Are Reparations From Slavery A Pipe Dream?

Lima 1866/Manuel Fuentes/Wikimedia/Public Domain


Without a transformative revolution in policy making, reparations for American slavery will likely never come. But the truth is there was a time when formerly enslaved Blacks were made a promise that the government failed to deliver on.

The proverbial phrase “40 acres and a mule” has become a tagline for what we are owed, and history tells us exactly how that came to be.

From 1861 to 1865, Union soldiers confiscated nearly 400,000 acres of land spanning from South Carolina to Florida. As they proceeded down the coast, displaced enslaved Blacks from southern plantations that had been overtaken followed the troops until the Union could no longer support or protect them.

After conversations between prominent Black ministers, the Secretary of State, and Union general William Sherman, they made a collective decision to recommend that Abraham Lincoln redistribute the appropriated land to these Black refugees in 40-acre segments. Lincoln immediately approved.

The famous order, known as Sherman’s Special Field Order No.15, “explicitly called for the settlement of Black families on confiscated land, encouraged freedmen to join the Union army to help sustain their newly won liberty, and designated a general officer to act as inspector of settlements.”

Nearly 40,000 formerly enslaved African-Americans were recipients of this land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts.

Ironically, the order stated nothing about a mule but when the newly freed Blacks recognized the Army had given some away to help with plowing land, it became an expectation that all would receive one. Thus, the famous phrase “40 acres and a mule” was born.  

Unfortunately, once the Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson put a halt on these reparations by stripping Blacks from the land and forcing them to return it to the previous white owners.

Johnson sympathized with the South and did not believe that Blacks deserved land as a form of compensation, instead he shifted the focus to voting rights.

While hardly anyone is sitting around waiting for 40 acres and a mule today, debates about reparations persist. One of the growing discussions on the topic considers whether or not affirmative action is a modern-day form of reparations. 

However, affirmative action is not race-specific and often benefits non-Black minority groups who do not have a comparable history of oppression in the U.S.

Knowing the traumas inflicted on our ancestors during slavery, it is ludicrous that America has not set up a formal repayment system in an attempt to begin a nationwide healing process. The fight must continue.

We have a quick favor to ask:

PushBlack is a nonprofit dedicated to raising up Black voices. We are a small team but we have an outsized impact:

  • We reach tens of millions of people with our BLACK HISTORY STORIES every year.
  • We fight for CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM to protect our community.
  • We run VOTING CAMPAIGNS that reach over 10 million African-Americans across the country.

And as a nonprofit, we rely on small donations from subscribers like you.

With as little as $5 a month, you can help PushBlack raise up Black voices. It only takes a minute, so will you please ?

Share This Article: