How African American land was stolen in the 20th century


How African American Land Was Stolen in the 20th Century

The US government gave hundreds of millions of acres of land to whites, but failed to give freed slaves 40 acres and a mule or protect Black farmers from massive theft.

“There were nearly 1 million black farms in 1920, about one-seventh of all American farms, mostly in the South.”

I recently read an article in the New Yorker that so shocked me that I knew I had to tell you, my small audience, all about it. Vast tracts of land owned by African Americans were taken from them in the 20th century. At the heart of the story is racism in many forms: how the promise of emancipation after the Civil War was broken; how whites used bureaucracy and twisted legalisms to take black land from owners too poor to defend themselves; how the teaching of American history was whitewashed to bury this story. I was shocked because, after decades of studying history, I had no idea about this fundamental cause of economic inequality in America. Writing this article pushed me into investigating the even larger story of how black Americans were prevented from owning real estate, one of the fundamental sources of wealth.

Here’s a short version of the history. At the time of Emancipation, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman declared that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans. His order came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” But the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau was never able to control enough land to fulfill this promise. In 1866, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up 46 million acres of public land in southern states for Union supporters and freed slaves. The land was uncultivated forest and swamp, difficult for penniless former slaves to acquire or use. Southern bureaucrats made it difficult for blacks to access any land and southern whites used violence to prevent blacks from occupying land. Within 6 months, the land was opened to former rebels. In 1876, the law was repealed.

“The newly established Freedmen’s Bureau was never able to control enough land to fulfill this promise.”

The much more extensive Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres of government land in the West to any American who applied and worked the land for 5 years. Over the course of the next 60 years, 246 million acres of western land, the area of California plus Texas, was given to individuals for free. About 1.5 million families were given a crucial economic foundation. Only about 5000 African Americans benefitted.

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