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Myth-making vs. history, Part I


During the 40 years or so of the modern evolution of the Black studies movement in America’s colleges and universities, we have made major progress in research, writing, teaching and authorship. We have also sometimes accepted stories we’ve been told are true without critical examination. In fact, there is much to be said for providing people who have most often been taught and told relentlessly that they have no worthwhile history and contributions that they actually have much, much more than anyone knows. Using one positive extreme to combat and neutralize a negative extreme is a well-worn and effective tactic, and clearly African folk needed it in the case of Black history. But, again, after 40 years and then some (rigorous Black history research started well before 1968-69), it’s time we looked again at some issues we’ve just assumed to be accurate and true. Such a re-examination will not always make us feel good, but things that will help us move forward don’t always tweak our sweet tooth anyway.

One such example is a basic tenet of African American history and culture–the 40 acres and a mule “promise.” Clearly, such a promise should have been made, we deserved it to have been made, and we had more than earned that promise at the time it was allegedly made. So, we anticipated the promise, hoped for it, but, in fact, White folk simply did not provide it.

The “40 acres and a mule” concept: That between 1861 (the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confiscation Acts, Sherman’s Field Order #15, the Southern Homestead Act, the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts) and 1877 (the effective ending of Reconstruction), the American government made a promise to African Americans that Blacks would be given emancipation from slavery along with 40 acres of land for each family, a mule and other farm implements to help plow the ground.

Well, with all due respect to my grandmother who told me the narrative passed down to her, that promise was not made and, thus, it was not broken.

The “40 acres and a mule” concept, which was a long-standing rumor among the slave community in the South, was most likely generated by Southern newspapers (1860-1864) and the Confederate Congress (1861-1865), which was publicly discussing the probability that the Union under Lincoln was committed to taking land from slaveholders and redistributing it to slaves. Abolitionists strongly advocated that the Union government should do this, and two months after the Civil War began, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which authorized Union forces to seize abandoned land and land which had not complied with the federal tax law.

Publicizing the idea in Confederate newspapers and bulletins that the land would be given to slaves freed by the Union soldiers fired up Confederate resistance.

At the famous meeting in January 1865, between 20 selected Black leaders and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Gen. W.T. Sherman in Savannah, Ga., the issue was certainly discussed in terms of what Blacks wanted. The “40 acres” concept (but not the mule) was included in Sherman’s Field Order 15, which was issued a few days later, on Jan. 16, 1865. It called for Blacks who had followed Sherman’s army from Atlanta to Savannah to be given abandoned and confiscated coastal land from Charleston, S.C., south to the St. John’s River in Florida, some 30 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

Through Sherman’s official representative, Gen. Rufus Saxton, approximately 40,000 African Americans were allowed to settle on over 485,000 acres in that region during the first few months of 1865. None of those settlers received title to the property, however. They were given possession only after President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s successor) issued his Proclamation Pardon in May, 1865, a few months later, which gave virtually all former Confederates a blanket pardon for fighting against the U.S. government and restored the land claims to them. Blacks were summarily removed from the land Sherman allowed them to have temporarily.

The concept of awarding Black freedmen “40 acres” of leased or rented land, food and supplies (still no mule) was also included in the original language proposed for establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal government’s first welfare agency. That language (mainly written by Cong. Thaddeus Stevens) included a request to validate the redistribution of land that resulted from Sherman’s Order 15. However, that language was substantially changed by the time the final bill was approved by Congress on March 3, 1865, and immediately signed by President Lincoln. Gone was the reference to Sherman and the South Carolina and Georgia lands.

Also gone was any reference to giving Blacks free title to government land. Instead, the bureau was authorized to set aside some 800,000 acres of abandoned and confiscated land from all over the South to be assigned in tracts up to 40 acres per head of a family. That land was to be provided to freed Blacks and poor Whites for low-price lease and rent of up to three years, after which any of the settlers could purchase their plots at current appraised value. However, the Freedmen’s Bureau was never allowed to redistribute any of the land to Blacks, even under those modest terms of usage. Most of the land controlled by the bureau was restored to Southern planters or sold to White speculators. The rest stayed in government hands.

Finally, Cong. Thaddeus Stevens had strongly advocated the granting of 40-acre plots of land to freed Blacks, along with $50 a piece per head of family, as an amendment to the 1867 Reconstruction Act passed by the Radical Republicans in Congress. However, his amendment was voted down.

Essentially, there was never any legal or official promise made by the U.S. government to Blacks to provide them with free land and the wherewithal to farm that land. Even the Southern Homestead Act (signed into law in 1866), which was passed because other avenues to provide land for the masses of freed former slaves hadn’t worked, and which identified land if Blacks could get to the land in time and to file the proper papers.

What did happen was that the hopes and prayers of Blacks were to receive land from the government and assistance to work it, and many people with many different agendas kept raising and dashing those hopes.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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