Skip to content

Land & Racial Injustice – Part 2: 40 Acres and a Ghoul (1865 to 1910)

Land & Racial Injustice – Part 2: 40 Acres and a Ghoul (1865 to 1910)

This is the second piece in an ongoing series that examines the role that control of land has played in racial injustice throughout Black history in the United States:

Part 1: Slaveholders and Land Monopoly (1619 to 1865)
Part 2: 40 Acres and a Ghoul (1865 to 1910) 👈 (you are here)
Part 3: Black Exclusion, White Subsidy (1910 to 1970)
Part 4: The Invisible Hand of the Housing Market (1970 to Today)
Part 5: Reaping What Was Sowed

This article explains that having their own land was of paramount importance to free Black folk immediately following emancipation, most famously through the Reconstruction policy of ‘40 acres and a mule’. Shockingly, President Andrew Johnson’s swift reversal of this policy would force Freedman back into exploitative sharecropping arrangements, working for and renting from White plantation owners, many of whom were themselves former slavers. Despite these setbacks, Black leaders continually asserted their right to a fair share of America’s land, organizing around ‘Reconstruction Land Taxes’ to help redistribute access to this vital resource.

Special Field Orders No. 15
Recognizing that control over land was a prerequisite for building prosperity, Freedmen in the aftermath of the Civil War saw land redistribution as fundamental to the Reconstruction project and their fight for equality of opportunity in a post-slavery America.

Black pastor Garrison Frazier met with General William Sherman in 1865 and explained that “the way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor”. This inspired Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, which called for freed slaves to each be given 40 acres of land on which to live and work, on the Sea Islands in Georgia. Following in this spirit, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill in 1865, giving the Bureau the power to grant 40 acres of land to freed slaves in the South.

An alternative America was being built, one where Blacks would at least be given a basic level of the opportunity provided by their own slice of land, freedom from the extractive power of White landowners, and the ability to keep the fruits of their own hard work. But this promising vision of a more equal future would turn out to be a mirage.

Andrew Johnson’s Betrayal

After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation, restoring many former Confederates and slavers to their pre-war land holdings. Land redistribution ground to a halt and in many cases was replaced by the explicit theft of land from those scant-few Blacks who had managed to obtain some. There were 239 documented thefts of Black property between 1890 and 1910 in Mississippi alone, and 24,000 acres of farms and timberland were stolen from Black landowners in the first three decades of the 20th Century. While the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 did enable one quarter of Southern Black farmers to acquire land (before being repealed in 1876), others such as the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850 explicitly barred Black and Indigenous populations from owning real estate.

Southern states proceeded to pass Black Codes which simultaneously limited Blacks’ property ownership rights and punished vagrancy, effectively forcing freedmen to sign labor contracts on many of the same plantations they had worked before the war. The slave owner was replaced by the employer-landlord as the new mechanism for extracting Black production into the pockets of White landowners. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains that in Mississippi: “black farmers lived in debt peonage under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants”.

Recognizing their economic dependence on Black labor, White planters fought hard to prevent Blacks from fleeing north during the Great Migration. Even apparent supporters of Black worker’s rights such as Leroy Percy, only found racist violence by the Klu Klux Klan unacceptable when it threatened the empires that they had built on the backs of their Black workers.

Blacks seeking to educate themselves and invest in their own businesses encountered an insurmountable obstacle: the land around them was already owned by whites. With limited property rights and no physical possibility to create new land for themselves, Black workers found themselves having to work for White planter landlords, and so their economic conditions stagnated. Christopher England characterizes the conditions of the period: “if emancipation had not appreciably improved the economic condition of Southern freedmen, it was because land monopoly had forced them into sharecropping.

By contrast, where Blacks did manage to acquire land, they thrived. Freedmen provided with free land by the Cherokee Nation quickly produced higher levels of physical and human capital and lower levels of racial inequality. On the Sea Islands, the short-lived Port Royal Experiment saw freedmen purchase 2,000 acres of land for cotton harvesting and growth of the all-Black town of Mitchelville, before President Andrew Johnson reversed course and ordered lands returned to their previous White owners.

Reconstruction Land Taxes
Black leaders, recognizing that land is wealth and that White landowners were hoarding it, began to vigorously pursue land taxes as a mechanism to break-up large landholdings and redistribute access to this vital resource. Frank Moss, a Black delegate to Virginia’s 1868 constitutional convention, argued that “if we do not tax the land, we might as well not have come here to make a Constitution.” Moss was so obsessed with land redistribution that the press in Richmond VA labeled him ‘Francis Forty-Acres-of Land-and-a-Mule Moss’. Likewise Abraham Galloway, an influential politician in North Carolina: ”if they can’t pay the taxes, sell their property to the highest bidder… and then we Negroes shall become land holders”.

Many Black leaders were inspired by the contemporary writings of Henry George, which identified land monopoly at the heart of social iniquity and called for the government to be entirely funded by a single tax on land values. Timothy Thomas Fortune applied these principles to the plight of the Black community in his 1884 book Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, writing that land monopoly curtailsthe productive energies of the people and diverting into the coffers of individuals rental which should flow into the common treasury as taxes” and advancing the single tax on land as the necessary remedy.

Men have as much right to monopolize the air we breathe and the sunshine that warms us as the land that by God’s ordination feeds our families… His improvements are his. The lands belong to the sovereign people… we recommend to our people the principles of the single tax party… land, if carrying all the taxes necessary to support the government, would not be held by speculators as it is now and would soon become abundant and cheap.” – General R. M. Humphrey, Superintendent of the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Co-operative Union, at the 1890 Ocala convention.

Where property taxes were implemented, they were successful in their goals: Mississippi saw over six million acres of land forfeited by plantation owners who could not pay their tax bill, helping Black land ownership peak at 2 million acres by 1910. Likewise, Louis Post observed that on St. Helena island in South Carolina, “Reconstruction land taxes” were responsible for widespread Black ownership. In a more recent empirical analysis, Dr Trevon D. Logan of Ohio State University has found that property taxes were indeed higher in areas with more Black officials and that this had downstream benefits for Black literacy and land tenure.

The dying vision of Reconstruction was being put on life support by these Reconstruction land taxes. By recognizing all citizens’ equal moral right to the land, Reconstruction land taxes were, in Dr. Logan’s words, “a plan for wealth redistribution without confiscation.” Unfortunately, white landowners knew how their bread was buttered, responding to increased property taxes with heightened levels of violence against Black politicians. Dr. Logan again: “Racial violence has always been targeted and purposeful, these political attacks were about Reparations.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *