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With Juneteenth occurring this week and also the well-publicized reparations hearing that happened in Washington D.C., I felt it was time to talk about the first attempt at reparations for African Americans. This attempt is better known as 40 acres and a mule.

America was in the midst of a civil war over the continued use of slavery, among other things. As the Northern army started to seize property from the South in the war, Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861. This law allowed the military to take rebel property. For the purposes of the act, property meant land as well as slaves. After this act, black refugee camps started springing up around the Union army as it marched south. When General William Sherman descended on his “March to the Sea” in Georgia, an estimated 10,000 former slaves accompanied the Union army. The Refugees were becoming an issue because there wasn’t enough food or clothing to go around to take care of the troops and the former slaves.

On January 11, 1865, Secretary of War Edward Stanton met with General Sherman to discuss the refugee issue. In that meeting, they decided to ask black leaders, “what do you want for your people?” What a novel idea! The following day Sherman met with a group of 20 black leaders, many of whom had been slaves for part of their lives. The group selected a man named Garrison Frazier as its spokesperson. Frazier was a pastor who bought his wife and his freedom for $ 1,000. Frazier consulted with some of the refugees and the other representative leaders. Frazier told Sherman that the best way the former slaves can take care of themselves is to own land and work said area with their own labor. Out of this meeting, all parties agreed that the best way forward was to request land grants for all black communities because racial hatred would prevent economic advancement for blacks in mixed race areas. (hmm….)

On January 16, 1865, Shermans special field order no. 15 was issued. In the order, officers were instructed to settle slave refugees on the sea islands and inwards: 400,000 total acres divided into 40-acre plots. The sea-lands are a strip of coastline ranging from Charleston South Carolina to the St. Johns River in Florida. The order also prohibited whites from living in the area. For all of my fellow lawyers and law school graduates, the term “Blackacre,” originates from this order as well. The 40-acre plots were called “black acres.” On February 3, 1865, General Saxton addressed a large congregation of freed man and woman and announced the order and preparations for it. By June of 1865, 40,000 freed people had settled into the sea-lands region. It’s important to note that the order was issued by Sherman, not the Federal government. Sherman later stated he intended the order to be temporary and not permanent. The settlers, of course, did not get this part of the message neither did Saxton either who told Sherman to cancel the order unless he planned for it to be permanent, which he never did. Freed people from across the South flocked to the sea-lands region seeking land.

On March 3, 1865, Congress passed a bill establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. The Bureau had an unfunded Mandate to redistribute land in parcels of up to 40 acres.

President Lincoln was assassinated, and his successor Andrew Johnson became President. Johnson’s main focus was to restore the Union back to where it was before the war. Johnson issued an amnesty provision to southerners that if the swore loyalty to the Union, they would get back all of their confiscated property. Attorney General James Speed sent a memo to the Freeman Bureau Chief that the 40-acre promise to freed slaves was still intact. Johnson went back on this promise; however, he established strict criteria for what “confiscated land” meant his interpretation essentially ended land redistribution in some areas of the South. Before Johnson could switch his interpretation of the law, a lot of the Freedman Bureau agents were going around and promoting and promising “40 acres and a mule” (this is where the mule part comes from) and other farming supplies to former slaves. Southern legislatures passed Black codes around this time. Black codes made it illegal for African Americans to lease or own land. Federal law trumps state law of course, but the Bureau had a hard time enforcing the law due to the dissipation of the Union Army.

In December of 1865, Congress passed the 2nd Freedman’s Bureau bill. The bill set aside 3, 000,000 acres of land in Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas for freed black slaves. President Johnson Vetoed the bill, and Congress didn’t have the votes to override the veto. Congress then passed the Southern Homestead Act, which set aside 46,398,544.87 acres of land in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. Johnson actually signed this bill into law. The thing with this bill was the land was open to freed blacks and loyal southern whites. Unfortunately, the info about this bill was not widely disseminated to freed blacks, and those who knew about it weren’t thrilled about moving into unknown territories with inadequate supplies and only “promises” from the government about land ownership after 5 years. The freedmen also had to deal with unwilling state bureaucracies which wouldn’t comply with federal law. If the freedman got passed this hurdle, they were offered low-quality land that was rejected by the white loyalist. Freed blacks entered 6,500 claims for land, and of that bunch, only 1,000 got the deed to the lands.

Southern Landowners regained control over almost all of the land they claimed before the war. By the 1870s Most freed blacks had abandoned the dream of federal land redistribution. In 1910 Black Americans owned 15,000,000 acres of land mostly in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In 1980 that figure dropped to 5,500,000. In 1997 the figure fell even further to 2,000,000. The total number of black farmers has decreased from 925,708 in 1920 to 18,000 in 1997. Black land ownership has diminished more than that of any other ethnic group.

Mistakes Were Made:

Can you imagine how different America would look today if the Union had kept its promise to the former slaves? Land is still wealth in this country, and if the freed slaves had gotten their property and been able to build generational wealth and pass it down to their ancestors, America would be a much different place today. Who knows if Lincoln wouldn’t have gotten assassinated would he have kept the 40 acres promise? One thing we do know is that after the war was over the federal government seemed more apt to take care of the former treasonous southern white males than the freed black men who may have even fought on the union side. Andrew Johnson who hailed from Tennessee (a southern slave state) seemed particularly not interested in helping the freed black slaves and using his power to impede the 40 acres resolutions. To be clear, the concept of “40 acres and a mule” was a brilliant, unprecedented idea, it was the implementation of the policy were the mistakes were made.

The effects of slavery are still felt by African Americans today. Don’t let the words of Mitch Mcconnell fool you, he didn’t own any slaves, but his ancestors did, and they profited from it and passed that wealth down to their offspring, something the freed slaves weren’t allowed to do. It’s the equivalent of your opponent getting a 50-meter head start in a 100-meter race. Good luck on ever winning that race.

We just had a congressional hearing earlier this week in the U.S.A about reparations for former slaves and their descendants, this is clearly an issue that was never resolved and still ongoing today. I didn’t expect for the hearing to accomplish anything, it was nothing but a dog and pony show. Yet one still has to wonder what if the freed slaves got their “40 acres and a mule? I believe race relations would be a whole lot better in this country as well as economic situations would be different. It’s an excellent what-if of American History. Other disenfranchised groups have gotten reparations from the U.S. government, yet African Americans are still hoping and wishing for those “40 acres and a mule or the modern day equivalent of it

Originally published at on June 24, 2019.

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