Black history versus Black myth-making, Part I

Ph.D. | 2/13/2013, 5 p.m.

During the 40 years or so of the modern evolution of the Black Studies movement in America's colleges and universities, we have made major progress in research, writing, teaching and authorship. We have also sometimes accepted the stories we've been too often told as true without critical examination. In fact, there is much to be said for providing people who have most often been taught and told relentlessly that they have no worthwhile history and contributions that they actually have much, much more than anyone knows.

Using one positive extreme to combat and neutralize a negative extreme is a well-worn and effective tactic, and clearly African folk needed it in the case of Black History. But, again, after 40 years and then some (rigorous Black History research started well before 1968-69), it's time we re-looked at some issues we've just assumed to be accurate and true. Such re-examination will not always make us feel good, but things that will help us move forward don't always tweak our sweet tooth anyway.

One such example is a basic tenet of African American history and culture--the 40 acres and a mule "promise." Clearly, such a promise should have been made, we deserved for it to have been made, and we had more than earned that promise at the time it was allegedly made. So, we anticipated the promise, hoped for it, but, in fact, White folks simply did not provide it.

The 40 acres and a mule concept: That between 1861 (the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confiscation Acts, Sherman's Field Order No. 15, the Southern Homestead Act, the Freedmen's Bureau Acts) and 1877 (the effective ending of Reconstruction), the American government made a promise to African Americans that Blacks would be given emancipation from slavery along with 40 acres of land for each family, and a mule and other farm implements to help plow it.

Well, with all due respect to my grandmother who told me the narrative passed down to her, that promise was not made and, thus, it was not broken.

The 40 acres and a mule concept, which was a long-standing rumor among the slave community in the South, was most likely generated by Southern newspapers (1860-1864) and the Confederate Congress (1861-1865) publicly discussing the probability that the Union under Lincoln was committed to taking land from slaveholders and redistributing it to slaves.

Abolitionists strongly advocated that the Union government should do this, and two months after the Civil War began, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which authorized Union forces to seize abandoned land which had not complied with the federal tax law. Publicizing the idea in Confederate newspapers and bulletins that this land would be given to slaves freed by the Union soldiers was used to fire up Confederate resistance.

At the famous meeting in January 1865, between 20 selected Black leaders and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Gen. W.T. Sherman in Savannah, Ga., the issue was certainly discussed in terms of what Blacks wanted. The 40-acres concept (but not the mule) was included in Sherman's Field Order 15, which was issued a few days later, on Jan. 16, 1865. It called for Blacks who had followed Sherman's army from Atlanta to Savannah to be given abandoned and confiscated coastal land from Charleston, S.C., south to the St. John's River in Florida, some 30 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.