We all know about the false promise of “40 Acres and a Mule”. This pledge was formed by Union General W.T. Sherman as he raked through the heart of the South during the Civil War. He wrote and assured that after the war freed slaves would be given land (40 acres) and a means to work it (mule). Many freed slaves looked forward to that event. However, some things occurred to prevent that. President Lincoln probably would have supported the “promise”. However, he was assassinated and replaced by Vice President Andrew Johnson, a democrat from Tennessee. Johnson slammed the “door” on that opportunity. That among other controversies would eventually lead to his impeachment.

However, there was another event that would prove to be quite beneficial to freed slaves. That was a law known as the Homestead Act of 1862. Wikipedia defines the Homestead Act: “The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 million acres, or 10 percent of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.”

America had been expanding in land size at an exponential rate. Our nation created most of the east coast through the Revolutionary War. We soon ballooned in size through the Louisiana Purchase from the French. That gave us land all the way to the west coast (Washington and Oregon). We would eventually seize the massive land mass formerly controlled by Spain and eventually Mexico by way of outright war. President Theodore Roosevelt would call it “Manifest Destiny”. The challenge was to populate all this new land. That’s where the Homestead Act of 1862 would come in.

Blacks, especially freed slaves, were feeling smitten by the betrayal of the 40 Acres and a Mule Promise. However, it was the leadership of a Black visionary from Mississippi named Blanche Bruce. Bruce became a Republican Senator and his mantra would be for freed Blacks to take advantage of the new Homestead Act. He encouraged all Blacks to apply for these new and free land grants. So, it began in the “new” South. Other Black elected officials encouraged freed slaves to take advantage of this program.

We descendants of freed slaves understood that our grandparents and other relatives living in the South had land. We just assumed they always had it. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that we started understanding how we got that land.

During the late 1990’s, the National Black Chamber of Commerce formed a partnership with the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management. The BLM was responsible for issuing and managing land grants under the Homestead Act of 1862.

At the same time, a family in Lake Charles, La, asked the NBCC to help them in a land issue. Their grandfather received a land grant during the tenure of President Grover Cleveland. It was no longer in their possession and they wanted to find out how this happened.

I got on the phone and shared this finding to as many relatives as I could. Before long, we started figuring it out. We will tell you about it next week.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Kay DeBow is the co-founder, executive vice president of the Chamber. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Emails: halford@nationalbcc.org kdebow@nationalbcc.org

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