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The Homestead Act: When America Granted 246 Million Acres Of Land To White Families Only

The Homestead Act: When America Granted 246 Million Acres Of Land To White Families Only

homestead

Farmer John Boyd Jr. at his farm in Boydton, Va., on May 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

The Homestead Act was passed on May 20, 1862. The act granted adult heads of families 160 acres of public land–virtually for free. But it was whites who were the main beneficiaries. In all, the government gave 246 million acres of land to mainly white families. This is a significant reason why Black landowners still lack sorely behind whites.

The Homestead Act was enacted during the Civil War in 1862. Most of the land went to speculators, cattle owners, miners, and loggers, according to the National Archives.

Still, the act gave white Americans a head start. Much of the land had been Indian Territory west of the Mississippi, PBS reported. While all U.S. citizens, including women, African Americans, freed slaves, and immigrants, were eligible to apply to the federal government for a “homestead,” or 160-acre plot of land, white males were the main recipients of the land.

It was President Abraham Lincoln who signed the original Homestead Act. Between 1868 and 1934, it granted 246 million acres to individual Americans. To get 160 acres of government land for free, people had to fill out an application, improve the land for five years, and then file for the deed of ownership, reported the digital magazine Aeon.

By the end of the act, 10 years later, nearly 28,000 individuals had been awarded land. More than 1.6 million white families succeeded in becoming landowners; only 4,000 to 5,500 African-American claimants ever received final land patents, Aeon reported.


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At the time, Northerners and Republicans wanted to open the land to settlement by individual farmers; Southern Democrats wanted the land available only to slaveholders, the Khan Academy reported.

Meanwhile, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in 1865, African Americans began fighting for the rights to the lands they had long worked, and many demanded the “40 acres and a mule” that had been initially promised. The land was to be a form of reparations. But the reparations were never delivered.

 “Union Army General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, set aside land for freed black slaves. With this Order, 400,000 acres of land described as “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast” was to be reallocated to emancipated slaves in the South. Each slave family was entitled to 40 acres of land in this strip,” wrote lawyer Donald Watkins wrote in his blog. 

Abraham Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, vetoed the order, and the land was returned to the “very planters who declared war on the United States of America,” wrote Watkins.

According to reparations advocates William Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen, although the Homestead Act was finally repealed in 1976, “though in Alaska, homesteading on public lands continued for another ten years.” 

The reparations movement’s push for “restitution starts with the government’s failure to deliver the promised 40-acre land grants to their formerly enslaved ancestors in the aftermath of America’s civil war. Had the land been allocated and its ownership protected, we speculate that reparations would be unnecessary today,” Darity and Mullen, authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” wrote in the Economist.

Farmer John Boyd Jr. poses for a portrait during a break from bailing hay at his farm in Boydton, Va., on May 27, 2021. The federal government has illegally broken a promise to pay off the debts of a group of Black farmers, according to a class-action lawsuit. The group hopes to put pressure on officials to keep their word and to restore funding that was dropped after a group of white farmers filed legal challenges arguing their exclusion was a violation of their constitutional rights. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)