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The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 21, 2003, Friday
The Enduring Myth of 'Forty Acres and a Mule'
BYLINE: JOHN DAVID SMITH
SECTION: THE CHRONICLE REVIEW; Pg. 11
LENGTH: 1493 words
Proponents of slave reparations -- payments to the descendants of African-American slaves -- invariably cite as a precedent the "forty acres and a mule" that Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman is supposed to have promised freed slaves in 1865. Spike Lee named his production company "40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks" to serve as a reminder of America's unpaid debt to its slave ancestors. Since 1989, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, has campaigned annually for a study of reparations for slavery. Conyers has proposed legislation to establish a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals, HR 40 -- so numbered for the forty acres.

Reparations advocates repeatedly cite the unwillingness to deliver "forty acres and a mule" as the prime example of America's broken promises and hypocrisy toward the descendants of the four million slaves who received their freedom in 1865, after some 250 years of unpaid servitude. The slogan has come to symbolize the missed opportunities of Reconstruction -- what the historian Eric Foner called "America's Unfinished Revolution." Unfortunately, when many people invoke the phrase "forty acres and a mule," they commonly misunderstand or misrepresent Reconstruction-era federal land policies, and the implications of those policies for the freedpeople. That not only distorts history for polemical or ideological purposes, but also clouds the grim reality of race relations in 19th-century America. [Thesis]

Numerous references contain both obvious and subtle errors of fact and interpretation. Writing in 1994, for example, Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, claimed that "several bills to provide reparations to slaves were introduced during the Civil War, but all were blocked. A postwar field order by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman divided up nearly a half-million acres of confiscated slave owners' land into forty-acre plots for former slaves, but was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson in 1869."

In 2000, Michael A. Fletcher, a reporter for The Washington Post, traced the debate over reparations back to "when President Andrew Johnson reneged on" Sherman's promise. And on the eve of the 2001 United Nations conference on racism, in Durban, South Africa, an Associated Press report referred to "the bill for 'forty acres and a mule' -- the U.S. government's famous, never-realized pledge to freed slaves."



During the Civil War, as Union soldiers captured Confederate territory, slave refugees occupied abandoned lands throughout the South, most notably on the Sea Islands, off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, and in Mississippi. Although the federal government sold abandoned and confiscated land to a handful of the freedpeople, and leased farms to thousands more, it never adopted a program of providing free land to ex-slaves.

The source of the confusion stems from Sherman's famous Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, three months before Appomattox (not, as Page asserted, "postwar"). That order (not a "bill," as the AP report in 2001 had it), sought to cope with the thousands of freed slaves who were following Sherman's army through Georgia. It stated: "The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States."

Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton to distribute to the head of each black family "not more than forty acres of tillable land" and to "furnish ... subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing,” but the terms of the land distribution remained ambiguous. Was the government giving the freedpeople the acreage outright, or leasing it? Black people, convinced that they would receive title to the land, moved into what became known as the Sherman Reservation. By June 1865, about 40,000 ex-slaves had settled on about 400,000 acres of land in the designated area. Sherman also authorized Saxton to lend the black families farm animals -- decrepit creatures too broken down for military service. Those, presumably, were the "mules" intended to work the proverbial "forty acres."

The next piece of the "forty acres and a mule" puzzle fell into place on March 3, 1865, when Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Known as the Freedmen's Bureau, it was to provide temporary relief and education to slaves caught in the throes of the emancipation process. That legislation authorized the bureau to lease the "not more than forty acres" of abandoned or confiscated lands to the freedmen, with an option to "purchase the land and receive such titles thereto as the United States can convey." As the historian Claude F. Oubre explained some years ago, "The Freedmen's Bureau bill, although it did not offer free land, promised that by working diligently the freedmen would be able to purchase the land."

Although the bureau genuinely sought to assist the freedpeople in acquiring their own farms, in 1865 (not 1869, as Page wrote) President Johnson undercut it by pardoning former Confederates and then ordering the restoration to them of all property except that sold under a court decree. In Mississippi, for example, by the end of 1865, the Freedmen's Bureau had restored 45,000 of the 80,000 acres of land it had held. By late 1867, it held no land in Mississippi.

The Southern Homestead Act, which Congress passed on June 21, 1866, is the last piece of Reconstruction-era legislation often cited as promising land to the freedpeople. The law was enacted in the midst of mounting concern about the ex-slaves who were crowding the cities. It set aside public land -- eighty-acre plots in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- for purchase by the freedpeople for $5. Until January 1, 1867, former Confederates were forbidden to buy the homesteads, and European and Northern investors were discouraged from doing so, allowing the freedpeople privileged access to the acreage for roughly six months. The available land, however, was generally of inferior quality, and the freedmen lacked sufficient capital to purchase implements to farm it properly. When, in 1876, Congress repealed the Southern Homestead Act, black people were cultivating only a few thousand acres, mostly in Florida.

