Land and the roots of African-American poverty

tags: racism, Civil War, Homestead Act

Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian and independent scholar. Her research focuses on race and class in US history. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites, Slavery, and Capitalism in the Deep South, will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

Shortly after emancipation in 1865, African Americans began fighting for the rights to the lands they had long worked – cultivated by their hands, fed by their sweat, and stained by their blood. Yet while the government stifled freedmen’s demands for ‘40 acres and a mule’ as just compensation for generations of unpaid, brutalised slave labour, they simultaneously granted free land to whites.

Indeed, when the failure of land distribution among blacks during the Reconstruction is judged within the context of the Homestead Acts, the reality of the situation is laid bare. The problem was never the radical nature of land reform. The problem was racism.

When judged comparatively with other nations’ emancipatory histories, the Reconstruction experience in the United States is unique. While African Americans were the only freed slaves to be granted political rights so soon after emancipation, those rights were limited for a people without capital or job prospects. Land would have served as the primary source for reparations.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the original Homestead Act into law during the second year of the Civil War. Between 1868 and 1934, it granted 246 million acres of western land – an area close to the land mass of both California and Texas – to individual Americans, virtually for free. To receive 160 acres of government land, claimants had to complete a three-part process: first, file an application. Second, improve the land for five years. Third, file for the deed of ownership.

Because of the date of the Act’s passage, few people from the South initially received any benefit from it. Yet given that it effectively remained in place until 1934, well over 1.5 million white families – both American-born and immigrant – eventually profited from it. And, although the process was rife with fraud, as many homesteaders sold their plots to corporations, the original claimants pocketed the income from land sales, establishing a basis of wealth and capital. By the end of the Act, more than 270 million acres of western land had been transferred to individuals, almost all of whom were white. Nearly 10 per cent of all the land in the entire US was given to homesteaders for little more than a filing fee. ...

Read entire article at Aeon

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