Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
Reconstruction, then and now (Part I)

Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Today we’re visiting the South Carolina Lowcountry. Home of the state’s Sea Islands. Historically, the wealth generated by enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants has sustained this region as one of the wealthiest in the United States.

[Background sound: Waves and distant seagulls]

SAL: To visitors today, the Lowcountry is a coastal paradise. It’s full of beaches, unspoiled marshlands, and rivers. Lowcountry residents and visitors today can partake in the many delights of charming boutique shops, architectural splendor, and some of the South's best seafood.

The Lowcountry communities are also a place of significant historical relevance to the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras. This is where Harriet Tubman led the Combahee River Raid, a naval assault that secured freedom for over 700 enslaved people. It’s a place that embodies the promise of America’s post-Emancipation Reconstruction and the reverberations of its dismantling, the effects of which can still be felt today.

The stories we’ve told ourselves about the South during Reconstruction are riddled with mistruths and outright lies. One example of that is the convenient narrative that Reconstruction, that revolutionary expansion of freedom and democracy that followed the Civil War, failed. The danger of this single story of Reconstruction just falling apart suppresses the amazing and terrible things that happened here and their impact on the region today and in the future.

On October 19th, 1865, less than six months after the end of the Civil War, Union General OO Howard visited the low country island of Edisto to deliver terrible news. The freed people of Edisto would have to forfeit their recently acquired land, returning it to their former enslavers.

General Howard was trusted by the Edisto Islanders. He'd been given the seismic task of overseeing the transition of 4 million enslaved people into freedom across the South. And South Carolina had the largest black population, nearly 60%.

On Edisto, there were about 5,000 African Americans eager to make the most of their freedom.

The Freedmen's Bureau had few resources except for 850,000 acres to redistribute to freed people in the region. This was land the federal government had seized from plantation owners for tax delinquencies and abandonment.

Howard stood at the church’s pulpit delivering the news to the islanders who pleaded with him to keep their land. A woman in the audience began singing a dirge-like hymn. Then the others joined in. The power of this song, perhaps the best way to articulate their devastation.

[Gospel choir sings “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”]

SAL: In just a few short years, before the Emancipation Proclamation, freed people around the Lowcountry had established thriving communities, with plots of land distributed so everyone had the opportunity to live upright by providing their own subsistence. They established schools, churches, businesses, everything their communities needed to thrive.

Chris Barr: On November 7th, 1861, the US Navy, captured the Sea Islands around Beaufort for the purpose of just turning this into a supply base so they could blockade Charleston. But something unique happened here, and that is that all the white folks ran off.

SAL: (08:41) Chris Barr is Chief of Interpretation at the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort.

CB: They were concerned about, uh, a slave revolt. They're outnumbered 10 or 15 to one.

And there's only about a thousand or so white people. So they're really worried about a slave revolt. Uh, but this, the, these are also the hyper wealthy planters of South Carolina, uh, the so-called planter class. These are the people that have been agitating for secession. And so there is a little bit of concern that the US Navy or the US government's gonna come in here and start hanging people for treason. So they abandon this place.

SAL: When the military did arrive to set up a supply base, they met no white secessionists. Instead, thousands of people whose status as enslaved or free was now unclear—and they're eager to work. With limited resources, the military wants them to be self-sufficient and needs their labor.

CB: And so in many ways, sort of this renovation, this reconstruction, begins kind of accidentally.

Caroline Grego: That is one of the reasons why the Lowcountry holds such fascination, um, because it does have this sort of idiosyncratic trajectory of during the Civil War and in the ensuing decades, where not only does it become one of the only places in the South where any sort of land redistribution occurs, uh, but it's also a place where black political autonomy, uh, and landed autonomy generally persists, um, for decades afterwards.

SAL: That’s Dr. Caroline Grego. She's an assistant professor of history at Queens University of Charlotte, and her work primarily focuses on race, environment, and labor in the Lowcountry.

CG: (25:39) Um, Edisto is a very large island. Um, and, uh, some of the rivers that lead up to it are in fact very good for rice cultivation. And of course, uh, where else does rice grow in intertidal waterways in West Africa. Um. And so of course, enslaved Africans, you know, use this expert knowledge that they have in the cultivation of rice in this sort of tidal zone. They bring that to the low country, um, and they're of course, um, through this massive matrix, um, of these massive plantations that are meticulously engineered through the use of this expert knowledge that enslaved Africans have.

SAL: In the last episode, we talked about the Lost Cause narratives that Confederates created—that enslaved people needed their enslavers, that enslaved labor is unskilled. But what happened in the Lowcountry when the plantation owners leave confirms that with freedom, with the space to self govern and enjoy labor autonomy and economic empowerment, black communities thrived. Many earned wages working for the military and they prospered from selling their surplus goods.

CG: It means that you do indeed have what could be referred to as isolation. But I don't know, I feel like that word has always felt a little inadequate to me, right?

It doesn't quite capture the dynamic of what happened on these Sea Islands, which is that you have, of course, um, generations of enslaved Africans and African Americans who begin to, uh, draw upon their West African religions and traditions, um, and adapt them to the Lowcountry context.

Um, and because they are existing within these overwhelmingly majority black, um, you know, twisted kinds of enclaves under slavery itself, right? And then also, of course, these island locales that allow this culture and religious traditions to sort of foment. Um, all of that is what gives rise to the Gullah Geechee culture, um, in which sets up the region for a really interesting sort of unfolding of its history after the Civil War.

SAL: So when white landowners abandoned Edisto in 1861, they left behind a community of people who, for generations before being enslaved in America, had the rich social and cultural traditions and the knowledge and skills they needed to prosper. Newly freed people understood their value and what they could achieve on their own if just given the opportunity.

When the white planters fled and the US military showed up and began making plans to take advantage of the boon the Lowcountry communities offered, Black Edisto residents understood what an Alabama Freedmen turned lawyer described as the “tocsin of freedom.”

He said, “When I was a slave, I didn't know anything except to obey my master, but the tocsin of freedom sounded and I walked out like a man and shouldered my responsibilities.”

So when the islanders saw their shot, they were ready, willing, and able to take it.

CB: In the 19th century South—in the 1800s, uh, you know, there’s sort of this idea that you’re nothing unless you own property. You know, for the people who had legally been property, they kind of know that better than anybody, right?

And so they start to ask these questions, well, why don’t I own this land? Right? My grandpa worked this land. My dad worked this land. I've worked this land. The guy who owns this land, he ran off and he seceded from you anyway.

Why don’t I own this farm? Uh, and so the position of the US government was that essentially that secession isn’t legal. So as far as they were concerned, these are just US citizens. Uh, the white people here were just US citizens who have abandoned their property and are now delinquent on their taxes. So they just start auctioning off all this farmland, uh, and even mansions here in downtown Beaufort for unpaid taxes.

SAL: Suddenly, the island’s black population had the opportunity to own the land they had been enslaved on for generations.

CG: These costs usually about a dollar to a couple dollars per acre, sometimes higher, but that’s sort of the usual price that you see. And as a result, about 20,000 black residents of Beaufort County are able to purchase land.

CB: So formerly enslaved people were able to purchase, uh, land, usually in 5, 10, 15 acre plots. Uh, but sometimes, you know, they’re purchasing bigger plots of land. Most famously, Robert Smalls, uh, who, who goes on to serve in Congress after the Civil War, purchased his enslaver’s old mansion just a few blocks away from where we’re sitting right now. Uh, there’s another enslaved woman named Mary Bell, who purchased her enslaver’s mansion.

CG: It gives them autonomy. Um, it gives them this sort of isolation from white control. Um, and it allows them to build their own communities, um, and establish sort of their own practices of, of living, of making a living, um, of religion, of culture, and so, and language and so forth. Um, and of course, in the low country, that’s all described as, you know, the Gullah Geechee people, um, who have created and maintained these specific linguistic and cultural practices over centuries.

SAL: Gullah Geechee is the only Creole language in the US that is directly linked to African languages, like Bantu. A study of the language in the 1940s found people living in the Sea Islands who could recite songs and stories in languages spoken across West Africa. Gullah crafts and material arts like basket making arose out of agricultural necessity and are now some of the region’s most recognizable art forms.

This is an incredibly hopeful and prosperous time for the people of Edisto. There’s a feeling that land ownership is just the start to becoming fully enfranchised Americans.

CG: General Sherman’s Special Order Number 15, right? Which promises that these hundreds of thousands of acres will be set aside, um, for formerly enslaved peoples and their descendants. This is of course, the origins of the 40 acres and a mule phrase. Now, this doesn't come into fruition, right?

SAL: America has a new president. Andrew Johnson, a conservative Southern Democrat, has no interest in this project of Reconstruction, which aimed in part to protect freed people’s rights to self-determination. For the most basic things like marriage and family integrity, land, autonomous labor, education, and freedom of religion—much less equality. Johnson’s actions embodied the growing white backlash to Reconstruction’s aims: for expanding American freedom to black people and achieving a multiracial democracy.

CG: The federal government turns heel and decides that actually it's not going to redistribute white owned land.

CB: The pre-war owners are coming back and saying, wait a second, my land was never auctioned. In the case of Edisto, it’s Andrew Johnson says, right, yeah. Uh, we have to give these lands back.

Just tell me you’re sorry and, and, uh, that you really didn’t support secession and you get all of your property. It's like the war never happened for you.

SAL: While some black residents of the Lowcountry are able to keep the land they bought from the government, many had their property seized. In Edisto, land was never auctioned off for unpaid taxes. In other areas of the Lowcountry, abandoned land was seized and then sold. But in Edisto, the land was redistributed without the government officially seizing it. So the plantation owners returned and they wanted their land back.

CB: They say well, like, did we break the law? Like you’re taking our land now without due process.

If we’re sort of defining Reconstruction as being, you know, or beginning when the, the authority of the United States is restored and the process of Emancipation begins, well, you can almost then kind of say Reconstruction ends when the pre-war white political power of the South is sort of restored.

