy has been restore the Dhamma. Democracy has been saved. White southerners during radical reconstruction are no longer dominating their state legislatures. And they sort of say, you know what? That’s enough. We’ve gotten a lot out of reconstruction. You know, we are already making the white south pay. Perhaps taking their land is going too far. And so some lose interest.
S19: So this is all been so interesting. What I’m curious about is whether there is a way to think of the story of landowning during civil war, reconstruction, maybe even after reconstruction, going to the Jim Crow era as a narrative like is there a way to think of it as a whole story across the whole south or is that asking too much? And this is just sort of a diverse and and random series of a series of incidents. Or is there sort of a takeaway that we can bring from this?
S18: I think the story of land, land owning land redistribution is really in some ways an embodiment of one of the bigger themes of reconstruction, which is the story of freed people’s persistence and continual push for progress amid continual obstacles, tragedy and strain. It’s you know, we have again, by 1880, we have 20 percent of this black population owning land. And this is a mid even the federal government withdrawing its support. State laws restricting them and people on the individual level trying to thwart them. And yet the progress still continues. I think these two qualities of persistence and tragedy are what make reconstruction so difficult sometimes to understand. But I think we have to. Really reckon with both of these qualities and not try to put reconstruction in any sort of simple box. It is this dynamic between persistence and tragedy, and I think land shows that very clearly.
S8: Thank you so much, Amy, for coming in to answer all of our questions.
S18: Thank you for having me here on such an important subject.
S22: So, again, it seems like we’ve come to a similar place that for as much as much of what’s happening in the south or in reconstruction is in flux, is chaotic. It’s different depending on the region, the south you’re in.
S14: There are few people in at least official political life, in mainstream political life who had the imagination necessary to really move forward with this, that there is kind of a profound inability to imagine like a different a different way of organizing society than, you know, large white landowners, capital intensive industry in that that the exception to this is among the enslaved people themselves are the formerly enslaved people who in ways large and small, are trying to imagine different futures and also is trying to live their lives, trying to find them. Right.
S22: If the security they can find. But for them, they even even the act of trying to create that security spurs a kind of different conception of how how things should be organized. And what I find so interesting about the readings we’ve done so far in the interviews you’ve done so far with regards to to reconstruction is how much the former slaves see themselves as fully autonomous people able to make choices on their own behalf.
S14: And how much of that conflicts with so many of the of the whites north and south, who are coming to the south to, you know, rebuild?
S21: Yeah, totally. I mean, in a way, in a way, you know, it’s easy to be mad at Andrew Johnson. You know, he’s not a figure who, you know, inspires much love for me. But he wouldn’t have gotten away. I don’t think with what you did in relationship to restoring the land to the former Confederates, if there wasn’t just a lot of inertia against giving the land to the people and thinking about it in that way, it becomes like even more clear that the way that people were thinking about it was kind of profoundly radical in a way.
S1: Right. If the entire project of reconstruction, the integration of four million formerly enslaved people into American society, if that project itself is quite radical, then the degree to which how the freed people understood what that required was even more radical.
S16: Well, that does it for this first episode of Reconstruction Academy. In our next episode, we’re gonna move on from talking about experiments and land owning two experiments at administration. We’ll talk about the Freedmen’s Bureau, as well as the people who came to be known as carpetbaggers. Our guests will be Ed Eyre’s, who has a brand new book out about the decades that followed emancipation. If you want to prepare for that episode, you can find some links to the reading we’ll be discussing on our show page. That’s at Slate.com Slash Reconstruction. You’ll also find supplementary materials for all of our episodes that are.
S23: Have a question or comment for me. Rebecca posted on a private Facebook page and we’ll do our best to respond. You’ll find the link to that on our show page. Again, that’s Slate.com slash reconstruction.
S16: Our Reconstruction Academy is a product of Slate. Plus, he received production support from Bunk, a new online hub for American history related media. Check it out at bank history. Dawg support also comes from With Good Reason. A weekly podcast from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
S23: Our producers, Toni Field. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate.
S5: Plus, we’ll be back with you next week with Episode 2 of Reconstruction Academy. Thanks for listening.