Cherokee Nation Policies after the Civil War Show that Reparations WorkRoundup
tags: slavery, African American history, Native American history, reparations, Cherokee Freedmen
Melinda C. Miller is an assistant professor of economics and a core faculty member of the Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Virginia Tech. Her article, "'The Righteous and Reasonable Ambition to Become a Landholder': Land and Racial Inequality in the Postbellum South” appeared in the The Review of Economics and Statistics.
A House committee recently voted to advance H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. The late congressman John Conyers Jr. first introduced this bill in 1989. He chose 40 as an intentional reference to the unfulfilled promise of providing the formerly enslaved with “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War.
Hopes for land distribution in the Southern United States had been temporarily fulfilled by Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s 1865 Special Field Order Number 15, which authorized freed people to establish 40-acre farms on federally controlled land. However, the field order was repealed after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. In the absence of widespread land distribution, the formerly enslaved entered freedom with little wealth, contributing to high levels of racial inequality that persist today.
According to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, the median Black family has only 13 percent of the wealth of the median White family. This large racial wealth gap was not inevitable and instead is the result of intentional policy choices. The story of the Foreman family highlights the role that the federal government could have played in reducing inequality — but didn’t. This context is critical for understanding the debate about H.R. 40.
In the late 1840s, Zack Foreman Sr. was born to Jerry and Rhodie Foreman and joined his parents as one of 20 people enslaved by Cherokee George Gunter. The Cherokee Nation was located in what was then Indian Territory and is now Oklahoma. Like the Southern states, the Cherokee Nation allowed the enslavement of people of African descent and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Following emancipation, Foreman Sr. and his fellow Cherokee freedmen initially had limited economic prospects. However, they soon possessed a key advantage over other Black people in the Southern United States: free land.
After the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation was forced to renegotiate its relationship with the U.S. government. Federal representatives prioritized land grants to those formerly enslaved by Cherokee citizens. In an 1866 treaty, the Cherokee Nation granted “all the rights of native Cherokees” to those who had been formerly enslaved within its borders. This included the right to claim and use land in the public domain.
My analysis of census data from 1880 to 1900 shows how Cherokee freedmen families fared under this policy. The formerly enslaved in the Cherokee Nation prospered with access to free land. In 1880, over two-thirds of all Cherokee Black male heads of household owned their own farms. By 1900, over 80 percent did.
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