We’ve all heard the story of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves. The promise was the first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves, and it was astonishingly radical for its time. In fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today: the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property – some 400,000 acres – formerly owned by Confederate land owners, and its methodical redistribution to former black slaves.
What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by black leaders themselves.
It is difficult to stress adequately how revolutionary this idea was: As the historian Eric Foner puts it in his book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877," “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.”
Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. One of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. This promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million.
What’s been taught is that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. But accounts leave out is – that the idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before the order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.
Few have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one said: “The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes sic now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President.”
Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely by black people themselves.
Section three specifies the allocation of land: “ . . . 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...”
The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling. Here’s how this proposal actually came about.
Abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after he and Stanton met with black ministers, at 8 p.m., Jan. 12 in Charles Green’s mansion in Savannah.
Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders? They were ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Eleven had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.
Their chosen spokesman was a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, 67, who had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857, when he reportedly purchased freedom for himself and wife for $1000 in gold and silver. Rev. Frazier had been “in the ministry for thirty-five years,” and it was he who bore the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group. The stakes for the future of the Negro people were high.
And Frazier and his brothers did not disappoint. What did they tell Sherman and Stanton that the Negro most wanted? Land! “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” said Rev. Frazier, “is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor . . . and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare . . . We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” And when asked next where the freed slaves “would rather live – whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves,” without missing a beat, Frazier replied that “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over . . .” When polled individually around the table, all but one said that they agreed with Frazier. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, after President Lincoln approved it.
And what happened to this astonishingly visionary program, which would have fundamentally altered the course of American race relations? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.
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