© 2024 KVNF Public Radio
MOUNTAIN GROWN COMMUNITY RADIO
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reconstruction-era records reveal how formerly enslaved people were stripped of land

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

It's FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Forty acres and a mule is often referred to as the broken promise of reparations the U.S. government made to the formerly enslaved. Well, a new investigative series by the Center for Public Integrity, Mother Jones and "Reveal" finds that while it was assumed 40 acres was only promised to newly freed Black people, the government did indeed give land to more than 1,200 formerly enslaved men and women only to take the land back after their former enslavers protested.

The Center for Public Integrity made this discovery by analyzing recently digitized records from the Reconstruction-era Freedmen's Bureau. As part of their two-year investigation, journalists track down the titles of hundreds of properties in South Carolina and Georgia. Some of the land taken back is now gated, majority-white communities, with values as much as 2.5 million. This three-part series, which is featured in this week's Mother Jones and the public radio show and podcast "Reveal," explores how this land loss deprived formerly enslaved men and women of building intergenerational wealth. The lead journalist on the project is senior investigative reporter Alexia Fernandez Campbell with the Center for Public Integrity. She covers labor and inequality. And, Alexia, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ALEXIA FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.

MOSLEY: Yes. So what you and your colleagues have done is really a big undertaking. Your reporting - it offers the largest collection of land titles from the 40 Acres program to ever be analyzed and published. And before we get into your findings, I think we should start off by having you first explain what the Freedmen's Bureau promised in 1865 to newly freed Black Americans.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, so it's really interesting because the promise was actually before the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau. It was a general of the Army, General William Sherman, who made the promise. And he basically was marching to Savannah. They were about to capture Savannah with the Union Army. And when he got there, he was told to meet with the Black ministers and figure out, what do we do? What do the newly emancipated people want? So he met with Black ministers, and they said, we want land. That's what we need. And we need to be left alone.

And so that's when he issued Special Order 15 that set aside basically the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, and north Florida to be settled by newly emancipated people. And then the Freedmen's Bureau was created by Congress and by Lincoln, and they were supposed to help freed people all over the South to adjust to society, to help them with, like, schooling, with medical care, and with finding jobs. The Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia and South Carolina was specifically - you know, had the task of making sure they got their land, the 40 acres on the land that was set aside to them.

MOSLEY: And just to note - there was not a promise of a mule, but some people did receive them.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. It's, like, a big misconception. I don't know how that, you know, was included, but some people did get mules, but it wasn't actually part of, like, the policy.

MOSLEY: This two-year investigation - 'cause it's two years, right?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah.

MOSLEY: It began with you guys researching another story. During that research, you stumbled upon this old crumbled slip of paper. What was it that you found?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. So I was looking for a different story, and then I was - someone had suggested that I look at the Freedmen's Bureau records at the National Archives. Then I was looking at these documents, and it was just such a striking image that I looked really closely. And it said, Fergus Wilson (ph), under the order of Special Order 15, has selected 40 acres on Sapelo Island, Ga. No one is to interfere with him. He has the right to possess and hold this land until further authority from Congress. That's not word for word, but that's basically what it said.

And, you know, at the time, I didn't realize what Special Order 15 was, but the 40 acres - I started looking at all the other documents in the files. There were lots of land titles with the same language. But a lot of people had 40 acres. Not everyone - there were some who had 15, 20. And the 40 acres is kind of what stood out to me and also just the appearance of these land titles. They seemed significant. Then I Googled Special Order 15 and then I was like, Oh, my God, this is the 40 Acres program, which I didn't know.

MOSLEY: Yeah, so this took you on a journey along with your colleagues. To then research this even more, you all looked through 1.8 million records created by this Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. These records have only recently been digitized.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, it's been such a long process for these documents to be made easily accessible to the public. Because before, these documents were basically in boxes at the National Archives Research Center in D.C., and, you know, many historians have come out and looked at them, but you have to know exactly what you're looking for because they're not just going to let you loose on all 1.8 million documents. So you have to know what to ask for. And like you said, there were nearly 1.8 million documents that people have to look through. And the handwriting - let me tell you, this handwriting of most of these records is nearly impossible to read.

