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Over Easy: 40 Acres And A Mule

40 Acres and a mule

Got into a discussion the other day on Facebook about whether or not the Slaves, once freed, received anything for their trouble. The answer, it turns out, is absolutely nothing. Zip, zilch, nada, zero. I remember seeing that PBS series on The Civil War and thought I remembered seeing where they got some land or something.

Well here is the story. They did…for a very short time. But let me back up a bit.  Back in 1820 Joseph E. Davis, the younger brother of Jefferson Davis, established the plantation Hurricane at Davis Bend, Mississippi.

Davis was influenced by the utopian ideas of Robert Owen, whom he met in the 1820s during Owen’s tour in the United States. When he established his plantation Hurricane at Davis Bend, Davis worked to create a model slave community there. He hoped to show that a higher functioning community could be achieved within slavery. He allowed a high degree of self-government for his 350 slaves, provided better nutrition and health and dental care, and created a communal environment. He worked closely with Benjamin T. Montgomery, a literate African slave, whom he allowed to establish a store on the property.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Davis Bend developed into an autonomous free community when Davis sold the property in 1867 to his former slave Benjamin T. Montgomery. The community continued as a cooperative until the 1880s, but continually falling cotton prices, an economic depression, and hostility from the white community finally caused it to fail. Isaiah Montgomery, Benjamin’s son, led many of the residents to a new black community, founding Mound Bayou in northwest Mississippi. It expanded and thrived through the 1920s.

Pretty radical idea for the 19th century despite the “Slave Codes” of the time which limited what slaves and free blacks could do. Essentially Slaves were property, nothing more. The same as goats and pigs and other farm animals, and that is how they were thought of. After the Emancipation Proclamation a lot of shit came down, as we say in the vernacular.  You see up until Eli Whitney invented and developed the Cotton Gin, cotton was not a cash crop. It was hellishly hard to prepare for market. Even with slave labor it was very labor intensive to remove the seeds and such. So it seemed like every plantation and large scale farm began growing cotton and the needs for slaves increased tremendously.

The industrial revolution was taking off like gang-busters in the Northern Cities thanks to the improved steam engine. Textile Mills wanted cotton and labor. The combine harvester had just been developed which made harvesting wheat and other grains much more economical but the Northern farmers in the free states took exception to the slave states who had essentially free labor. At the same time the Southern Slave states accused the North of not abiding by the The Fugitive Slave Act, many  states refusing to return runaway slaves to their owners. Virginia even passing a law that prescribed death for anyone helping a runaway slave.

Add to this there were increasing number of Slave Rebellions, which terrified the crap out of white southerners, whether they held slaves or not. The worst of which was The Nat Turner rebellion of more than 70 enslaved and free blacks.

Historian Stephen B. Oates states that Turner called on his group to “kill all the white people.”[12] A contemporary newspaper noted, “Turner declared that ‘indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'”[13] The group spared a few homes “because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants ‘thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.'”[12][14]

The rebels spared almost no one whom they encountered. A small child who hid in a fireplace was among the few survivors. The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children[12] before Turner and his brigade of insurgents were defeated. A white militia with twice the manpower of the rebels and reinforced by three companies of artillery eventually defeated the insurrection.[15]

Retaliation was swift and more than a bit over the top.

The state executed 56 blacks. Militias killed at least 100 blacks, and probably many more.[17] Another estimate is that up to 200 blacks were killed.[18] Whatever the exact number of black victims overall, it far exceeded the number of white victims.[19]

Rumors quickly spread that the slave revolt was not limited to Southampton, and that it had expanded as far south as Alabama. Fears led to reports in North Carolina that “armies” of slaves were seen on highways, had burned and massacred the inhabitants of Wilmington, and were marching on the state capital.[12] Such fear and alarm led to whites’ attacking blacks across the South with flimsy cause–the editor of the Richmond Whig, writing “with pain,” described the scene as “the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity.”[20] Two weeks after the rebellion had been suppressed, the violence against the blacks continued. General Eppes ordered troops and white citizens to stop the killing:

Sound familiar? In short, living in the 1800s was not what I would call fun. Then the Civil War broke out which pretty much decimated the south. So when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern whites’ heads exploded.  Northern white heads were not in much better condition. Even those who hated slavery were not so amused.  They hated the idea of slavery but freed slaves were something else. They say the first thing you do to make killing OK is to dehumanize those you are going to kill. Well blacks in the country have been dehumanized from the get go.

Which brings us to 40 Acres And A Mule.

“Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.” Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. After all, one of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. As we know all too well, this promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the nation’s former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million.

We are talking land redistribution here folks and maybe even wealth redistribution. [eat your heart out Vladimir Lenin, we thought of it first.]

We have been taught in school that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. (That account is half-right: Sherman prescribed the 40 acres in that Order, but not the mule. The mule would come later.) But what many accounts leave out is that this idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before Sherman issued the Order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.

