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40 Acres and a Mule

Since the Civil War, the issue of reparations (compensation given to the descendants of slaves for the centuries their relatives spent in bondage) has come up again and again. Various forms of reparations have been suggested, from monetary compensation to community improvement projects to free healthcare and education.

On January 12, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black community leaders of Savannah, Georgia. The following day, General Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15 which set aside the Sea Islands off the Georgia coast and a 30-mile tract of land along the southern coast of South Carolina for the exclusive settlement of black families. This land, along with other confiscated and abandoned land, fell under the jurisdiction of the Freedmen's Bureau, a government entity created to assist former slaves. Each family was to receive 40 acres of land and an Army mule to work the land, thus the origin of "40 acres and a mule". The Freedmen's Bureau lent a helping hand to former slaves in their new-found freedom by assisting them in taking advantage of the government's promise of land and a chance at prosperity. Unfortunately, the government never lived up to its promise of 40 acres and a mule.

These efforts were rolled back by President Andrew Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865. By the latter part of 1865, thousands of freedpeople were abruptly evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15. Circular No. 15 issued by the Freedmen's Bureau on September 12, 1865, coupled with Johnson's presidential pardons, provided for restoration of land to former owners. With the exception of a small number who had legal land titles, freedpeople were removed from the land as a result of President Johnson's restoration program.

In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was enacted. It was designed to exclusively give freedpeople and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867.

But homesteading was problematic on many different levels. The short period allotted by Congress (six months) worked against freedpeople because most were under contract to work or had leased land, through the bureau's contract labor policy, until the end of the year. Congress also underestimated the time it would take for freedmen and loyal whites to successfully complete the process of securing a homestead. This process involved filing claims, waiting indefinitely until offices opened or reopened, and working to secure enough money to purchase land. Concurrently, freedpeople faced southern white opposition to settling land.

Moreover, Congress provided no tools, seed, rations, or any form of additional assistance to freedpeople, and most freedpeople's earnings just covered the bare necessities of life. Maintaining a homestead without assistance was almost impossible under those circumstances.

On March 11, 1867, House Speaker Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania introduced a bill (H.R. 29) that outlined a plan for confiscated land in the "confederate States of America." Section four of the proposed bill explicitly called for land to be distributed to former slaves: " Out of the lands thus seized and confiscated, the slaves who have been liberated by the operations of the war and the amendment of the Constitution or otherwise, who resided in said "confederate States" on the 4th day of March, A.D. 1861 or since, shall have distributed to them as follows namely: to each male person who is the head of a family, forty acres; to each adult male, whether the head of the family or not, forty acres; to each widow who is the head of a family, forty acres; to be held by them in fee simple, but to be inalienable for the next ten years after they become seized thereof. . . . At the end of ten years the absolute title to said homesteads shall be conveyed to said owners or to the heirs of such as are then dead."

When Thaddeus Stevens brought the “40 acres” measure to the floor in the House, it received less than 40 votes. Republicans, during the 1868 campaign, promised 40 acres and a mule to freedpeople. A couple of decades passed before any further concerted efforts were made to provide economic relief and security for ex-slaves.

Without federal land compensation — or any compensation — many ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenant farming, convict-leasing, or some form of menial labor arrangements aimed at keeping them economically subservient and tied to land owned by former slaveholders. Now they would be sharecroppers, which gave land owners control over them from giving them advances on supplies, even food from stores they owned, way above market price and charging the to live on land that they would never own "The poverty which afflicted them for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free but economically enslaved," wrote Carter G. Woodson in The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s.

In the late 19th century, the idea of pursuing pensions for ex-slaves—similar to pensions for Union veterans—took hold. If disabled elderly veterans were compensated for their years of service during the Civil War, why shouldn't former slaves who had served the country in the process of nation building be compensated for their years of forced, unpaid labor?

The push for ex-slave pensions gained momentum in the 1890s and continued into the early 20th century. This grassroots movement was composed largely of former slaves, their family members, and friends. It emerged during the nadir of American race relations, roughly 1877 into the early 20th century. The government had no intention of compensating former slaves for their years of involuntary labor. Harrison Barrett, the acting assistant attorney general for the Post Office Department, admitted in an 1899 circular that "there has never been the remotest prospect that the bill would become a law."

Many proponents of reparations point to the termination of this program as proof of the government’s failure to take responsibility for slavery, and the debate over reparations continues.

Despite the absence of government assistance, many African-Americans on their own managed to purchase land. Despite the failure of our Federal Government to make good on a promise of assistance and despite open hostility and racial discrimination, between the end of the Civil War and 1910, African American families in the South amassed a land base of over 15 million acres.

This was by no means an easily accomplished feat. Many sacrifices were made, and much hard work went into the efforts of African Americans to fulfill the American dream and own their own land. By 1920, there were 925,000 African American farmers. In 1999, the figures had dropped to less than 17,000 African American farmers with less than 3 million acres of land.

In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast. The movement coalesced in 1987 under an umbrella organization called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).

" In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued in The Case for Black Reparations that a rough price tag for reparations could be determined by multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference in white and black per capita income. That number—$34 billion in 1973, when Bittker wrote his book—could be added to a reparations program each year for a decade or two. Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races."

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