MOSLEY: So 1.8 million records you all looked through. You found just over 1,000 titles. And I was wondering if this indicates that this issue of these titles then being given back to former enslavers only impacted a small percentage of Black American landowners or were there Black people who received their land, and then were able to keep it?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, that's a really good question. And just to be clear - so we found about 150, like, the physical land titles, but we also found logs, registers, with names of people who got - I guess, about 1,250 people who got those land titles. So I guess it's like where the Freedmen's Bureau agents would be like, I issued a land title to So-and-So on this plantation on that date. So that's where we got 1,200 names. But we only were able to physically get about 150 titles. So just to be clear. So we identified about 1,250 people who got it.

MOSLEY: Did this impact just a small fraction of people who received land, or newly freed Black people, or is this an indication of something larger, and it's just what you all were able to find?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Right. You had asked whether anyone was able to keep that land.

MOSLEY: Yes.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: We did not find any evidence - like, we found -there were more than, like, 70 plantations that people got land titles on. We did not find evidence that anyone was able to keep it. That said, we did not look through every restoration order because it was a whole process to get your land back for the former enslavers. They had to basically file an oath saying, you know, please forgive me. I pledge my allegiance to the Union. And then Andrew Johnson had to pardon you, and then you had to apply to the Freedmen's Bureau for restoration, saying, look, I did all that you asked, now give me my land back.

MOSLEY: You gave some examples of this.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. People writing letters - like, so, in those 1.8 million records - and to be clear, we didn't physically read all 1.8 million. We used - one of my colleagues, Pratheek Rebala, created - used artificial intelligence to scan all the records to look for similar images so that we could find more land titles and more names. Basically, that's how we were able to scan all and review all 1.8 million. So we were looking through those files, and then he created this tool, search tool, where I found letters from the former slave owners to the Freedmen's Bureau saying, I need my land back, or I'm in debt, my slaves want to work for me. Please give it back to me. The planting season is near. This is embarrassing- like, just letters - and then seeing people were getting their land back because in those Freedmen's Bureau records are also the restoration orders.

So all the people that we profiled, that we focused on, all lost their land back to the former slave owners. But we don't know if every single person got there - all the former enslavers got their land back. All the historians and books we read about this say that no one was able to keep their land, but I can't say for sure that maybe there wasn't one or two who was able to buy it from their former enslaver. That wasn't something that was happening. People were selling some of their land to newly freed people because they just couldn't afford to keep it anymore.

MOSLEY: This wasn't, of course, a peaceful back-and-forth. What were some of the ways the land was taken back?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: We saw that, for example, in Georgia, there was a militia called the Ogeechee Home Guard that freedmen had created, and they were - you know, they had their 40 acres. They were planting rice, which is what they had been doing before the war. But now they had their own land and they were planting rice. They were selling it in Savannah. Many of them had been there for a year when they find out that the land is being returned.

MOSLEY: To their former enslavers. Yeah.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, to their former enslavers. So we read about this. It was called the Ogeechee insurrection. And these - this militia - 'cause they had created it to protect themselves. There was a lot of violence, as you can imagine, against the newly freed people from white landowners and just white people in the South in general, who were not happy with how things turned out. So they had this militia to protect themselves.

But then when they found out that that was happening and when the landowners were coming back and trying to tell them, hey; you have to work for us or you have to get out of here - and so they revolted. They were armed. A lot of people were injured. I don't think anyone was killed in that, but the Freedmen's Bureau had to send in the army. I'm not sure - it's unclear how many people in the army came. All we know is that the army was sent in to put down the revolt, and it did. And some of the freedmen ended up in jail.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexia Fernandez Campbell, an investigative journalist with the Center for Public Integrity. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to investigative journalist Alexia Fernandez Campbell about her three-part series "40 Acres And A Lie" in collaboration with Mother Jones and "Reveal," the Center for Investigative Reporting. Campbell and her team recently analyzed digitized records from the Reconstruction-era Freedmen's Bureau. They identified more than 1,200 formerly enslaved men and women who received land as part of the infamous 40 acres and a mule program only to then have that land taken back. This discovery is significant because it was largely assumed that the land was only promised to Black people but never fulfilled. The Center for Public Integrity says their two-year investigation is the largest collection of land titles from the 40 acres program to ever be analyzed and published.