Significantly, proponents of land distribution never defined their plans as reparations to former slaves for their centuries of servitude and unrequited labor. Rather, Congressional Republicans used the prospect of distributing land to punish ex-Confederates, as well as to garner the political support of black people and to establish the freedpeople as a landholding class, thereby guaranteeing their economic freedom.



In a society where land defined status, however, the freedpeople quickly seized on the symbol of "forty acres and a mule." The historian George R. Bentley once termed their call "the Negroes' forty-acre delusion." A decade after he issued his field order, Sherman wrote in his memoirs: "Of course, the military authorities at that day, when war prevailed, had a perfect right to grant the possession of any vacant land to which they could extend military protection, but we did not undertake to give a fee-simple title; and all that was designed by these special field orders was to make temporary provisions for the freedmen and their families during the rest of the war, or until Congress should take action in the premises." At pains to disavow responsibility, he added that "Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, saw these orders in the rough, and approved every paragraph thereof, before they were made public."

Indeed, though some radical Republicans, including Thaddeus Stevens and George W. Julian, had supported confiscation of Southern plantations in the hope of reforming the South's social and economic system, most 19th-century Americans held private property too sacred to endorse wide-scale land redistribution. (Thesis)

What does this history teach us? Yes, the historical record disproves assertions that the federal government reneged on promises to grant the freedpeople "forty acres and a mule." But the fact that the government never made such a promise in the first place tells us something about how black people were treated in 19th-century America. Moreover, it is important to remember that the freedpeople desperately wanted land, believed that they had been deceived, and felt betrayed. The legacy of that sense of betrayal lingers on. After 138 years, the stubborn myth of "forty acres and a mule" remains a political football and a sober reminder of the ex-slaves' broken hopes and shattered dreams.

John David Smith is a professor of history and director of the master's program in public history at North Carolina State University.


LOAD-DATE: March 25, 2003
LANGUAGE: ENGLISH
Copyright 2003 The Chronicle of Higher Education


Reconstruction, Foner said, was essentially a failure. Because it did not adequately allow ways for abidance of the 13-15th Amendments, it was an unfinished revolution. Surely the idea of abolishing slavery, equal rights and allowing ALL males to vote was revolutionary to many in the South. I tend to see the failure of the government to come through on its promise of forty acres to freedmen a typical problem in the political system we have today. Once a president or politican leaves office, their legislation or promises are vulnerable to being overturned or not upheld. That being said, this promise was made by General Sherman (Smith, 1). Does that qualify as a "federal" promise?
From the article…

Reparations advocates repeatedly cite the unwillingness to deliver "forty acres and a mule" as the prime example of America's broken promises and hypocrisy toward the descendants of the four million slaves who received their freedom in 1865, after some 250 years of unpaid servitude. The slogan has come to symbolize the missed opportunities of Reconstruction -- what the historian Eric Foner called "America's Unfinished Revolution." Unfortunately, when many people invoke the phrase "forty acres and a mule," they commonly misunderstand or misrepresent Reconstruction-era federal land policies, and the implications of those policies for the freedpeople. That not only distorts history for polemical or ideological purposes, but also clouds the grim reality of race relations in 19th-century America.


His thesis seems to be that we need to properly understand federal land policy from the Reconstruction era. If the federal government never actually did promise land to freed slaves, then they did not break a promise (“Although the federal government sold abandoned and confiscated land to a handful of the freedpeople, and leased farms to thousands more, it never adopted a program of providing free land to ex-slaves” Smith, 1). Smith states that President Johnson rescinded a “field order” issues in January 1865. This bill “sought to cope with the thousands of freed slaves who were following Sherman's army through Georgia” (Smith, 2). The terms of the order were ambiguous and Smith importantly writes that Sherman needed “the approval of the President” (Ibid). Black people moved into “Sherman’s Reservation, but was it legal? The Freedmen’s Bureau also was somewhat ambiguous about the long-tern ownership of the land, creating a dilemma. The Southern Homestead Act was essentially a failure as the land was not quality and some blacks did not even qualify to purchase a homestead (Ibid). In his memoirs, Sherman said he thought it okay “to grant the possession of any vacant land to which they could extend military protection”, but the problem was the military protection, especially after Johnson began his pardons.

With respect to reparations, it is difficult to provide reparations for something so long ago, but it would be a symbolic gesture that many would respect. In 1989, the US government authorized reparations of $20,000 to those who were forced into internment camps (Korematsu v. United States). There were 60,000 survivors of these camps. Many of those had to sell their land at rock-bottom prices and today that land is worth millions. $20,000 is hardly fair looking at it retrospectively. Thus any reparations to slave descendants could not have a monetary value, and it is difficult to decide “how much” or what the reparations would be exactly because anyone alive in 1865 is not alive today. But it seems fair to argue some form of reparations to descendants of freed slaves would be in line.


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