At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves were promised “forty acres and a mule” by the U. S. government. Post emancipation, plantation owners had been instructed to provide former slaves with a settlement of land equity to set up farms of their own.
In January 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that abandoned plantations along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts be rationed and that a share of the land be divided among the freed slaves in the South. Because Sherman’s order was not federally legislated policy, the land in question was returned to former Confederates under the administration of President Andrew Johnson, prompting the eviction of freed slaves from their newly acquired 40 acres shortly after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
In January 1865, President Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, organized a meeting regarding freed slaves, which Sherman attended. Local Black leaders, clergy, and freed slaves expressed their desire to build farms and townships for the Black population. Secretary Stanton acknowledged the effect that land equity and ownership would have on the former slave population, and observing that the Confederacy had rebelled against the federal government, he declared its land officially forfeited and available for free slaves.
Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau shortly after Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 demanded the redistribution of land to former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to ensure that millions of free slaves would begin to receive economic equality and empowerment, their 40 acres and mule, shortly after the Civil War ended. President Johnson, however, reversed Sherman’s policy and issued an order for all land to be returned to the Confederacy’s White landowners and confiscated from the free Blacks.
Freed slaves never received their 40 acres and mules, never gaining economic parity to own land and produce and market their own commodities, goods, and services for fair wages. It has been more than 150 years since emancipation, and Black people in general have never truly gained any economic advantages post slavery, nor leveled the playing field of economic opportunity. The African-American community has much work to do in search of economic equity, land ownership, and parity. Maybe now Black folk, as well as all minority cultures and immigrants, can begin to realize that ownership and entrepreneurship are the keys to economic wealth, distribution, and empowerment.