You mentioned these letters that the former enslavers would send to lawmakers. There was a lot of legislative back-and-forth in opposition to President Andrew Johnson, who took over after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. In the end, the favor was on the side of the former slaveholders. As you mentioned, like, you found no evidence that a formerly enslaved person that received land was able to keep their land after a former slaveholder petitioned or wrote a letter to ask for it back. How was the law used to not only strip these Black owners of their land but, in many instances, given instead options that were kind of predatory in nature or definitely predatory in nature?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. So one of the key things here to know is that those land titles - they weren't - they didn't convey permanent ownership. They said possessory titles until Congress, you know, basically can ratify them, make them, like, permanent owners. So it was basically - Sherman left it up to - it had to be done by Congress to grant ownership, the terms of the ownership. But that was always understood, like, that was going to happen.

I mean, the Freedmen's Bureau agents - one of them was meeting with the freedmen afterwards. And he said, this land is yours. You deserve it. You are the new owners. You need this land. God knows it. We know it. Everyone knows it. This land is yours. And it was not, like, the people's imagination that they were going to keep this land. They were told it was going to be theirs. And then Congress could not get enough people to actually sign off on it.

There were lots of people - lawmakers in Congress who wanted to make these permanent. President Johnson, I would say, was the biggest obstructionist in this. Congress was able to pass some bills, but Johnson would veto them every single time. So they ended up having to weaken it - weaken the bill, saying, OK, well, if not everyone is going to get 40 acres, how about just the people who still have land titles and are still on that land a year and a half later? So it kept narrowing who was going to be eligible for this to keep this land. And they still could not pass - they could not overcome the opposition.

So in the end, the last thing they did was they're like, OK, well, people who have land titles and they're still in that land - we'll give them the option to buy some land that we own - the government owns in South Carolina. But it was not - it's not the same thing. And also, it would require everyone to move to - you know, and they had been working and living on this land, thinking it was going to be theirs. So it was kind of, like, a few crumbs for some people.

MOSLEY: Going back to the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau, Andrew Johnson became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Can you talk a little bit about the politics during that time - even for President Lincoln, before he was assassinated, how much of a departure it was for him to actually move in this direction to create the Freedmen's Bureau?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. So I would say that the big departure, the shift was definitely Lincoln's assassination and Andrew Johnson taking over. Before that, Lincoln was - you know, he created the Freedmen's Bureau. It was supposed to help freedmen transition into society. And part of it was managing all the land that had been seized from Confederate landowners and redistributing a lot of it through the 40 acres program but also allowing people to buy land at a discounted rate and it being set aside for freedman who wanted to purchase land at a decent price.

So that was how everyone thought it was going to go. Like, that was how the Freedmen's Bureau agents - 'cause they were there promising - at least the people who were getting 40 acres - promising that this was theirs. They were going to keep it. Even though those land titles didn't convey ownership, they were so certain that Congress and the president were going to ratify into law their ownership rights that they were just saying, yeah, this is yours. You can do whatever you want with it.

So the big departure was clearly, like, Lincoln's assassination. And Andrew Johnson, who was a sympathizer with the Confederates and white supremacists - he took a, like, 180 on that and began saying that he was going to allow Southern Confederates to be pardoned, and they - it was a process. And first, it was just, like, a very few number. And then it was, like, expanded, and Congress went with it.

And, you know, the Freedmen's Bureau resisted for the longest time. General Howard and Saxton, who were part of the - you know, overseeing the 40 acres program - they interpreted it for the longest time as, oh, that amnesty - it does not apply to the 40 acres land. Like, he may be pardoning landowners across the South, but it doesn't apply to this because we already promised this land to the enslaved people who have these land titles. So they resisted.

And the landowners would be like, no. We got pardoned by Johnson. We need to get our land back. And, like, the Freedmen's Bureau resisted for the longest time until finally Johnson was like, no. You got to give them the land back. And eventually, they did. But that's why we saw - you know, some people were on that land for just six months.

Others were able to stay for a year and a half, like on Skidaway Island. They were some of the last people to get kicked off. You know, they knew that there was a Black independent community that had - you know, was thriving there. And they were part of, like, creating that and helping that - making that happen. And they didn't want to see it all get destroyed, especially once they had - when they'd made those promises. So they held off as long as they could. Eventually a lot of them were forced to resign, and new Freedmen's Bureau agents were put in charge. And eventually, that land was given back. So I would say some people held onto it for about a year and a half.

MOSLEY: And how long did the Freedmen's Bureau stay in existence until it dissolved? - because you mentioned how they were just about in every state in the South.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. It didn't last very long. I don't know the exact number of years, but I don't think it was beyond 10 years total. I think it might have been less. But what I do know is that we also saw letters of Freedmen's Bureau agents begging members of Congress to please keep it going longer. There were so many sad letters of, like, agents being like, the Black Americans here - they need us to stay here because we're the only protection they have from the violent white mobs. We're the ones who mediate between them and the landowners or they're - because, you know, at that point, many of them were now working for the former slave holders. We mediate labor disputes. We take records of violence against freedmen. We kind of - we're their protection here, and you cannot get rid of us because it's going to be chaos. And some of the...

MOSLEY: Who were the people who made up the Freedmen's Bureau?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Oh, they were all, like, former army officers, part of the Union Army. Saxton - he was a former general. What I've read about it is that most of them were soldiers in the army.

MOSLEY: There were also instances where, once the land was taken back from former slave holders, they were then either forced or asked the formerly enslaved to work on that land that they had once held.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yes. So we found a lot of examples - you know, the Freedmen's Bureau trying to kind of broker the peace and being like, hey; look; you can work for them, and many freedman being like, absolutely not. I will not work for my former enslaver. There's no way. But some people did sign those work contracts. And, like, for example, one of the plantations on Skidaway Island that is now the Landings - we found some of those work contracts, and one of my colleagues saw that he was - they refused to work. In their case, they're like, no, we're not going to work for them because we know how they're going to treat us.

So they're like, the only thing we'd agree to is leasing the land. And so they signed these lease agreements. And you can see - I can't remember the exact dollar amount of the leases, but they were totally overcharging them for their little plots of land. Pratheek tried to figure out how much it would be worth in today's dollars and how much he eventually sold that plantation.

He's like, oh, they got totally ripped off on these leases. But, so, that was just, like, one example. I know that in some cases, they tried to sell their land to some formerly enslaved people. Most people didn't have that money to buy it, so they couldn't, but some people did. I don't know if we looked to see if that land was, like, overpriced, but we definitely - there were some lease agreements and work contracts that that were not fair, even though the Freedmen's Bureau was supposed to be making sure that they were fair.

MOSLEY: Did you have any indication that all of this land was valuable land? Were some formerly enslaved given land that was pretty hard to cultivate?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Well, because they were plantations, I think they was all valuable land.

MOSLEY: Already existed.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, so this was valuable land for slave owners. The problem was that after emancipation, much of it lost the value because you suddenly didn't have this free labor. So a lot of the former landowners, the slaveholders, they went into debt because they couldn't pay their mortgages on this land because they didn't have that free labor. So they had to sell it. They sold to a lot of Northern investors. Northerners came down, and they hired a lot of emancipated people who seemed to prefer to work for them than to their former enslavers. So yeah, we found a lot of examples where, like, at the time, it suddenly lost a lot of value. Like, because these massive plantations couldn't be productive. They just didn't have the money to pay them. Also, they were in debt, so they weren't making those profits that made it so valuable before.

