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We are Still Waiting for 40 acres and a Mule!

Many Black families could have had generational wealth as far back as 1865 when Civil War General William “Tecumseh” Sherman issued Special Field Order 15 on Jan. 16, 1865, also known as 40 Acres and a Mule. Now the saying “40 Acres and a Mule” is seen as a symbol of reparations that never really happened.    

In the wake of a meeting with 20 Black pastors, General Sherman signed the 1865 order. The request would set aside 400,000 sections of land that landowners held from the sweat and blood of the slaves that made them wealthy. The idea came from Black people as they spoke to General Sherman about what they needed to survive in an agricultural society in Georgia. The southern plantation owners did not become rich from hard work; they enslaved people to do the work they should have been doing. 

Each Black family would be given 40 acres of tillable land that would yield crops to provide food.  No official mention of mules showed up in the field order. However, the army would give Black families with mules as they would be needed to till the soil. This was a reparations project that was needed by formerly enslaved people who were robbed of everything and left destitute after slavery. This was a step forward, but the former slave owners would soon sabotage it after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865.

Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865. This resulted in another type of slavery called “sharecropping,” which was a way to force Black people on the plantation to work for their former slave owners. Black people did this to get a share of a crop, but often, the landowner refused to give them a share. In this way, the former slave owners were able to prevent Black people from creating generational wealth, leaving them under the control of racist landowners. 

President Andrew Johnson created this entire fiasco. There are historical records that indicate that when Black sharecroppers refused to work on a Sunday in order to go to church, they were poisoned, arrested, or gunned down even in the 1960s. 

Black families were often evicted by force from the land given to them under Lincoln because of the racism of the next president. “40 acres and a mule” speaks to the unfulfilled promise made to previously enslaved people and later “slavery by another name” after the Civil War. Black people lost their freedom again in this country with Jim Crow laws and the violence that went with them. The federal government was supposed to provide Black people with land and generational wealth to lay the basis for financial independence after being denied an education, freedom, and the right to be treated as human beings. The phrase “40 acres and a mule,” spoken in many Black churches across the country even now, stands for the ongoing struggle that the descendants of African slaves in the United States face in the fight against police abuse, false education, and racism.

The loss of land, whether by theft, segregation, violence, racist laws, or other causes, has denied the African American population billions of dollars and has provided a foundation for poverty. A Black family’s average wealth today is roughly one-tenth that of a white family. Think what it could have been if Black people were allowed to keep their land decades ago. Even now, Black land is being stolen by corrupt landowners, banks, and their corrupt legal teams. 

Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 is only one of many commitments local, state, and federal governments have neglected to honor to Black residents since the Civil War, and land theft is only one of the betrayals they have continued to this day. We have failed to ensure that Black citizens are treated fairly in our criminal justice, in education, in health care, in housing, and in employment as a society on every count. Instead, we are still being killed by racist police officers, and Black history is being taken out of schools by racist politicians. Banks are still redlining Black communities, and cheap housing is being built that will turn into ghetto property in less than 20 years. 

Reparations are still a demand. It should be done with free education, medical care, housing, and other benefits that were denied or stolen for hundreds of years. No country can ever be free until justice is done. In the case of the United States, reparations must be addressed, or we can never call ourselves a democracy when the right to be a human being was denied for so long. We have yet to dismantle the hatred that has led us to more hatred.

Gabriel Wheatley is an experienced writer and educational researcher who has written several books and penned articles in several newspapers. Gabriel seeks to write about objective reality as it is played out in justice issues globally. He often tackles the unknown aspects of history or current events through writings that reveal the hidden history and the untold stories of many events both in the present and in the past, and how issues and their relationships to myth, lies, and falsehoods are anchored in the minds of many. Gabriel presents academic knowledge in simple language to better understand the facts about the headlines that are generally ignored. Gabriel maintains his historical achievements at various universities and museums, including UTSA, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, the University Of North Texas (UNT), and other educational locations. He also has published books with Sentia Publishing.

Gabriel Wheatley takes his name from the area he grew up in near Gabriel Street, which is the street on which Wheatley High School is located and where he attended.

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