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

“What do you want for your own people? »

That’s the question Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton suggested Union General William T. Sherman ask 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, as the Civil War drew to a close and enslaved African Americans were approaching freedom.

Black leaders gathered for January 12, 1865, meeting military officials at a mansion called the Green-Meldrim House. They explained that they did not want to live among white people because they feared it would take years for racial prejudice to dissipate in the South. Instead, they wanted to live among themselves on their own land. This would involve redistributing land from southern plantation owners.

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

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

After Beecher read the notes to the congregation at 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.

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

The idea of ​​stripping Southern slaveholders of their lands was not 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. Yet Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. credits Savannah’s black leaders with spearheading the events that followed.

After meeting with all 20 ministers, Sherman signed Field Order 15 on January 16, 1865. The order would set aside 400,000 acres of Confederate land for members of the formerly enslaved populace. When the land near the southeast coast was redistributed evenly, each family had 40 acres of cultivable land.

“The Union generals were trying to divide these slave plantations into small agricultural colonies and make them available to newly freed slaves,” says Valerie Grim, director of undergraduate studies, Afro-Diaspora Studies. American and African American 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 given army mules, resulting in this program of reparations being widely known as “40 acres and a mule”.

The freedmen began working on their new land immediately, with a group of 1,000 settling on Skidaway Island in Georgia. Over the following months, up to 40,000 freedmen settled on the redistributed lands.

“They were able to share it with some of the former slaves, but for the most part that dream never came true,” Grim says.

The promise is canceled after Lincoln’s death

The government broke its promise of 40 acres and a mule. Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded Campaign Order 15 and returned to Confederate owners the 400,000 acres of land – “a strip of coast extending from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia Sea Islands and the mainland 30 miles offshore.”

Roy L. Brooks, a prominent law professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, described Johnson as a segregationist “who basically wanted to bring African Americans back into a position of subordination.” Johnson, however, was not the only politician to oppose 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 refused to go ahead with reparations. So it wasn’t just Johnson. There was an attitude in Congress that African Americans should just be happy to be 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.

With no land of their own to work on, the 3.9 million members of the once-enslaved population struggled to control their own destiny after the end of the civil war. Many found themselves working white land as sharecroppers or sharecroppers, a system that was only marginally better than slavery, given the meager wages and exploitation associated with it.

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

Some blacks defied the odds and succeeded in becoming 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 deprived African Americans of the ability to generate financial self-sufficiency, which was necessary to resist Jim Crow policies of local government in the South as much as possible,” says Brooks. .

“It would have provided a very timely remedy for African Americans that would have changed the course of racial history. It would have changed the trajectory of racial inequality in our society.

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