40 Acres and a Mule

Blacks don’t want enough to be successful. So said boy wonder Jared Kushner, who, as we know, worked hard for all his success.

Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand announced they will introduce the Justice for Black Farmers Act. The proposed legislation will address the precipitous drop in land ownership by African-American farmers.

Is this another attempt at reparations for some unfairness a hundred-and-fifty years ago? Why should there be giveaways to people who were not directly harmed? The short answer is no, because much of white wealth is the result of giveaways to their ancestors, while non-whites were excluded from access.

The Homestead Acts legislated in the 1860s gave away 270 million acres and promoted settlement of much of the western U.S. Blacks did not take advantage of the Homestead Acts; they were enslaved.

Following abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War in 1865, the so-called “Savannah Colloquy” made 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina and Georgia that had been seized by the Union Army available to black farmers. Approximately 40,000 freed slaves settled on the land, which often came with an army mule that had been idled when the war ended.

Rice-plantation farmers contested this settlement, claiming the land belonged to them. Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, overturned the Colloquy, along with much of Reconstruction, forcing black farmers to give up the land.

After freed slaves were declared to be citizens, Congress enacted the Southern Homestead Act in 1866. The Act made land in former Confederate states available to famers, white and black. African Americans were still at a disadvantage. Even establishing identity was problematic; a person born in slavery was unlikely to have a birth certificate. The background to all this was the ever-present threat of violence from whites. More people were lynched for owning land than were for supposed disrespecting a white woman.

Still, land ownership by African Americans increased, reaching its peak early in the twentieth century. By 1910, 200,000 black farmers owned more than 20-million acres of land, mostly in the South. A century later, the number of black farmers has decreased by 98 percent and total land owned today is only 10 percent of 1910’s total.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, formed during the Civil War, blatantly discriminated against non-whites. Black farmers were also subject to the whims of white bankers for loans to get them through planting seasons. Lack of access to operating funds from banks and the U.S.D.A. forced many to sell.

Not many African-American farmers had wills. Few white lawyers would work with black landowners. Without a will, a deceased person’s land becomes “heirs’ property,” a form of ownership in which descendants inherit interests, similar to owning stock in a company. A part-owner could sell his or her share without informing others. A developer coveting a property can purchase one share and disrupt other heirs’ ownership rights.

Land given under land-grant programs created trillions of dollars of wealth for white settlers and their descendants. Land lost by black farmers is estimated to be worth more than $300 billion.

Whether the Justice for Black Farmers Act sees the light of day likely depends on whether or not Mitch McConnell is still Senate Majority Leader in the upcoming Congress.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.