For centuries, African-Americans have called for their “40 acres and a mule,” or reparations owed for slavery. As prominent Black figures continue this conversation, it is important to examine the context of this phrase and what it has meant historically.
In January 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sat down with 20 community leaders in Savannah, Georgia to discuss policies that would most benefit newly freed African-Americans. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, the source of the famous phrase.
Of the 20 leaders that met with Sherman and Stanton, Rev. Garrison Frazier was especially important to the creation of the field order. Frazier, who purchased his freedom, acted as spokesman for the group. His answers to key questions would be implemented in the policy.
Sherman’s order called for 400,000 acres of land stretching from South Carolina to Florida to be seized for the settlement of Black families. The order was to allot family units, including freed people, a plot of land no larger than 40 acres.
According to the order, only Black people would run these communities. Outside of military personnel, white people would not be allowed to live there.
Sherman and Stanton’s meeting in Savannah came in response to a failure by the Union Army. Serving under Sherman during his March to the Sea, Jefferson C. Davis left thousands of Black refugees stranded on the banks of Ebenezer Creek. With Confederate forces approaching, many jumped into the water and drowned. Those who stayed on land were either killed or returned to their former masters.
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President Abraham Lincoln approved Sherman’s order but his successor, Andrew Johnson, overturned it in the fall of 1865. The land seized for the order was returned to its owners.
A century after Special Field Order No. 15 fell apart, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke of the country’s need to do more for its Black citizens. In a speech at Howard University he said, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” Johnson would go on to sign important civil rights legislation into law, but none about reparations.
Activist James Forman forcefully continued the reparations conversation on May 4, 1969. He interrupted a service at Riverside Church to deliver the Black Manifesto on behalf of the National Black Economic Development Conference. The document demanded that white churches and Jewish synagogues pay $500 million in reparations to Black people.
The late congressman Rep. John Conyers introduced the H.R. 40 bill in 1989 that would create a commission to “study and develop Reparation proposals for African-Americans.” Conyers brought this bill up in Congress every year following, but received little support from his colleagues. The bill was named after the reneged promise of 40 acres and a mule.
In a 2016 interview with author Ta-Nehisi Coates, President Barack Obama expressed doubt that Congress would ever pass legislation directly addressing reparations for African-Americans. Instead, Obmam said he believed it would be much easier for him or any other leader to enact policy that would benefit all Americans.
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