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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.

A worn sephia toned group people work and sit while working on a sweet potato plantation.

SectionPursuing Land

Black Landownership During Reconstruction

Family and ox cart in front of house, ca. 1888

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.

Family and ox cart in front of house, ca. 1888

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

Richard Brown received this order from the Freedmen’s Bureau in April 1865 granting him 40 acres of land from a plantation in South Carolina.

40 Acres and a Mule

Special Field Orders No. 15

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.

Special Field Orders No. 15

“We Have Made These Lands What They Are”

Freedmen’s Petition from Edisto Island

Freedmen’s Petition from Edisto Island

Newly freed people working on a plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina, 1862

Texas Freedom Colonies

Students in Antioch Colony, an all-Black settlement in Texas, 1920s

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.

Students in Antioch Colony, an all-Black settlement in Texas, 1920s

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


B. T. Montgomery

Tunis G. Campbell

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.

B. T. Montgomery

Tunis G. Campbell

Looking Forward: Landownership

African American Farmland Ownership In Acres Since 1900