Buried Truth: “40 acres and a mule?” (Not quite) Part One

Owning land historically has been a motivating force for all Americans, sustaining a spirit of independence and raising one’s status to that of citizen with all rights and responsibilities. There were other benefits as well. The knowledge that food was available through the garden, the hen house and the hog pen instilled a sense of self-sufficiency and security, all riches that could be passed on to future generations.

One might think that becoming a farmer was an easy and natural transition for the post-Emancipation black family. The economy in slaveholding states was predominantly agricultural, creating a workforce steeped in farming and agricultural-related skills.

A prize worthy of significant sacrifice was not so easily attainable for post-Emancipation blacks. Jim Crow discrimination, peonage and biased lending practices would cause hundreds to abandon the quest, choosing either to seek employment in their former positions or abandon the land altogether and migrate to the northern industrial centers.

Those who stayed the course lived remarkable lives mixed with sacrifice, fortitude and fulfillment.

Pre-emancipation

In the 1800’s, skilled labor was required for equipment maintenance, livestock care, building construction and crop management. Gardening, food processing, production of clothing and domestic work represented other skills required in a rural farming community.

Steeped in agricultural know-how— farming practices, machinery maintenance and animal husbandry—it would seem that the newly emancipated black man would be well positioned to begin a life of productive farming.

Post-Emancipation

However, with no home, no means of income, no influence and predominantly illiterate, America’s newest citizens found themselves impoverished, disabled and confused.

Hundreds began the exodus north, initially seeking jobs and a less hostile environment. By the early 1920’s, word had spread of better jobs and better schools accelerating the movement that would be identified as the “Great Migration.”

Those who remained soon learned that the promise of “40 acres and a mule” was nothing but a myth. Gen. Sherman’s orders for the inhabitants of southeastern coastal states, were rescinded by President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination.

Nonetheless, for many land ownership became an obsession and a reality. The sale of fertile soil was rare. It was more common to have access only to the blackjack or rock-infested soil considered worthless for farming. There are scattered indications of support and owner financing and the occasional gift of land to a former slave. Regrettably, it was not unusual to find that the “gifts” were not documented with a deed.

Racial bias, especially by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its community-based Farmers Home Administration, would create often insurmountable obstacles to secure funding for farm operations.

Amongst some black farmers, the USDA has been called “the last plantation,” reflecting a documented history (as recently as 1997) of discrimination, hostility and indifference. Despite the difficulties and hardships, there were those that possessed a never-say-die attitude, persevering until their last breath, if need be, to walk through furrowed fields they could call their own.

In 1920, more than half of all black people continued to live on farms, mostly in the South, comprising 14 percent of all the farmers in the nation.

The decline of the family farm was relentless. By 2003, blacks accounted for less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers.

Previously published in the Orange County Review Aug.2, 2018

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