Visions of Freedom: Land and Labor
Establishing economic independence was crucial for newly freed African Americans during
Reconstruction. But without land of their own or fair wages for their labor, they would remain under the power of white landowners. Blocked from attaining their goals, thousands of African Americans left the South in search of better opportunities.
Attempting to own land was a major concern for the newly freed. By owning land, African Americans could grow crops to feed their families and sell additional crops for profit. Without land, newly freed men and women had little choice but to work as farm laborers or sharecroppers.
In 1865, the United States government took measures to redistribute confiscated Confederate plantations to freedpeople so that they could become independent farmers. But President Andrew Johnson ended the programs, and many white landowners refused to sell to African Americans.
Tell Lincoln that we want land . . . this very land that is rich with the sweat of we face and the blood of we back. We born here, we parents’ graves here; this here our home.
African American church elder, Port Royal, South Carolina, 1864
On January 16, 1865, United States Army General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which assigned 40-acre plots of land along parts of the Georgia and South Carolina coast to African American families. He later promised Army mules for their use. His action made 400,000 acres of land available to 40,000 individuals.
Less than a year later, President Andrew Johnson revoked Sherman’s order and returned the land to its former owners.
A committee of freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, sent this petition to President Andrew Johnson in October 1865 protesting the government’s decision to return the land to its former owners.
The petitioners describe the injustice of returning land to plantation owners in the first Confederate state to secede from the Union. “Here is were we have toiled nearly all our lives as slaves and were treated like dumb driven cattle. This is our home, we have made these lands what they are.”
In pursuit of land and greater economic opportunities, many newly freed African Americans settled in rural Texas. The all-Black communities they established became known as “Freedom Colonies."
Ransom Williams bought a 45-acre farm near Austin, Texas, in 1871. He and his wife, Sarah, raised nine children until his death in 1901. Four years later, the remaining family members moved to Austin.
These Reconstruction-era artifacts from Ransom and Sarah Williams’ farmstead in Texas were found between 2007 and 2009 during an archaeological excavation.
Get up a community and get all the lands you can, if you cannot get any singly.
Martin Delany, to freedpeople in South Carolina, 1865
In various parts of the South, newly freed people engaged in cooperative efforts to buy land and establish independent communities. Economic cooperation enabled African Americans to acquire properties and create businesses to serve their needs.
After the Civil War, Benjamin Montgomery founded one of the first such Black cooperative communities in Davis Bend, Mississippi. Montgomery bought 4,000 acres of land from his former enslaver, Joseph Davis, who was the brother of Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy. Montgomery’s land soon became a leading cotton-producer in Mississippi, and Montgomery also built a grocery and a dry goods store.
Belle Ville, Georgia, was another cooperative community. Tunis Gulic Campbell, a clergyman and politician, purchased 1,250 acres of land in Georgia from white planters and divided it into parcels to sell to African American families. Campbell and his fellow landowners formed the Belle Ville Farmers Association to manage their affairs and promote further efforts to secure economic independence.
Land, as a form of wealth that can be passed down through generations, provided financial independence and economic opportunity to many African American families and communities. African American landownership peaked in 1910, when 14 percent of all the land in the United States was owned by African Americans.
Since 1920, African American landownership has dramatically declined. Many factors have contributed to the loss of Black-owned farmland, including discrimination in obtaining bank loans and government subsidies, unfair renting or selling practices, economic downturns, overdependence on single crops, racialized violence, and complex legal issues of inherited property. Today, African Americans own less than 1 percent of the land in the United States.