But then over the years, you could see it become valuable from a development - for a residential perspective because everyone wants to live on the coast, people like to live near the beach. Skidaway Island is an amazing location right between the beach and Savannah. So you could see how it later became very valuable to develop. Obviously, the population exploded all over the country. That's when you see it sky rocket was right after - actually, like, decades later, it became super valuable.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Center for Public Integrity investigative journalist Alexia Fernandez Campbell. We're talking to her about her article for Mother Jones and Reveal, "40 Acres And A Lie." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REGINA CARTER'S "SEE SEE RIDER")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today we're talking to the Center for Public Integrity's investigative journalist Alexia Fernandez Campbell about the three-part series "40 Acres And A Lie," produced and written in collaboration with Mother Jones and Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting. Campbell and her team recently identified more than 1,200 formerly enslaved men and women who received land as part of the infamous 40 acres and a mule program, only to then have that land taken back. The discovery is significant because it was largely assumed that the land was only promised to Black people. The Center for Public Integrity says their two-year investigation is the largest collection of land titles from the 40 Acres program to ever be analyzed and published.

One of the things you all wanted to do was to trace the impact on the descendants. And so in addition to going through the digitized land titles, you all also delved into genealogy to find family members. And one of the stories you start with is Pompey Jackson, born into slavery in Georgia on an estate called Grove Hill, which harvested rice. And Pompey Jackson was a teenager when slavery was abolished and was one of the first to receive a land title under this promise. How much land was he granted?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. It's really interesting because he actually got, like, the fewest acres of anyone we found. He got four acres. And we were trying to think, why did Pompey only get four acres? And we were able to do the research to identify his great-great-granddaughter or one of them. Her name is Mila Rios. She's like, I bet you it's because he was a teenager, and he didn't have a family because I've noticed that a lot of the people who had families - because on the register, where it says how much people got, the bigger the family, the more likely you are to get 40 acres. So I think that's why he only got four acres in Grove Hill.

MOSLEY: What's the story behind his land being taken away?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, so what we know is that he was there on Grove Hill for about a year and a half, and from what we know of what was going on at that time, the people who got land - they were harvesting rice. So more than likely he was doing the same thing. Around 1867, I believe, he's suddenly in Savannah. So a year and a half later, which was - basically by that time, the land had been restored to his former slave owner William Habersham, who was one of the guys writing letters. William Habersham, he's - if you're from Georgia, you probably know about the Habersham family. At the time, they were very influential, very wealthy from all the rice plantations - also from import/export business they had with England. So they were one of the wealthiest families in Georgia at the time. And there's even a street named after the Habershams in Savannah. So he was one of the people writing letters. He even had someone contact his U.S. senator in New York and tell him about his case to please help him speed up the pardon process so he could get his land back.

So we found all these letters, all these attempts for William Habersham to get his land on Grove Hill back. Meanwhile, Pompey's, you know, on the land, probably farming it, harvesting rice, and then suddenly in 1867, a few months after William Habersham was pardoned and got his land back, suddenly Pompey's in Savannah. So, you know, we found out he got married to another freedwoman from South Carolina, and he's working as a carpenter. You know, he registered to vote. He opened a bank account with the Freedmen's Bureau. So he basically starts from zero after having lost that land.

MOSLEY: What did you find out about the family today? Did they talk at all about how this might have impacted them?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, Mila - she helped me tell the story of the family over the years. And one of the things I was wondering was, like - because the value of Grove Hill - it's now being developed into a gated community because I went and looked. And they're selling four-acre lots for about - I think the last one sold in October for 250,000. So I asked her - I was like, well, would that have made a difference? She was like, I don't know, because to be clear, Mila is well-off. She's - you know, I'm sure this is not the same case for every single descendant of someone who got land and had it taken away, but her family did well. They were probably an exception. Pompey was eventually able to buy a tiny plot of land in Savannah. He was a carpenter, so he built the house. But then her family migrated to Philadelphia. The Jim Crow was making it impossible to live there.

