The 640-Billion-Dollar Broken Promise of 40 Acres and a Mule

Juneteenth is the day that marks the freedom of the last enslaved Africans in the United States. Learn more about the history of this special day and its legacy.

African Americans celebrate the Juneteenth observance on June 19th, commemorating the day that the last enslaved Africans were freed from bondage in 1865 in the United States – some two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the executive order later known as the Emancipation Proclamation into existence — and two months after the Confederate army surrendered at Appomattox Court house.

There has been a lot to celebrate: freedom from forced back-breaking labor, the strength and resilience to survive those conditions for centuries, and the noteworthy contributions to art, culture and science that were made despite systemic oppression and inequity.

Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman, famous for his legendary March to the Sea, also issued Special Field Order 15 — a plan to give “forty acres and a mule” to the newly freed African American families. One of the first of many promises made to them.

Made — and broken.

As the Union army gradually took control of Confederate territory, there were real questions about what freedom would look like for emancipated slaves. With no property, money, or education, most had neither a clear or an immediate route to economic independence.

To be clear, Sherman was not by any means an abolitionist; nor was the concept of redistributing land his idea. Rather,  a group of Black ministers presented Sherman and then- Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Savannah, Georgia. The ministers told them, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor.”

Sherman issued Special Field Order 15 four days later on January 16, 1865, with the intention that 400,000 acres of land which had been confiscated from Confederate property holders. The land was to be redistributed to Black families in 40-acre increments.  to a total of 4 million emancipated Africans.(Mules were not included in the order, but the Union army did give some away as part of the effort.)

The order was short-lived.

President Andrew Johnson – who had owned slaves and publicly shared his beliefs of white supremacy – overturned the order before the end of the year and returned the land to the slave owners and traitors who had originally owned it.

The long-term financial implications of this reversal are staggering; by some estimates, the value of 40 acres and mule for those 40,000 formerly enslaved Africans would be worth about $640 billion today.

Finding themselves once gain landless and in need of income, many former slaves were forced into sharecropping, a form of indentured servitude in which a property owner rents out plots of land to laborers in exchange for a portion of the crops produced. In addition to providing land, landowners often also extended credit to the sharecroppers to purchase materials like seeds and fertilizer from them.

Typically, this arrangement was only marginally better than slavery, as landowners were known to charge exorbitant interest rates while intentionally underpaying sharecroppers, thereby keeping them in an unending cycle of debt and poverty.

Yet despite these considerable disadvantages, African Americans somehow managed to acquire over 15 million acres of land by 1910, much of which was used for agricultural purposes. At the peak of this trend in 1920, Black families owned and operated upwards of one million farms – about 14 percent of all farms in America at the time. The ability to grow crops and raise livestock afforded Black families not just good, safe food and a modicum of financial security, but also the opportunity for upward mobility.

Sadly, this too was short-lived. Over the last century, Black farmers lost most of that land, leaving just 45,500 operators with a mere .52 percent of American farmland by 2017. Industrialization, which lured Americans of all races away from rural areas and into cities seeking better opportunities, is partly to blame. But there were other factors at play.

One such factor was the fact that most early Black landowners did not have legally-binding wills, largely because of their distrust of the legal system. Instead, they passed their land down to their next of kin without a clear title as “heirs’ property.”

This kind of land ownership makes the owner ineligible for a mortgage, home improvement loans, disaster relief, or most U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. Lacking access to financial resources, many heirs’ property owners either aren’t able to use their land or can’t afford to hold onto it. After several generations, heirs’ property can be inherited by many distant family members, which is a legal and logistical headache. With multiple landowners who may not know each other, the possibility of unpaid taxes and, consequently, foreclosure is relatively high. Additionally, any individual owner can auction off their portion without consulting the other property owners. Knowing this, speculators and developers often coerce family members who have never even seen the property into selling their share for less than market value.

As if that wasn’t enough, Black farmers have also been subject to systemic discrimination by the USDA, other government agencies, and private lending institutions. As a result, they lacked access to loans, crop insurance, technical assistance, market opportunities, and other critical resources made available to other farmers. This put Black farmers at a disadvantage and undermined professional success, forcing many to leave the industry.

The loss of land, whether to heirs’ property, discrimination, or other causes, has deprived the African American community of hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth and has contributed significantly to modern racial and economic disparity. Today, the average net worth of a Black family is only one-tenth that of a white family. A similar gap exists in agriculture: the average Black farmer’s net farm income is just  14 percent that of their white counterparts.

Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 is just one of many promises the United States has failed to keep to African American citizens since emancipation, and land loss is just one of the injustices they have endured as a result. As a society, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that Black citizens are treated equitably in areas of criminal justice, education, health care, housing, and employment systems; yet we have fallen short on every count.

Following weeks of protests against police brutality and other forms of racism, lawmakers, corporations, and influential individuals have renewed previous promises and made new ones.

As a society, it’s time we finally keep them.

Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director, wrote the original version of this article


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