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What became of the 40 Acres promised to ex-slaves and what does it mean today?

By William Jelani Cobb

For each of the past fifteen years, Representative John Conyers of Detroit has performed a political ritual: introducing HR 40, a bill authorizing a study on the issue of reparations for African Americans. And in each of the past fifteen years, the House of Representatives has performed a political routine: failing to pass it.

This country may lack for a lot of things, but consistency isn't one of them.

To the American history tourist, the 246 years of black chattel slavery appear as an unfortunate episode best left in the century old ashes of the Civil War. And according to the three-card hustlers of American Spinocracy, we should be about "color-blindness" "” moving past the tangle of racism and into a nirvana of common citizenship. Or, to cut to the real translation: Just Get Over It. Think about the prevalence of those two perspectives on race and you can't help but recognize that the current struggle for reparations is not an uphill battle; it's a vertical one.

In recent years, the cause of reparations for slavery, once relegated to the sidelines of black politics, has become an increasingly mainstream concern. A quick index of writings on the subject yields over a dozen books and scholarly articles that have appeared since 1998. Consider it ironic that the push for reparations has occurred at a juncture when affirmative action is in jeopardy and the Bush administration has scored points by arguing against spending money on healthcare, but then again, moral claims have a way of being inconvenient no matter when they're raised.

In black America, the first faint promises of reparations remain with us like a ghost limb. The ever-referenced, never-received "40 Acres and a Mule," is the common reference point in discussions of the topic. Ironically, enough, the promise of land to black slaves has its roots not in the desire to redress the vast wrongs of slavery, but rather in the strategic necessities of the Civil War. As General William Tecumseh Sherman made his famed March to the Sea, burning all that was in his path, enslaved blacks began abandoning farms and plantations and following the Union forces across the South. (To be accurate, blacks had begun fleeing, pillaging, and in some instances, burning the homes of white slaveholders long before Sherman's 1864-65 March.) Still, the thousands of civilians literally following in the footsteps of his troops presented a logistical problem for the General who "” importantly "” was himself a devout believer in the inferiority of the black race.

As reports of Sherman's ill-treatment of the ex-slaves drifted North, Abraham Lincoln dispatched Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Georgia to resolve the crisis. Black leaders "” many of whom were former slaves themselves "” told Stanton that the only solution was to provide the fugitives from slavery with land of their own. In response, Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, which seized lands belonging to slaveholders on the Carolina Sea Islands and along the Atlantic Coast between Charleston and Jacksonville and allocated "forty acres of land" for each ex-slave family.

In the ensuing months, some 40,000 blacks were settled on these lands. With the establishment of the Freedman's Bureau in March 1865, Congress authorized the new agency to take control of abandoned land in the war-ravaged South and dispense "not more than 40 acres" to ex-slaves. (The Bureau's plan allowed for the three-year rental of land with the option to purchase in the fourth.) Lincoln's assassination, however, brought an abrupt end to the land grants. The President's death brought Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean with sympathies for the defeated South into office.

Johnson immediately reversed the Field Order, restored land to its former white owners and in some instances relied upon the Army to forcibly remove those blacks who had been provided with land only months earlier. (Johnson's steadfast opposition to Reconstruction would figure in the scandals that culminated in him becoming the first U.S. President ever to be impeached.)

For what it matters, the claim to black compensation for centuries of unpaid labor was never merely a matter of individual slaveholders who exploited individual black people. The federal government collected hundreds of millions in taxes on tobacco and cotton grown and harvested by black hands. The financial centers of New York, Philadelphia and Boston grew rich through their dealings with Southern planters. Northern textile mills relied upon raw materials from the South to grow into modern industries. Shipping lines established trade routes throughout Europe to sell goods whose production would have been impossible without black labor.

Slavery is literally the cornerstone of American wealth.

It would be easy to argue that it is impossible to grapple with the debts generated by a fledgling economy a century and a half ago, but racism, might be the great constant of American history. Factor in the generational impact of state-sponsored under-education of blacks for a century after slavery. Then add the billions in lost home-equity owed to the fact that the Federal Housing Authority issued mortgage subsidies in areas where blacks were legally restricted from living. It becomes clear that we are not dealing with ambiguous claims of long-deceased ancestry.

Importantly, the descendants of the racial terrorism that destroyed Rosewood, Florida were awarded a $2.1 million settlement in 1994 and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree has spearheaded a similar suit for the descendants and survivors of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. But for all the historical and legal weight of this claim, America will never reckon with this debt in the grand sense "” meaning beyond the vague endorsements of "better race relations" and the occasional MLK special.

In an era where profligate billions are spent to erase non-existent foreign threats and the country tolerates a vice president's company profiteering while death tolls rise daily, you can still count on a public outcry over blacks being given too much. Guilt is just too 20th century. If we are to gain that next metaphorical acre, it will be through our own cooperative efforts to support black colleges and nurture community development. The historian and critic Harold Cruse once told me with deadpan certainty that black people will definitely get reparations one day "” right before they put us on the boats heading back to Africa.

First published: October 25, 2004

About the Author

William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse. He can be reached at Visit his website at
Egungun, Egungun ni t'aiye ati jo! Ancestos, Ancestors come to earth and dance! "I'm sick of the war and the civilization that created it. Let's look to our dreams, and the magical; to the creations of the so-called primitive peoples for new inspirations." - Jaques Vache and Andre Breton "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone." -John Maynard "You know that in our country there were even matriarchal societies where women were the most important element. On the Bijagos islands they had queens. They were not queens because they were the daughters of kings. They had queens succeeding queens. The religious leaders were women too..." -- Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source, 1973
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In the writing "The Prince", Machiavelli counselled the wise prince to kill a man's entire family, rather than take an acre of his land.

Maybe it was just the order in which Cobb recounted history, but I couldn't help but notice; Lincoln was killed after his administration began providing wealth (in the form of land) to Black folk.

I wonder, if Lincoln hadn't authorized the Field Order, would he have been killed.

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