Forty acres and a mule: Was there a promise and has it been broken?


James Meredith said that the most powerful word in the current English language was “Mississippi.” Well, there’s another word that packs almost as much “puissance” or potency, and it’s “reparations.”

It’s the elephant in the room; the unseen guest at every meal; the bull in the china shop; the thorn in the side of the body politic; the emperor’s new clothes.

Was there an actual promise of “forty acres and a mule” to freed slaves, and has the promise been broken?

What does the record say?

The idea of reparations for slavery in the United States can be traced to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, from Savannah, Georgia. 

The Order confiscated some 400,000 acres of farmland from loyal confederates in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and it was to be given to around 18,000 former but now emancipated slaves who had joined his army for protection at various points along his triumphant “March to the Sea.”

Although 400,000 acres divided by 18,000 only equals a little more than 22 acres, allowances were obviously made for family size, and the land was to be divided into 40-acre parcels.

No mention of mules was made in the Special Field Order; however, Sherman did later order the army to lend mules to assist some freed slaves in their farming efforts.

All of this took place shortly before President Lincoln’s assassination, and the new president, Andrew Johnson, quickly returned the land in question to the original owners who were willing to swear a loyalty oath to the United States.

Although all applications for the free land were ultimately denied, and no specific promise of “forty acres and a mule” was ever made, the idea caught on and has persisted for 154 years.

It has long been a “sleeper” issue, obvious to those who would take notice.

For example, when I was a boy, listening at night to one of the northern 50,000 watt clear channel radio stations, I think it was in Chicago, I remember hearing the Reverend M. J. Divine, better known as ”Father Divine,” preaching the need for “retroactive compensation,” his code words for reparations.

In a little-noticed part of his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that the United States government “owed black America a ‘check’.”

When James Foreman, a civil rights leader who later served briefly as the Black Panthers’ foreign minister, demanded $500 million in reparations in his Black Manifesto (1969),  his argument was that “unpaid slave labor helped build the American economy, creating vast wealth that black Americans were barred from sharing.”

A recent article in the New York Times newspaper summarized the issue like this: “For every dollar a typical white family household has, a black home has 10 cents.

It is this residual effect of slavery that justifies the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves long dead, supporters say.”

While poll results show that black Americans support reparations, whites overwhelmingly reject them.

Recently corporations, especially banks, and insurance companies in business before the Civil War, as well as prominent eastern Ivy League colleges and universities, have been called to account for any profits they might have made from the slave trade.

One of the namesake founders of the exclusive Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, was an active participant.

In 2016, Georgetown University students voted to increase their own tuition to benefit descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans that the Jesuits who ran the school sold two centuries before to pay the bills.

In 1989, then Congressman John Conyers (D-MN), who recently resigned over sexual harassment charges, introduced a bill known as “The Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act. Although it failed to gain traction, it has been proposed in every legislature since then. Most recently, Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced a similar bill that would study reparations but not implement them.

With the next presidential election looming, however, all of the Democratic candidates are taking positions on the issue.

The consensus among these candidates seems to be that a “study” should be made of the question, telling me that they see it as “nuclear,” too hot to handle and too cold to hold, something that could blow up their candidacy.  

Even two of the most prominent candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, have repudiated earlier statements on reparations.

Biden, for example, said in 2016 that he was against them being paid and Sanders, also in 2016, said that reparations “would never get through Congress.” Both are now on board the study train.

Not surprisingly, reparations wasn’t that much of an issue during last week’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, as it was a friendly forum.

When asked by the moderator how they would repair the legacy of slavery in America, Candidate O’Rourke did say that he would sign a reparations bill into law; however, this was lost in the clamor over his promise to prise AR-15s and AK-47s from the cold, dead  hands of gun enthusiasts. Biden, on the other hand, appeared to suggest that poorer families need help learning to raise their children, basically a non-answer.

The problem, of course, is the third rail of politics: money.

Conservative estimates run into the astronomical amounts of dollars. One study that tried to calculate what Sherman’s “promise” of forty acres and a mule would cost today went like this: “If an acre of land cost $10 in 1865, and 40 acres divided among a family of four came to ten acres per person, or about $100 each for the 4 million former slaves, taking into account  compounding interest and inflation, the present value of that land would be an astounding 2.6 trillion dollars.”

There is, for those willing to look, a definitive record, both international and national, for paying reparations.

At the conclusion of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles required that Germany accept full responsibility for the war and pay reparations totaling $33 billion.

Although Germany eventually defaulted on the debt, causing France to take over Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, a good case could be made that Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 by blaming Germany’s economic malaise on the reparations, as well as the need for “Lebensraum” (living space) and anti-Semitism.   

To date, Germany has also paid more than $89 billion to Israel and individual survivors of the Holocaust. However, in 2005, an Israeli government report put the cost of the Holocaust, in terms of lost income, unpaid wages, and seized property, at around $320 billion.

After South Africa received its independence in 1961, the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended reparations of $360 million, which would have worked out to around $3,900 per affected person, well above the annual average income at the time.

However, as of 2017, only 16,397 individuals had received any money.

There’s also extensive precedent for reparations in the United States.

Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the U. S. government officially apologized for internment in western American camps of Japanese-American citizens during World War II and paid them or their survivors $20,000 each.

This amount, totally insufficient, was a token payment to compensate for loss of property and liberty during the war.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 established Alaska native claims to 44 million acres of land owned by the federal government by transferring title to twelve Alaska native regional corporations and over 200 local village corporations.

