Forty Acres and a Mule

General William Sherman had a problem. As the military commander in charge of large areas of the South in the late stages of the Civil War, he had many thousands of Black refugees that he had to provide with food and shelter. A delegation of Black leaders had approached Sherman and offered a solution: give them some land they can settle on and work as their own.

On January 16, 1865, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which designated a large amount of unclaimed and abandoned land in his remit to be divided into lots of roughly forty acres each to be given to the refugees for homesteading (Spare mules that the Army no longer needed were given out later).

There was a bit of a catch in the order, though.

Amidst all the stuff that would in effect set up a nice little Black community, Section III contained the phrase “…or until Congress shall regulate their title.” Putting it one way, the Order let them be “squatters” on the land until the federal government straightened out the ownership details (which could include letting them keep the land).

When the war was over and things started to settle, the Federal government looked at Special Field Orders No. 15, and determined that – for all his good intentions – General Sherman exceeded his authority, and revoked the Order. The Freedmen’s Bureau would take care of all the settlement and homesteading issues, thankyouverymuch.

Over the decades, the phrase “forty acres and a mule” has come to symbolize a broken promise made by the government to Black citizens everywhere. That’s not really true; it wasn’t a “promise” – just an ad hoc solution to a temporary crisis – and it wasn’t even made by the government.

If one does want to point the blame finger somewhere, there’s a really huge target. For all the talk of the evils of slavery made by the Abolitionists, I can’t recall any serious plans as to what to do with all the newly free Blacks – other then send them back to Africa as colonists (that’s how Liberia was created).

It’s pretty depressing. For all the talk of “freedom”, no one really bothered to think of what would happen after slavery was abolished. Not just the economic implications, but the social ones. Peek around in the fine print of what they were saying, and you might find hints that they still believed that Blacks were somehow “inferior” to Whites. Human, yes, but not as intelligent or “developed”. And that justified all the segregation and “Jim Crow” laws that got put into place all over the country.

Freedom, sure. But not equality. That’s the broken promise – one that still hasn’t been fully rectified.


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