The Short-Lived Promise of ’40 Acres and a Mule’

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“What do you want for your own people?”

That’s the question Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton suggested Union General William T. Sherman pose to 20 Black pastors in Savannah, Georgia, as the Civil War neared its end and enslaved African Americans neared freedom.

The Black leaders gathered for the January 12, 1865, meeting with the military officials in a mansion called the Green-Meldrim House. They explained that they didn’t want to live among white people, as they feared it would take years for racial prejudice to dissipate in the South. Instead, they wished to live amongst themselves on their own land. That would entail redistributing the land of Southern plantation owners.

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“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor,” said the Rev. Garrison Frazier, a 67-year-old Baptist minister and spokesman for the group, which included individuals who had been enslaved and lived as free men alike. “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own,” Frazier told the Union military officials.

Stanton knew that the meeting was a groundbreaking one, remarking that for the first time, government officials had asked Black Americans “what they wanted for themselves.” He gave the minutes taken at the meeting to Henry Ward Beecher, brother of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

After Beecher read the notes to the congregation of his New York church, the New York Daily Tribune printed the transcript in its February 13, 1865 edition, providing a historical record that still exists today. A Black publication named the Christian Recorder printed the transcript as well.

Confederate Land Claimed for African Americans

The Green-Meldrim House in Savannah, Georgia where Black leaders met with military officials in 1865.

The idea to strip Southern enslavers of their land wasn’t exclusive to the leaders who attended the Green-Meldrim House meeting. Abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens had promoted the idea as a way to financially devastate Confederate landowners. Still, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. credits Savannah’s Black leaders with spearheading the events that followed.

After meeting with the 20 ministers, Sherman signed Field Order 15 on January 16, 1865. The order would reserve 400,000 acres of Confederate land for members of the formerly enslaved population. When the land near the Southeast coast was evenly redistributed, each family would have 40 acres of tillable ground.

“Union generals were attempting to divide these slave plantations into small farm settlements and make them available to the newly freed slaves,” says Valerie Grim, director of Undergraduate Studies, African American and African Diaspora Studies and professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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No mention of mules appeared in the order, but some of the formerly enslaved population were granted Army mules, resulting in this reparations program being widely known as “40 acres and a mule.”

The freedmen set out to begin working their new land immediately, with a group of 1,000 settling on Georgia’s Skidaway Island. In subsequent months as many as 40,000 freedmen settled on the redistributed land.

“They were able to parcel it out to some of the former slaves, but for the most part, this dream was never realized,” Grim says.

Promise Is Rescinded After Lincoln’s Death

The government didn’t keep its promise of 40 acres and a mule. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded Field Order 15 and returned to Confederate owners the 400,000 acres of land—“a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast.”

Roy L. Brooks, a distinguished professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law, described Johnson as a segregationist “who wanted to basically return African Americans to a position of subordination.” Johnson, though, was not the only politician who opposed this form of reparations for Black Americans.

“After the Civil War, there just wasn’t that appetite for Black reparations,” Brooks says. “There were other proposals made after the war for reparations for African Americans. Congress declined to go forward with reparations. So, it was not just Johnson. There was an attitude among the Congress that African Americans should simply be happy with being freed.”

African Americans Forced to Work as Sharecroppers

Cotton sharecroppers shown in 1937 in Greene County, Georgia.

Cotton sharecroppers shown in 1937 in Greene County, Georgia.

Without land of their own to work, the 3.9 million members of the formerly enslaved population struggled to control their own destiny after the Civil war ended. Many found themselves working white people’s land as sharecroppers or tenant farmers, a system that was only slightly better than slavery, given the meager wages and exploitation associated with it.

“You had a massive system of sharecropping evolving in the South in the aftermath of Blacks not being able to acquire the land that they thought the federal government was going to make available to them,” Grim says. “In the case of the sharecropper, you did it so that you could get a share of the crop which rarely was shared with Black people when all the cost of production had taken place.”

Some Black people defeated the odds and managed to become landowners. Most, however, had no land to pass on, which prevented them from accumulating multi-generational wealth and left them largely under the control of Southern white landowners.

The failed promise of “40 acres and a mule denied African Americans the ability to generate financial self-sufficiency, which was needed in order to resist as much as possible the Jim Crow policies of the local government in the South,” Brooks says. 

“It would have provided a very timely reparation for African Americans, which would have changed the course of racial history. It would have changed the trajectory of racial inequality in our society.”

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