Modern-day struggle renews, redefines 40-acers-and-a-mule promise
By Charles Hallman
Land ownership, which signaled both privilege and power, was a European concept brought to the country. “The way we think about property is a European tradition,” notes Maria Wiseman, an assistant solicitor in the Division of Indian Affairs with the U.S. Interior Department. Wiseman and the University of Wisconsin’s Katrina Quisumbling King and Jess Gilbert last month discussed the significance of Black farmland ownership in the Rural South at the Black Environmental Thought II conference at the University of Minnesota.
The “40 acres and a mule” promise was a result of Special Field Order No. 15 issued by General William T. Sherman in 1865 that was intended to make available “hundreds of thousands of acres of confiscated and abandoned Confederate lands to former slaves for settlement,” explained Wiseman. “Sherman’s order created a reservation divided into 40-acre parcels for settlement, which would facilitate the assimilation of former slaves into American society.”
However, President Andrew Johnson later repealed the order. Then the Homestead Act of 1862 made western public lands available to homesteaders, which negatively affected Native Americans. The General Allotment Act in 1887 was signed to set up large Native American reservations into parcels for allotment to individual Natives “with the intent of speeding their absorption into mainstream culture,” adds Wiseman.
Unfortunately, both laws, along with the 1865 Freedmen’s Bureau legislation, “lead to terrible results” for both Blacks and Native Americans, she says. “[Native Americans] had more land taken away than money received… Thats how it worked with the Indians. And [Blacks] were never given actual titles in the Freedman law plan.”
Between the end of the Civil War and 1910, Blacks reportedly owned between 16-19 million acres of farmland in this country. However after World War II, “a rapid loss…of Black farms and farmers” began while most Whites retained their land. “Black farmers are still fighting for their land, and Native Americans are still fighting the federal government” over land issues as well, says Wiseman.
Today between two million and seven million acres of farmland owned by Blacks is mainly located in the South. Rural land ownership in the U.S. has deep cultural significance for Blacks because it indicated both power and wealth along with security and independence.
“Being in the powerful group means owning land,” says King, community and environmental sociology Ph.D. student. She explained that autonomy and self-determination, self-sufficiency, and income and wealth are the three main reasons why land ownership is important.
King and Gilbert, a University of Wisconsin community and environmental sociology professor interviewed over 50 Black farmland owners in East Texas and the Mississippi Delta. The interviews revealed fear among Blacks of losing their land to richer and more politically connected Whites.
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