She said, I don't know if it would make a difference because we didn't leave Georgia because we didn't have land. We left because of Jim Crow. So she's like, I don't know if we would have been able to keep that land. And she's not sure. She thinks for sure, it would have made a difference for Pompey and his family. She just doesn't know how it would have impacted her because she doesn't know if they would have been able to hold onto it.

MOSLEY: Alexia, Pompey Jackson's descendants may not be sure if their lives were impacted by this land loss. But based on your reporting, you talked with economic professors and historians who talk about the impact this stolen land has had on the ability for Black families to build generational wealth. What did they share with you?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. And I would say that William Darity at Duke has probably looked the most at this. He's an economist, and he's looked at, you know, the impact of this generational wealth. He made the case to me that it doesn't matter if your ancestors were successful and were able to, like, despite all the odds, be able to build a little wealth for themselves - if that land was taken away, and they still succeeded, to some extent. It's how much more land, how much more wealth could they have had if they had kept it. You look at that land now, and I've been there, and my colleagues and I and our Reveal producers - we went there. We've seen. This land is valuable land. It is worth millions. Even 40 acres is now worth, like, millions in some of these locations. That's wealth that was taken away. Whether or not people were successful or not in life, it's more wealth that they could have built.

And he says that it contributes to the, you know, the current racial wealth gap that if they had been able to keep that land, it would have created a - not just an affluent community, but, you know, a Black belt in the South where people had been able to build communities, pass on wealth, and it would have looked completely different than it does today. So yeah, that was something that a lot of experts that we spoke to tried to make that point, was that, it's just wealth that was lost and not passed down. And instead, that was passed down to the descendants of the white slave owners who got the land back, so that - it just kind of exacerbated an issue, a problem that was - already existed.

MOSLEY: You and your colleagues visited a place called the Landings, which is a mostly white community on Skidaway Island, Ga. How would you describe it?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah, this place was amazing. I've never been anywhere like the Landings. It's massive. It's, like, the biggest gated community I've ever seen, and it's absolutely stunning. It's perfectly landscaped. It's wooded. There's just so many birds, and they've done such a good job at maintaining it and there's, like, golf carts everywhere. Everyone's driving around on a golf cart. There're, like, five golf courses. It's huge.

There's seven neighborhoods, and they all have clubhouses. They have restaurants, pools, and then it's there's - it's along the marsh. A lot of the homes, you can see the marshland and clearly an affluent community and very much - basically like a bubble from the rest of the world. And it's only, like, a 20-minute drive to downtown Savannah. So it's really hard to describe. It was kind of jarring, you know, knowing that history, knowing that so many people got land titles on plantations that are now part of this community and not seeing any sign.

MOSLEY: Can you describe these areas before the land was taken back, what they were able to build, what they were able to create and how long that time frame was in these different areas?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. So, of course, as you know, the people who were really creating the value of this land were the enslaved people. They were the ones who had the expertise on harvesting rice and harvesting cotton and doing the work on the land, building the structures, building homes on the plantations. So they're the ones who knew what to do. And they essentially were doing the exact same thing, but they were doing it for themselves, for their own profits, for their families.

So we found, like, a range of scenarios. And not all of them were, like, you know, idyllic utopias like Skidaway Island. What we did find was that people who were on the Sea Islands, where they were isolated from the mainland and white people couldn't come and basically, like, sabotage what they were doing, they had more success in building communities. And so there were schools on many of these islands, communities. They were farming for themselves. They were selling what they harvested in Savannah.