Before the Act was passed, barely one million acres of Alaskan land were in private ownership. Natives were also paid $963 million with the land and money divided among the regional, urban, and village tribal organizations to be utilized for the general good.

The survivors and heirs of the government’s infamous “Tuskegee Experiment,” in which African American men with syphilis were left untreated to study the progress of the disease between 1932 and 1972, were paid a total of $10 million in 1974.

Survivors also received a promise of lifelong medical treatment. Those men who actually had syphilis received $172,000; those in the control group received $77,000.

We were reluctant players in the “Great Game” of acquiring overseas colonies, or at least we wanted to appear that way. After our victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War (1898), we gained, as war reparations, several colonies of our own: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

As someone who spent over half of his life in the Navy, I’ve spent significant time in all of them.

There’s that well-known anecdote about President William McKinley pacing the floor in the White House one night, trying to decide whether to support Philippine independence or make them a colony of the United States. He said, and I paraphrase: “I prayed and decided to do the right thing for our ‘little brown brothers.’ I finally decided that they just were not capable of governing themselves.”

I’ve often thought about how we double-crossed the PI (Philippine Islands), – freeing them from Spanish rule and then taking over for ourselves.

I’ve written about it before, but I once had the opportunity to meet President Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-collecting wife, Imelda.

I was sailing in the Battleship New Jersey at the time, and I had organized a brass band from volunteer musicians on the ship.

We played at a ship-board reception for the Marcos’s in Manila Bay.              

While I never could round up an accordion player, we were really an “oomph-oomph” polka band, the Navy polka kings of the West Coast, and could lay down a pretty good rendition of Frankie Yankovic’s hit, “Who Stole the Kishka?”

For that formal soiree, however, we had to learn some waltz music.  I wanted to ask Imelda about her shoe fetish but didn’t have the guts. I’ve often heard that she had a Tylertown, MS, connection, family or friends, but I’ve never run it to ground.

After World War II. Congress created the Indian Claims Commission to pay compensation to any federally recognized Indian tribe for land that had been seized by the United States government.

The commission had paid out some $1.3 billion dollars by its dissolution in 1978, almost $1,000 for every Native American in the country. Few, however, have actually received any money personally, with most going to tribal corporations or held in trust accounts.

Personally, I believe Native Americans have a lock tight case for reparations. No study is needed.

They are the survivors of our own American Holocaust.

Besides the largest land grab in history, name almost any socioeconomic indicator of status you can think of – alcoholism, life span, suicide rate, drug addiction, unemployment, death in child birth, single parents, incarceration, etc., and they are on the bottom., the poorest one percent in America. 

No wonder they are known as the “invisible minority.”  Their “Great White Father in Washington” has continually lied to them and cheated them.

For example, take the treaty land in Oklahoma promised to the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) after the debacle of the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

This land could be seen as a form of reparations for being uprooted from their ancestral homes east of the Mississippi and literally herded west. By even the most generous estimates, the Cherokee have already lost 74 percent of its treaty land, either by sale, foreclosure, or marriage outside the tribe. 

However, a lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court could result in about half of Oklahoma being returned to the tribal jurisdiction. It won’t happen, but it would be poetic justice.

To be honest, I’ve never liked the term “Native American,” Many feel that the term is contrived, offensive, paternalistic, and racist. but I guess it is better than “Indian.”

Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the shores of South Asia and dubbed the indigenous peoples of the Bahamas “Indios” (originally, “person of the Indus Valley”) when referring to those inhabitants of the so-called “New World.”  Incidentally, Columbus encountered members of the Arawak tribe, which are now extinct because of what historians call the “Columbian Exchange:” You natives give us the good stuff: gold, silver, tomatoes, potatoes, etc., and we Europeans will give you slavery, syphilis, whopping cough, small pox, and death.

I think most indigenous people in the Americas north of the Rio Grande would prefer to be called by their national or tribal name, although the term “American Indian” is enshrined in case law.

“First Nations” is a term now in vogue, especially in Canada.

You also hear anthropologists use the term “Amerindian” when referring to those groups whose original territories were in present day Canada and the United States.

It’s funny. I always thought that Mississippi was the epicenter of the mobile home universe. 

Then I went to graduate school in Oklahoma and New Mexico and found out that it’s really centered on Native American reservation land in those states.

Actually New Mexico is No. 2 in mobile home ownership, and Mississippi is No. 4. Oklahoma is close behind.

Nothing against mobile homes – some of them are nicer than any place I’ve ever lived, but that’s not what you see.

Imagine a tattered “single wide:” paint peeling; screen door swinging in the wind; perched precariously on blocks; wheels dangling; bleached by the sun; miles off any main  road; surrounded by desert; cistern for rainwater off to the side; a dog or two beneath an old car on blocks; half-naked children playing in the dust; a single power line snaking over the hill from God knows where.

Multiply this by thousands, and you will see what I have seen. Because of inadequate housing, some tribes are now even using surplus FEMA trailers for primary residences, despite sickening levels of formaldehyde.

For my money, that is where reparations should start.

I know what you might be thinking: what started out an opinion piece ended up as a history rant, and a cursory one, at that. But I honestly don’t know the answer to the reparations question.

It’s a conundrum. The Gordian Knot. The Sword in the Stone.

The answer is similar to what Winston Churchill said about Russia: “It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

The only thing I know for sure is that everyone has an opinion.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: Read previous columns online at