“40 Acres and a Mule”
Background and Summary
The term, “40 acres and a mule” is used to explain the compensation that was to be awarded to freed Black slaves after the Civil War. Forty acres of land to farm and a mule with which to drag a plow so the land could be cultivated was supposed to be awarded to every Black slave as a form of reparations for their tenure or parent’s tenure in slavery. This was also so they could sustain themselves after they gained freedom.
The award was a land grant of one-fourth of a one-fourth section of land, which was a common homestead size of the time, deeded to heads of households that were presumably formerly owned by land-holding Whites. This was the product of Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued January 16, 1865, by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, it applied to Black families who lived near the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Sherman's orders specifically allocated "the islands from Charleston, South, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for 30 miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida." There was no mention of mules in Sherman's order, although the Army may have distributed them anyway.
After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, his successor, Andrew Johnson, revoked Sherman's Orders. It is sometimes mistakenly claimed that Johnson also vetoed the enactment of this policy as a federal statute. In fact, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, which Johnson vetoed, made no mention of grants of land or mules. Another version of the Freedmen's bill, also without the land grants, was later passed after Johnson's second veto was overridden. The period after the Civil War was deemed the Reconstruction Era, and it was meant to accomplish just that, the reconstruction of the nation that has since been torn apart by battles and ideology over slavery. Ultimately, because the North prevailed and slavery was abolished, the government was left with the massive task of rebuilding such major institutions like the military, education and the most important, the economy. Laws such as the 13th through 15th Amendments were passed to ensure that freed slaves and all peoples enjoyed the civil rights endowed to them from birth. During this period, some scholars and influential figures argued for a type of reparations, or pay-back, be given to former slaves for make up for all that they had endured. That is where the idea of “40 acres and a mule” was proposed and was actually promised to every former slave.
By June of 1865, around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres parts of Georgia and South Carolina. Soon after, President Johnson reversed the order and returned the land to its White former owners. Because of this, the phrase has come to represent the failure of Reconstruction’s promise and the general public to assist Blacks. To this day, not a single person has ever been given the 40 acres and a mule that was promised.
Spike Lee, a prominent Black film director, named his production company 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks.
Sources: Wikipedia.com; Library of Congress: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates; 1774-1875: "An act to enlarge the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau," 39th Congress, 1st Session, S.60.
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Thursday, December 20th 2007 at 6:15PM