But on the mainland, like, we found a lot of reports of violence against people, freedman who were on their 40 acres, from white. It would just say that - what we found was just letters, for example, Freedmen's Bureau agents saying there's been a lot of violence. And the courts here are not convicting, the juries are not convicting anyone. No one is being held accountable for the murders. So I would say that it was, like, kind of like a contrast between those who could be easily attacked by white mobs or who did not like what was happening, versus people on the Sea Islands who had more protection because of the geography. So we saw a lot of variation.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alexia Fernandez Campbell, an investigative journalist with the Center for Public Integrity. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to investigative journalist Alexia Fernandez Campbell about her three-part series, "40 Acres And A Lie, " in collaboration with Mother Jones and "Reveal" for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Campbell and her team from the Center for Public Integrity recently analyzed digitized records from the Reconstruction era Freedmen's Bureau. They identified more than 1,200 formerly enslaved men and women who received land as part of the infamous 40 acres and a mule program, only to then have that land taken back. This discovery is significant because it was largely assumed that the land was only promised to Black people but never fulfilled. The Center for Public Integrity says their two-year investigation is the largest collection of land titles from the 40 acres program to ever be analyzed and published.

Alexia, one of the issues you delve into in this series is the argument for reparations. You all spoke to people who have varying degrees of opinions on this. And I want to start with the descendant of an enslaved man named Jim Hutchinson, who was once given land on Edisto Island, S.C. Greg Estevez is the great-great-great-grandson of Jim Hutchinson, an enslaved man who was given land, and he spoke with reporter April Simpson. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APRIL SIMPSON: Do descendants of Jim Hutchinson like you - should they get reparation? Should you get reparations? Like, what do you think about that?

GREG ESTEVEZ: So if you look at the totality, 400 years I've been in this country, the middle passage, free labor, Jim Crow, civil rights, yes, you know, I think there should be some type of reparations. What that is, I can't tell you. And I'm not smart enough to know how to fix it. I don't know how to fix it. You know, even today, a lot of people don't even want to acknowledge it. And if they do acknowledge it, they downplay it.

MOSLEY: That was the Center for Public Integrity journalist April Simpson interviewing Greg Estevez, the descendant of an enslaved man who was given land on Edisto Island. Estevez sits on the side of, yes, there should be reparations paid to descendants of the enslaved. Why do you think the how in the argument for reparations is such a hard question to answer for the people that you spoke with? Because as you note, our government does have a history of redress. You delve into this in your article.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. So, you know, the government has given reparations to people. So it's definitely possible to the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during the war. They got reparations, so it's not an idea that is just so fantastical. I think the issue here is there's just so many different opinions on what that would look like because this is so much more complex than one moment, like when the Japanese Americans were imprisoned during one moment in history. This is something that spans, like Greg said, like, hundreds of years. Slavery, but then there was Jim Crow in the South. There was red lining all over the country that prevented people, Black Americans from being able to purchase homes in desirable neighborhoods. And so there's just so many different elements that are a result of our history of, you know, enslaving people that people just have different ideas of what it needs to be.

For example, we know one expert who thinks every single Black person living in the United States should get, I think, $1 million. I think that was his calculation on what would have basically 40 acres meant, like, financially for people alive today, their descendants. But he thinks that, you know, every single Black person - and there are other people who are like, well, no, you have to prove that you're a descendant of someone who was enslaved in the U.S., not that you were the descendant of someone enslaved in another country in the Americas. You know, so there's different ideas of, like, who should get it. And then there's ideas of, like, how much money it should be. And then should it be specific to specific moments? Like, there are a lot of local governments who are giving reparation - not a lot, but there are a few giving reparations for specific policies that their communities implemented that prevented Black people from either owning homes or for taking their land. So then there's, like, very specific local initiatives.

So there's, like, a lot of debate about whether it should be a federal thing, whether it should be a state thing, a local thing and who's entitled to it. So I would say that's why it's become so complicated. But I would say that the majority of Black Americans now - I think there have been surveys showing - do support some form of reparations. It's just a matter of, like, the details.

