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More than 100 U.S. leaders have slaveholding ancestors; the '40 acres and a mule' never materialized

Many formerly enslaved Black people were promised "40 acres and a mule" to help their families get on their feet, ironically America's government abandoned them instead


By Black Headline News

America has just recently celebrated Juneteenth (also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day) this past week, celebrating on June 19, 1865, as the day U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger took his troops to Galveston Texas to ensure the freedom of enslaved Black people still working the plantations two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the historic Emancipation Proclamation, declaring to free those slaves living in states not under Union control. The Proclamation changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the secessionist Confederate states from enslaved to free.

According to an article by Miranda Booker Perry, she explained that as soon as slaves escaped the control of their enslavers, either by fleeing to Union lines or through the advance of federal troops, they were permanently free.

The Union victory in the Civil War helped pave the way for the 13th amendment to formally abolish the practice of slavery in the United States. But following their emancipation, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education—the keys to their economic independence.


Efforts to help them achieve some semblance of economic freedom, such as with "40 acres and a mule," were stymied. Without federal land compensation—or any compensation—many ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenancy farming, convict-leasing, or some form of menial labor arrangements aimed at keeping them economically subservient and tied to land owned by former slaveholders.

"The poverty which afflicted them for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free but economically enslaved," wrote Carter G. Woodson in The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s.


In the late 19th century, the idea of pursuing pensions for ex-slaves—similar to pensions for Union veterans—took hold. If disabled elderly veterans were compensated for their years of service during the Civil War, why shouldn't former slaves who had served the country in the process of nation building be compensated for their years of forced, unpaid labor?


By 1899, "about 21 percent of the black population nationally had been born into slavery," according to historian Mary Frances Berry. Had the government distributed pensions to former slaves and their caretakers near the turn of the century, there would have been a relatively modest number of people to compensate.

But the movement to grant pensions to ex-slaves faced strong opposition, and the strongest came not from southerners in Congress but from three executive branch agencies. It was opposition impossible to overcome.


Special Field Orders No. 15, issued by Gen. William T. Sherman in January 1865, promised 40 acres of abandoned and confiscated land in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida (largely the Sea Islands and coastal lands that had previously belonged to Confederates) to freedpeople. Sherman also decided to loan mules to former slaves who settled the land.

But these efforts were rolled back by President Andrew Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865. By the latter part of 1865, thousands of freedpeople were abruptly evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15. Circular No. 15 issued by the Freedmen's Bureau on September 12, 1865, coupled with Johnson's presidential pardons, provided for restoration of land to former owners. With the exception of a small number who had legal land titles, freedpeople were removed from the land as a result of President Johnson's restoration program.

The Freedmen's Bureau Act had been established by Congress in March 1865 to help former slaves transition from slavery to freedom. Section four of the act authorized the bureau to rent no more than 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to freedpeople and loyal white refugees for a term of three years. At the end of the term, or at any point during the term, the male occupants renting the land had the option to purchase it and would then receive a title to the land.

But Johnson's restoration policy rendered section four null and void and seriously thwarted bureau officials' efforts to help the newly emancipated acquire land.


In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was enacted. It was designed to exclusively give freedpeople and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867.

But homesteading was problematic on many different levels. The short period allotted by Congress (six months) worked against freedpeople because most were under contract to work or had leased land, through the bureau's contract labor policy, until the end of the year.

Congress also underestimated the time it would take for freedmen and loyal whites to successfully complete the process of securing a homestead. This process involved filing claims, waiting indefinitely until offices opened or reopened, and working to secure enough money to purchase land. Concurrently, freedpeople faced southern white opposition to settling land.

Moreover, Congress provided no tools, seed, rations, or any form of additional assistance to freedpeople, and most freedpeople's earnings just covered the bare necessities of life. Maintaining a homestead without assistance was almost impossible under those circumstances.


Ironically today, many lawmakers need look no further than their own family histories to find a much more personal connection to slavery in America. A Reuters investigation found a fifth of the nation’s congressmen, living presidents, Supreme Court justices and governors are direct descendants of ancestors who enslaved Black people. The Congressional slaveholding ancestors were among the richest in America before the Civil War; three-quarters were among the richest 10%.

The report detailed the ancestry of America's leaders as of the 117th Congress. The report found that five living presidents, two Supreme Court justices, 11 governors and 100 members of Congress had ancestors who owned slaves. This includes Presidents Biden, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all have ancestors who enslaved Black people in their family trees, according to the report, with Obama's link coming from his White mother's side. Meanwhile, Trump's family did not immigrate to the U.S. until after slavery was abolished.

Congressmen whose families owned slaves include Republican senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and James Lankford, and Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.

Two of the nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices whose families owned slaves include Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch.


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