Black farmers fight to retain land ownership


Modern-day struggle renews, redefines 40-acers-and-a-mule promise


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


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.

(l-r) Maria Wiseman, Jess Gilbert, Rose McGee, Katrina Quisumbling King and Yvette Pye were all part of a break-out session on land ownership at Black Environmental Thought II Conference September 21-23. Photo by Charels Hallman

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However, President Andrew Johnson later repealed the order.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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One Comment on “Black farmers fight to retain land ownership”

  1. Over the past year I’ve been viewing microfilm from the National Archives for the Freedmen Bureau in SC during the years 1865-1866. General Saxton was in command at that office and he oversaw the 40,000 land grants he just finished making under General Sherman’s Field Order #15 along the coast from Charleston SC to Florida. In the files from that office it clearly shows that all applications filed to have lands returned by former owners who took loyalty oaths being denied. On all those applications it’s noted that since General Sherman’s Field Order #15 is still being binding the application was denied. Having been denied the former landowners wrote President Johnson and he had the Commissioner of the Freedmen Bureau issue a special Circular to have the lands returned. But, General Saxton was able to find inconsistencies in the wording of the instructions that allowed former slaves to hold onto their lands. In many cases those families remained on their lands until Congress passed legislation in June of 1866 that provided means for them to gain title at a reasonable price. As for General Saxton and many of the officers on his staff who participated in the delaying action, many suffered adversely when those in military, acting on behalf of the President, brought questionable charges against them.
    This is what my research has led me to believe and makes me question why so many sources report that President Johnson revoked or overturned Special Order #15. They also state that the land grants made by Saxton were returned to their former owners. My question is, if we acknowledge the great injustice done by President Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation because of the harm it did to newly freed families, why is it don’t we acknowledged that the officers at the Freedmen Bureau in SC who believed likewise in 1865 and did something about it at a great cost to their own military careers?

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