By CLARENCE GLOVER
Sankofa Garden Homes
“Freedom is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs, if they can have no shelter, if illiteracy and disease continue to dog them.” – Nelson Mandela
The year is 2020, 155 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln Jan. 1, 1863. Enslaved Africans in states in rebellion against the Union were freed to begin new lives in the midst of nation ending a civil war. There long Watch Night Services of Dec. 31, 1862, waiting for freedom had now turned in the dawn of a Jubilee celebration of freedom. Freedom? What was freedom after 244 years of slavery? Two hundred and forty years of being property, of being bought and sold, of working from sun up to sun down for no pay, for working land you would never own. What was freedom?
African American Odyssey article on Reconstruction and Its Aftermath stated following:
“The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed African Americans in rebel states, and after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated all U.S. slaves wherever they were. As a result, the mass of Southern Black now faced the difficulty Northern Blacks had of confronted –that of a free people surrounded by many hostile Whites. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the White people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”
One of the most important things freed Africans needed after slavery was, to own their own land and grown their own food. As Nelson Mandela stated, freedom is meaningless if a people cannot put food in their stomach.” Thus land to grow food was a necessary requirement for freed Africans upon the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Familiar to many African Americans is the term “40 Acres and a Mule.” While we have repeated this phrase many times over, few of us may have known its origin.
Union General William T. Sherman issued “Special Field Order No. 15” on Jan. 16, 1865. In this order, General Sherman laid out guidelines for providing land for recently freed Africans. Dr. Henry Louis Gates in his article The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’ wrote the following:
“Today, we commonly use the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” but few of us have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one bears repeating in full: “The islands from Charleston, south the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States of America.”
Section two specifies “that these new communities, moreover would be governed entirely by Black people themselves: … 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. By laws of war and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such.”
Finally section three specifies the allocation of land “each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground…” With this Order 400,000 acres of land – “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River in Florida…would be redistributed to the newly freed slaves.”
So where did the “mule” come from. Gates further wrote, “Eric Foner explains, ‘The freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order.’ Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the groups that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 Blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga. where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the ‘Black governor.’ And by June, 40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’ By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, ‘40 acres and a mule.’”
With this being the first act of reparations for freed Africans in America, the idea would be short lived. President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and Southern sympathizer, overturned the order in the fall of 1865 and returned it to the planters who had originally owed it.
During the years of Jim Crow following slavery, many African Americans worked as sharecroppers – a tenant farmer who gives a part of each crop as rent – while many others owned their own land and grew their own food.
Hannah Traverse in her article, Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African Americans and Land wrote,
“For centuries the connection between African Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African Americans gained the right to own land, there were – and continue to be – institutional policies and practices that work against Black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing.”
As we enter a new year and a new decade, 2020, with emancipated minds, I encourage African American elders to take the time and pass on to younger African Americans the history of the lands we own and the skills and knowledge to work them and raise our unique cultural foods. No matter if its 40 acres or your yard, your land is important and holds the secret to you raising healthy food for a healthy body. Own your land; grow your food, that’s freedom!
Clarence Glover, known as Professor Freedom, is a historian and the president of Sankofa Education Services. On the second week of each month, Glover provides a column on Sankofa Garden Homes with the purpose of: “Taking the chains off our brains, so our minds can work.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.