Thats A Fact: The Origins Of ‘40 Acres And A Mule’

Towards the end of the Civil War, Union leaders gathered a group of Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia. The goal of the meeting was to figure out a way to help the newly freed enslaved African people who’d been in the country for 300 years by time the war ended in 1865.

The meeting was held in the Green-Meldrim House where General William T. Sherman was staying following the end of his infamous march across Georgia. He and other Union leaders met with ministers including Rev. Garrison Fraizer. Historical records of the meeting indicate that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton listened to the group of ministers who spoke on behalf of newly freed Black people in what they wanted after centuries of being oppressed.

From the meeting, Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 was created to set aside land seized from confederate landowners across the Southeastern coast of the country. It ordered land to be distributed such that “each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” The group of ministers had indicated that Black people wanted to live amongst themselves, because as Rev. Fraizer said, "there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over."

Sherman selected Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton to divide 400,000 acres of land among families, and though it wasn’t in the original order, some families also received a mule. 

By January 16, 1865, the program became known as “40 acres and a mule,” according to Charles Elmore, a professor emeritus of humanities at Savannah State University. 

President Andrew Jackson reversed the order after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, giving the land back to confederate landowners. The reversal left many African Americans with limited options, prompting many to begin working as sharecroppers. 

Though the land was given back to white southern landowners, Elmore says the meeting between Black ministers and white leaders was important to establishing “the dialogue between the white power structure and Black men in Savannah, Georgia.” The Union leaders asked “‘What do y’all want?’ And [the newly freed people] got some of it, however temporary and fleetingly. They got it. That is significant.”  

Photo: Getty Images

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