Pretty damn radical if you ask me.

With this Order, 400,000 acres of land — “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast,” as Barton Myers reports — would be redistributed to the newly freed slaves. The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling, actually.

And whose idea was this?

Here’s how this radical proposal — which must have completely blown the minds of the rebel Confederates — actually came about. The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power,” as Myers observed. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, “40 acres and a mule” was their idea.

Now how did this idea work out? Not well, unfortunately.

And by June, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’ ” By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”

Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865, and, as Barton Myers sadly concludes, “returned the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it” — to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America.

This must have seemed to a lot of people as the ultimate in government intrusion and intervention and spawned all kinds of resentment.  And when civil rights threatened to take away the last vestiges of Jim Crow, that must have been the last straw.

So property rights and capitalism won out in the end. Except for the [now free] blacks. And their plight only went down hill from there. Almost immediately states both north and south  enacted Black Codes. These codes were very restrictive limiting what blacks could and could not do and what blacks could and could not own. After reconstruction failed, these same codes along with restricting and in some cases removing a black’s right to vote.

But the south was not alone. Northern states began to enact their own black codes.

Ohio, with slave-state Kentucky across the river, aggressively barred black immigration. When Virginian John Randolph’s 518 slaves were emancipated and a plan was hatched to settle them in southern Ohio, the population rose up in indignation. An Ohio congressman warned that if the attempt were made, “the banks of the Ohio … would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves.”[4] Even the abolitionists in this region pitched their appeal, in part, to the desire for a homogenous (white) states. They claimed that attempts by blacks to immigrate into the state would end when slavery ended and blacks had no more cause to flee the South for “the uncongenial North.”

White northerners thoughts and opinions of blacks differed little from the south. In fact this was pretty much true though out the whole United States, wanting them around or in close proximity about as much as they would a cow or chicken.

Exclusion ordinances often were advanced by self-professed friends of the freemen who foresaw only tragedy in attempts of the races to share the land. Robert Dale Owen, speaking in Indiana in 1850, asked if any decent person desired “the continuance among us of a race to whom we are not willing to accord the most common protection against outrage and death.” The writers in such cases seem honestly troubled by the plight of free blacks. The rhetoric hardly is an exaggeration: during the constitutional debate in the state that year, one speaker had frankly acknowledged, “It would be better to kill them off at once, if there is no other way to get rid of them. … We know how the Puritans did with the Indians, who were infinitely more magnanimous and less impudent than the colored race.”

I mean to tell you. I f you can’t use them as slave labor any more … And whites did not want for any public money used for black education, health or welfare.  Even to the point of burning down black schools and sometimes whole communities. And voting? Forgetaboutit.

When the Civil War ended, 19 of 24 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote. Nowhere did they serve on juries before 1860. They could not give testimony in 10 states, and were prevented from assembling in two. Several western states had prohibited free blacks from entering the state. Blacks who entered Illinois and stayed more than 10 days were guilty of “high misdemeanor.” Even those that didn’t exclude blacks debated doing so and had discriminatory ordinances on the local level.

It wasn’t until just before WWI and during the war that blacks were to migrate in any number to the northern cities. The living conditions sucked and the wages sucked but at least they were out from under Jim Crow. Well mostly out.

Between 1914 and 1920, roughly 500,000 black southerners packed their bags and headed to the North, fundamentally transforming the social, cultural, and political landscape of cities such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. The Great Migration would reshape black America and the nation as a whole.

Black southerners faced a host of social, economic, and political challenges that prompted their migration to the North. The majority of black farmers labored as sharecroppers, remained in perpetual debt, and lived in dire poverty. Their condition worsened in 1915–16 as a result of a boll weevil infestation that ruined cotton crops throughout the South. These economic obstacles were made worse by social and political oppression. By the time of the war, most black people had been disfranchised, effectively stripped of their right to vote through both legal and extralegal means.

Jim Crow segregation, legitimized by the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court ruling, forced black people to use separate and usually inferior facilities. The southern justice system systematically denied them equal protection under the law and condoned the practice of vigilante mob violence. As an aspiring migrant from Alabama wrote in a letter to the Chicago Defender, “[I] am in the darkness of the south and [I] am trying my best to get out.”

And this changed little, it at all, until the late 1960s and civil rights, though the feelings and attitudes of whites both north and south changed less. I would in fact wager to guess that among the tea party republicans and conservatives it really has not changed at all. Attitudes are very difficult to change, especially if changing them might impact [financially above all] your life in a negative way.  Or at least you believe it will. Neither whites nor blacks I think have really come to grips with all of this and too many just don’t want to face it all. Even those who profess to be on the left.

That is my little history lesson for today. We can discuss this or anything else that come to mind.

Have at it Firedogs.

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