Monday, April 01, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
A root of reparations: Legal status of '40 acres and a mule' in dispute
By Dru Sefton
Newhouse News Service
Forty acres and a mule.
The words still resonate across the black community and are the nexus
for a slavery-reparations lawsuit just filed in New York.
It's a concept that originated with Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman,
whose Special Field Order No. 15 of January 1865 gave each freed slave's
household a piece of land and the means to work it. But for many blacks,
"40 acres and a mule" symbolizes promises made and broken by the
U.S. government to slaves.
Slave descendant Deadria Farmer-Paellmann of New York City grew up
hearing about her own family's crushed dreams. She brought the recent
lawsuit against Aetna insurance, FleetBoston Financial and shipping
company CSX, claiming those firms and others profited from slavery.
She's seeking unspecified damages on behalf of millions of offspring of
"My grandfather always talked about the 40 acres and a mule we were
promised and never given," she told reporters as she filed her suit
Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. "I wanted to get to the core
of why we didn't get it."
While scholars are divided on the ultimate legality of Sherman's order,
they agree that America today would be a far different place had the
freed slaves been settled onto lands they had worked for generations.
"Land is power particularly in the 19th century," said Sam Anderson of
the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and a
member of the New York-based Reparations Mobilization Coalition.
"At the time of emancipation, people were promised the land they worked
on. It was not only a governmental promise but it was deep in the heart
and mind and soul of millions of people who had worked the land with no
Claude Oubre disagrees. That promise "is a myth," said Oubre, author of
"Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Land Ownership"
and a history and political-science professor at Louisiana State
University at Eunice.
"Military orders are only valid during wartime," Oubre said. "If Sherman
set land aside, he could only do it as long as the war was continuing."
Michael Holt, a University of Virginia history professor and co-author
of "The Civil War and Reconstruction," said Sherman's order designated
the coastline and 30 miles inland between Charleston and Jacksonville
"for exclusive settlement of blacks who were to take up land in 40-acre
Dylan Penningroth, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia
who specializes in black history, slavery and emancipation, said the
land promise came "at the end of Sherman's famous march to the sea, when
he notices he has 20,000 black people tagging along. That's a problem
because this is an army, not a refugee camp."
So Sherman gathered "leading Negro citizens, most of whom were ministers
in Savannah," Penningroth said, and asked what their community wanted.
Land, they replied.
"They knew that was the basis on which they could make freedom happen,"
Sherman's field order detailed the areas of land available to freed
slaves, and said the government would see that "each family shall have a
plot of no more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground" as well as
assistance "to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural
settlement." Although the specific phrase "and a mule" does not appear
in Sherman's order, Oubre said the promise was meant to include excess
mules and horses from the Army.
Holt said that in March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau
and gave it control of about 800,000 acres of abandoned and confiscated
southern land. But by the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson,
under political pressure from wealthy farmers, ordered that all
black-held land be returned to former owners pardoned after the war.
Blacks were forced out by the end of 1865.
"Whites knew farming was a production of wealth, and that these folk who
were formerly enslaved were now skilled laborers," Anderson said. "It
was a dangerous precedent from the perspective of the construct of race
and racism: Millions of black folk with land and the knowledge of what
to do with it."
Oubre argued that ultimately, the field order would have been found
"It was a bill of attainder," he said, meaning that the government had
taken land from owners who had been declared guilty without trials
during the war. "Most of the land in the South had been seized under the
act, which the Constitution prohibits."
But Penningroth said there was a precedent: The Homestead Act of 1862,
which offered 160-acre lots of land in the American West.
"It's not like America had never opened up lands for its citizens," he
Richard America sees a larger issue: "The process of the diversion and
transfer of income and wealth from blacks to whites over 400 years."
America, a Georgetown University professor, is author of "Paying the
Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America" and a member of the
Reparations Coordinating Committee, assisting Farmer-Paellmann in her
People "understand intuitively the phrase 40 acres and a mule, and it
captures the underlying reality in a memorable way," Anderson said.
"They intuit that there is indeed a debt, a social debt."
A debt that would not exist today, the argument runs, had freed slaves
been settled permanently.
If that had happened, "the political reality and electoral politics
would have shifted," said Anderson, of the Reparations Mobilization
Coalition. "Serious landowners are seriously involved in political
Over time, given the widespread ownership of small parcels of land, "it
might have changed people's minds about freed people," perhaps heading
off or weakening racism, Penningroth said. "There was this image that
the most virtuous person in America was someone who worked for himself,
was independent: The sturdy, self-sufficient farmer."
For now, the slavery reparations lawsuit is a "starting point," Anderson
"A starting point to calculate the amount of labor that black people put
into building this society, for which they were not paid," he said. "For
the untold hardships and degradation of a people driven off the land or
intimidated into working for nothing. Just a starting point."
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