America’s promise to nearly four million African American former slaves — “Forty acres and a mule” in the famous words of Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, in early 1865, approved by President Abraham Lincoln — was broken.
The order designated 400,000 acres of land — “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast,” as Barton Myers reported — to be redistributed to the newly freed slaves.
After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson, in the fall of 1865 overturned the order, returning the land “along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it,” according to Myers. In other words, Johnson, from Tennessee and sympathetic to the white Southerners, returned the land to the Confederates who had committed treason by declaring war on the USA.
Why did Johnson do this? White abolitionists he talked to did not agree on how former slaves should be compensated. Many of them were, despite their opposition to slavery, white supremacists, who did not believe in race-mixing or true racial equality.
Federal and state policies during Reconstruction emphasized wage labor, not land ownership, for African Americans. Some black families did receive new land by homesteading. Freed men were not eligible to homestead until 1868, with the enactment of the 14th Amendment, which technically made them full citizens, no longer 3/5ths of a person. Land grants to immigrants were not uncommon in the 1700s and 1800s. But extended economic recessions, along with discriminatory Jim Crow laws, caused many African Americans to lose their lands.
What if the promise was kept?
- The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’ by Henry Louis Gates. “Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth.”
- Distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward wrote a counter-factual about Reconstruction in his book The Future of the Past, expressing skepticism that reparations could have worked. His argument is summarized here.
- Quora.com: What If The Promise Was Kept?. If Lincoln hadn’t been shot and reconstruction had gone forward, what would the next 150 years would be like?
- NPR has lots of links and resources on this topic.
- The Case for Reparations.
- The Case For (and Against) Reparations | Philosophy Talk
Back in 1865, after the civil war, 40 acres and a mule for every former slave would have been a just …
- The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Atlantic
- The Impossibility of Reparations, by David Frum, The Atlantic.
- 10 Reasons Why Reparations Are A Bad Idea for Blacks, by David Horowitz