40 Acres and a mule

After the bloody battles of the American Civil war and the passage of the emancipation proclamation on January 1st, 1863, followed by the ratification of the 13th amendment (that which legally abolished slavery and ‘involuntary servitude’ in the United States) in December of 1865, a whole new chapter in the history of racial oppression began in the American South.

The account below is the story of the deceptions and difficulties that enslaved peoples in America faced after the legal end of slavery, and of the famous promise from the government to provide each man “forty acres and a mule”, and how that promise was taken back.

A simplistic view of history might see abolition as a total triumph, and it was indeed a hard-won victory. But for the estimated four million men, women, and children living as slaves throughout the United States, another battle had begun. To those who had survived slavery came the new challenge of surviving a tenuous and unsupported new freedom.

For many of those born and raised as the property of others, holding no land, no money, and no economic power, being ‘freed’ would have left one question at the forefront of their minds. How do you make a living when you own nothing except the clothes on your back, when until this point you did not even have legal rights over your own body?

Many were highly skilled farm workers or craftsmen living in the agrarian economy of the South, but held no land or tools whereby to monetise those skills. The confederate landowners, on the other hand, were suddenly bereft of the free labour they had relied upon, and their confederate money was rendered useless in the newly-solidified Union.

In an early attempt at making amends – or just a grasp at some workable arrangement – policy was passed which was extraordinary for it’s time. After meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and twenty leaders of the black community, Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15 on January 16th, 1865.

This military order proclaimed the confiscation of land belonging to Confederate landowners and the distribution of this land in 40-acre parcels to approximately former slaves and free black people living in the area.

While abolitionists such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner had already been advocating the idea of land distribution as a means of taking away the powers held by southern slaveholders, the full idea of this grand plan for allotment of land to freed slaves truly took shape in that meeting.

400,000 acres of land along the coast from South Carolina to Florida were to be distributed to approximately 18,000 black families, with the stipulation that “…each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground…in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves…”

 More incredibly, detailed instructions were given for how this land was to be governed – “…in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves … By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such.” (source: PBS.org)

 President Lincoln established what would become known as The Freedmen’s Bureau to transfer the legal titles of 40-acre plots of land to both freed Southern slaves and to white Unionists in the South. Sherman later added the promise of army mules to work the land, and the phrase so famous to history was born.

 Freed men throughout the South rushed to take advantage of this opportunity. One of the black ministers who had met with Sherman, led 1,000 individuals who established a community on Skidaway Island in Georgia. By June, it is said that “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of Sherman Land”.

On the evening of April 11th, 1865, President Lincoln gave his last public address. He spoke of the “great difficulty,” of the “re-inauguration of the national authority—reconstruction.” It was the first time Lincoln had given public, vocal support regarding the black right to vote, as he touched on Louisiana’s recently-established model of free-state governance.

The young John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd, and at the close of Lincoln’s address announced; “That means n—- citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

On the evening of April 14th, Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, and the president died in the early hours of the following morning.

Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency.

Ignoring the objections of General Oliver O. Howard, the chief of the Freedman’s Bureau, Johnson overturned the Special Field Orders in the fall of 1865, approximately seven months after they had been passed.

Under his administration, legislatures in the Southern states passed “black codes” controlling newly freed slaves, and indeed all black people in the South.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, prohibited slavery “except as a punishment for crime”. White landowners and planters, desperate to maintain supremacy in the new order, exploited the loophole thus available to them.

‘Black codes’ were passed, criminalizing activities that would make for convenient ways to prosecute African Americans and thereby legally re-impose slavery upon them. Black codes varied by region but tended to strike the same notes. Codes prohibited activities such as loitering or vagrancy.

Loitering – standing around or waiting without apparent purpose. Vagrancy – homelessness. Joblessness and homelessness. How convenient to criminalize the very actions that would by default often be the lot of men and women whose opportunity to own land had just been snatched away at the eleventh hour.

Keith Claybrook Jr, an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, sums it up this way; “The idea was that if you’re going to be free, you should be working. If you had three or four Black people standing around talking, they were actually vagrant and could be convicted of a crime and sent to jail.”

Codes also required black Americans to sign restrictive labour contracts preventing prospective employers from offering a higher wage than that which they were currently receiving, curtailing their chances of improving their lot. Failure to sign such a contract was, again, an offence punishable by arrest…and sentencing to unpaid labor. Another loophole back to slavery.

Steep fines could also be charged for these supposed ‘crimes’, and when impoverished individuals were unable to pay, debt peonage (debt slavery) would be employed. Black men would be arrested on the kind of trumped-up charges mentioned above, and a local landowner would step in to pay their fines – imprisoning them back into forced labor.

The relevance of this history is easy to see. Today, reports show that black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans, despite making up just 13.4% of the overall population. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. (source: Sentencingproject.org, Census.gov)

 In twelve states, more than half of the prison population is black. In Maryland, this rises to 72%. In eleven states, at least one in every twenty black males are imprisoned. Laws exist today that disproportionately target BAME people, and black males in particular, across America.

In the mid-2000s, several towns, mostly in Southern states, passed laws criminalizing ‘saggy pants’ – ostensibly in the name of public decency. The number of young black males targeted under such laws has caused outcry after the death of Anthony Childs.

Childs, a 31 year old black man, was walking in Shreveport Louisiana in February of 2019. A police officer attempted to stop him under the ‘saggy pants’ law due to his exposed underwear. Childs fled, and was pursued by the police vehicle. Police noticed that he was armed, and fired eight rounds. Childs fired just one shot. He died at the scene, with three non-lethal wounds and the shot to the chest that took his life, which was ruled to be self-inflicted.

This is just one example. Black Americans are disproportionately arrested, charged, and imprisoned on drug-related charges. Even offences such as jaywalking are arguably utilized against black males – a recent article by the Guardian references the arrest of two teenage boys for walking down a street that lacked a pavement. In 2019, 90% of illegal-walking tickets issued by New York police were to black and Hispanic people. (source; The Guardian)

 We could go on, but suffice to say the effects of the repeal of the Special Field Order No. 15 and the implementation of Black Codes continue, in one way or another, to the present day. For a few short months, the possibility of land ownership had shone out as a gateway to citizenship, self-sufficiency, and a truer experience of freedom than had before been thought possible. White politics snatched that offer back, and the cruel after-effects of slavery lingered on for years of oppression.

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