MOSLEY: And then there's the other side of it, where some people think that it's just been too long, that that's in the rearview mirror and so much progress has happened. And in that way, reparations has come with progress. Your colleague, "Reveal" producer Nadia Hamdan, interviewed Jenks Mikell (ph). And he's the descendant of Isaac Jenkins Mikell, a plantation owner who not only enslaved Greg Estevez's great-great-great-grandfather, Jim Hutchinson, but was Hutchinson's biological father. Now, Mikell's land was part of the 40 acres program, and Hutchinson chose land that was nearby. And Nadia asks Mikell if he's ever grappled with what's owed. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NADIA HAMDAN: Do you feel like descendants of the formerly enslaved who have worked land on these plantations on Edisto Island are warranted some kind of payment or reparations for the time they spent enslaved?

JENKS MIKELL: No.

HAMDAN: No.

MIKELL: No.

HAMDAN: Why is that?

MIKELL: Anybody in this country who wants to do better has the opportunity to do it. There are many, many, many Black folks around this country that have been very, very successful. Now, you explain to me why.

HAMDAN: I mean, I guess I'm trying to understand how...

MIKELL: It's all on them (ph).

HAMDAN: ...Hundreds of...

MIKELL: If we keep giving away stuff, that's all we're going to be able to do - is give away 'cause people don't want to work 'cause they don't have to work because all we're doing is giving them freebies. Nobody ever gave me anything other than this. But - and I had to sweat bullets to keep it.

MOSLEY: That was landowner Jenks Mikell talking with "Reveal" producer Nadia Hamdan. And Mikell is a descendant of a slaveholder. How often did you come up against this opinion?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Well, it's really interesting. And I really credit Nadia and April because they spoke to different descendants of Isaac Jenkins Mikell. I think that's his name 'cause they all have similar names. And they all have different ideas. So I don't know that that - his was, like, I would say, the most extreme view of, like, no. No one is owed anything. And there's a lot of different degrees between that versus, like, yes, people should get a million dollars. So I would say that he was the most extreme. I'm not sure if - I didn't speak to anyone who had that view.

MOSLEY: What he's talking about, though, is this idea of giving land back that - what he's saying is he's struggling just to hold on to the land that he has. And any reparations that would factor in any effort to give land back to people is something that he would be in opposition of. Do I read that correctly? Yeah.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Yeah. No, absolutely. And we all, like, were kind of, like, shocked by his one statement that no one ever gave me anything other than this land, which is a massive plantation. You know, Nadia and April went there. And he has that land, and it's valuable. Yeah, of course it takes a lot of sweat and effort to use the land, to make it productive. But he was given that land. And it's just - it's interesting that he said, no one gave me anything except this, because that seems like a very big thing to have received.

MOSLEY: It's so interesting. You were led to this story by that crumpled piece of paper you found. Have you found any other interesting bits of information that have led you down some other paths?

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Oh, there's so many - I just want to acknowledge and encourage people to look at the Freedmen's Bureau records because, you know, it took so long. There's so many people involved, like members of Congress who, like, passed a law to get them microfilmed at the National Archives. And then, like, Smithsonian is now putting them online. Even the Mormon Church was involved in, like, digitizing a lot of these records. And only in the past 10 years have they become, like, really all readily available.

And they're being transcribed. So they're not even done being transcribed. So that just gives you a sense of, like - there is so much out there that even I don't know and our team that - we spent two months looking at these records - don't even know what's in there. And there's just so many names. There are names of people who - you know, these stories of their histories that have never been told, that have been largely forgotten. So I just feel like it's a lot of stories that could come to life now that these records are more available.

MOSLEY: Alexia Fernandez Campbell, thank you so much for joining us.

FERNANDEZ CAMPBELL: Thank you so much for having me.

MOSLEY: Alexia Fernandez Campbell is an investigative reporter who's part of a team of journalists with the Center for Public Integrity in collaboration with "Reveal," the Center for Investigative Reporting and Mother Jones. The name of their three-part series is "40 Acres And A Lie." Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Presumed Innocent," based on Scott Turow's 1987 bestseller about a prosecutor accused of the murder of a colleague. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND SONG, "RIDE INTO THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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 NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.