And to me, that’s the heartbreak of some of these letters.

Freedmen to General Howard (voiceover): “General It Is with painful Hearts that we the committee address you, we have thoroughly considered the order which you wished us to Sign, we wish we could do so but cannot feel our rights safe if we do so…”

SAL: Following General Howard’s visit to the island, Edisto's committee of Freedman led by Henry Bram, Ishmael Moultrie, and Yates Sampson wrote letters to him explaining their situation, asking to keep their land. Land that for years they had farmed and built up with their homes, their schools, their churches, safe from the tortures of chattel slavery and essential for their independence and self-sufficiency after slavery.

Freedman Letter (cont’d): “You ask us to forgive the land owners of our Island, You only lost your right arm. In war and might forgive them. The man who tied me to a tree & gave me 39 lashes & who stripped and flogged my mother & my sister & who will not let me stay In His empty Hut except I will do His planting & be Satisfied with His price & who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not Have any thing to do with Him If I Had land of my own.–that man, I cannot well forgive. Does It look as If He Has forgiven me, seeing How He tries to keep me In a condition of Helplessness

General, we cannot remain Here In such condition and If the government permits them to come back we ask It to Help us to reach land where we shall not be slaves nor compelled to work for those who would treat us as such.”

[“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” returns]

CB: That’s heartbreak that has generational ripples.

SAL: When Johnson ordered Howard to restore almost all the land from the Freedmen’s Bureau back to Confederates, the white planter class is restored to their property with the same rights and powers they enjoyed before secession.

This put them in the position to halt the march of freedom and the expansion of democracy, to roll back all the gains African Americans had made, and to begin installing a new system of racial subjugation: Jim Crow.

CG: And that’s certainly a story that personally fascinates me, um, but is one that I think is immensely important for understanding and thinking about political participation today, sort of the future and present of democracy.

SAL: For Dr. Grego, Edisto’s Reconstruction story, one of black land ownership and betrayal, forms the foundation of understanding life in the Lowcountry today.

CG: The Lowcountry itself, uh, which, you know, what we have today in the Lowcountry is very different from what we had then. Right. We're having increasing black dispossession from seas, including Edisto, uh, which up until the late 1900s, um, was still predominantly African-American. And then of course, you’ve had massive privatization of previously black-owned land across the Lowcountry as well.

It's hard too because yeah, it’s, it’s gorgeous. Um, it is a beautiful place. Um, the Sea Islands, the salt marshes, um, is stunningly, stunningly beautiful.

And so that’s partially why, uh, the Lowcountry has its history of dispossession. It’s because, um, there has been such an effort to whitewash the history, to push it aside, to focus solely on the natural beauty at the expense, um, of this history and the history and the present, right.

SAL: The Reconstruction Era in South Carolina is full of firsts. Black lieutenant governors, congressmen, mayors, business owners, schools, churches, press, the seedings of black generational wealth, results of the redistribution of land and power.

More than 70 African American men attended the convention to rewrite the state’s constitution in 1868. They helped pass some of the most egalitarian legislation the South had seen. There were 315 local, state and federal black South Carolina lawmakers during reconstruction, most of whom had been enslaved before the Civil War.

The Reconstruction Era National Historical Park where I sat across from Chris Barr is within walking distance of black Congressman Robert Smalls’s home in Beaufort, the mansion of his former enslaver.

But the inclusion of black leaders in government was short-lived. America’s dismantling of Reconstruction had tragic effects. After the initial enfranchisement of freed people in the late 19th century, the South went 72 years without electing a black person to Congress. Disenfranchisement paved the way for the racial apartheid system of Jim Crow, which denied many black Southerners access to equality and opportunity.

The broad story of Reconstruction is one of Emancipation reverting back to a system of exploited labor. It’s not the simple narrative we’ve been told of enslaved people being freed and the reconstruction of freedom and democracy just failing. Abolition and Reconstruction mattered, but so did the government’s responsibility to enforce the laws of the land, to protect African Americans against Confederates’ violent assaults on black people's lives, dignities, and rights.

In the Lowcountry, this history of dispossession and freedom denied was different for each community. There were remarkably different fates for people separated by just a short boat ride.

Those fates allowed some lowland communities to hold onto the precious gains of Reconstruction longer than others.

[“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” audio]

SAL: In part two, we’ll visit Hilton Head, the site of the United States' first self-governed settlement by freed slaves. And to St. Helena Island, to the spot where Dr. King drafted his “I Have a Dream” speech. We’ll explore how black land ownership and power continues to be contested.

This episode was produced by me, Christian Leus, and Christian Brown, with Dr. Kidada Williams. Thank you to Dr. Caroline Grego and Chris Barr. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb.

This episode featured voice acting by Dennis Caldwell and music by Frankie James. Olivia Stith, Samantha Higgs, Dominique Jones, and was arranged by Frankie James. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the African-American History Commission. Visit to find more episodes, plus films, photographs, and more from the world of Points South.