Forty Acres and a Mule (2/4/2022)

Have you ever heard the phrase “Forty Acres and a Mule”? Where did it come from and what does it mean?

Figure 1. A Black farmer plowing with a mule.

The plight of Black farmers in America is shocking. In the last 100 years the number of Black owned farms has dropped by an appalling 96 percent. In 1910 one in seven farmers were Black. Today it is close to 1 in fifty.

There are numerous factors that have led to this decline in the number of Black farmers. Some of these include off-farm opportunities, inheritance legalities, escalating land prices, and changing societal norms. One could even make an argument that the merger of the New Farmers of America (NFA) with the Future Farmers of America (FFA) also contributed to the decline. But one of the major factors in the decline of Black farmers is the well documented racism within the United States Department of Agriculture (more about that next week).

Since February is Black History month the Friday Footnotes will focus on Black History as it relates to agriculture and Agricultural Education. In this and the following Footnotes we will examine the plight of the Black farmer After all, Black Farmers Matter.

Background Information

The United State Department of Agriculture was created in 1862, during the civil war. At that time Black Americans worked on farms, but as slaves. After the war, the slaves were freed. But what were they to do?

The First Broken Promise – 40 Acres and a mule

On January 16, 1865 General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 while in Savannah, Georgia. The order had three main parts:

  1. African Americans were to receive some 400,000 acres of land. Sherman’s order stated “The Islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”
  2. The land was to be governed by the African Americans. Sherman wrote “…on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves…”
  3. Each family is to receive 40 acres of land. The order stated “…each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front…”

So, what about the mule we commonly hear about? Nothing in the order mentions a mule. However, Sherman later ordered the army could lend the new settlers mules; thus the phrase “40 acres and a mule.”

But this order (or promise) from a U.S. Government official was quickly reversed. After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson (who was a former slave owner and known as a white supremist) nullified Special Order 15. Some African Americans who had moved into this land were forcibly removed by Federal troops. Thus, the first promise for African American farmers was broken. But it would not be the last.

Figure 2. Historical Marker in Savannah, Georgia

The Rise and Fall of Black Farm Ownership

In 1910 approximately 16 million acres of land was under black ownership. Fourteen percent of the farmers were Black, and they owned about one million farms.

Today, of the country’s 3.4 million farmers, only 1.3 percent (45,508) are Black according to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture. Black farmers own 0.52 percent of the farmland.

How did black farmers get 16 million acres of land by 1910? And where has it gone today?

After the Civil War, thousands of former slaves and white farmers forced off their land by the bad economy lacked the money to purchase the farmland, seeds, livestock, and equipment they needed to begin farming. The landowners needed labor to operate their farms but didn’t have the money to pay workers and the former slaves (and some displaced white farmers) needed subsistence.

Because of the mutual needs, the sharecropper system was developed. The freedmen and families would agree to live on the landowner’s land and provide the labor for crop and livestock production. In return they would get a share of the crop.

The landowner provided housing (typically a shack) and provided the inputs for crop production. The landowner might also provide the sharecropper a small plot of land for a home garden and facilities for some livestock such as pigs and chickens. Many landowners provided provisions such as food stuffs and clothing to the sharecroppers on credit (often at an exorbitant interest rate) until the crops were harvested. At the end of the year, the freedman MIGHT clear a few dollars provided there was a good crop yield and prices were up. But often they broke even and had to agree to continue working as a sharecropper for the next year.

Freedmen who had vocational skills might be employed as brick masons, mechanics, blacksmiths or in other skilled trades for which they earned money. They would save their money and then buy some land and farm on the side.

There were also tenant farmers. There was a difference between sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Tenant farmers usually paid the landowner rent for farmland and a house. They owned the crops they planted and made their own decisions about them. After harvesting the crop, the tenant sold it and received income from it. From that income, he paid the landowner the amount of rent owed. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers could be Black or white.

Figure 3. In North Carolina in 1890 one out of three white farmers and three of four black farmers were either tenants or sharecroppers. The darker the county, the greater the number of sharecroppers and tenants. Other southern states had similar figures. Source: NCpedia

Concluding Remarks

Over time the sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and skilled craftsmen accumulated enough money to buy land for themselves and start farming. Some 50 years after the end of slavery, Blacks had accumulated 16 million acres of land. That was an outstanding accomplishment.

So, it is somewhat perplexing to look at the figures today and see that the number of Black farmers has declined by 96 percent since 1910. In next week’s Footnote we will explore the reasons for this decline. What you learn may leave you shaking your head.

Figure 4. Jenna Wadsworth, Wake County, NC Soil and Water Conservation District, Board Vice-chair. We may hear from her later.

Teaching Suggestions

Show the two minute long video “Land: Giving Rise to the Famous Phrase 40 Acres & a Mule. Have the students discuss the video from the perspective of the freed slaves and the white landowners.

Show the 2-minute long video “Sharecropping in the Post-Civil War South.” and discuss.

Ask the student to find a video online about sharecropping, watch it, and then report to the class what they learned. There are some student produced videos on YouTube.

Have your students research the terms “sharecropper” and “tenant farmer” and identify the difference between the two. Have them discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.