40 acres and a mule
is a term for compensation that was promised to be awarded to freed African American
slaves after the Civil War
— 40 acres
) of land to farm, and a mule
with which to drag a plow so the land could be cultivated.
The award—a land grant of a quarter of a quarter section (one square mile) deeded to heads of households presumably formerly owned by land-holding whites—was the product of Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued January 16, 1865 by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, which applied to black families who lived near the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Sherman's orders specifically allocated "the islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida." There was no mention of mules in Sherman's order, although the Army may have distributed them anyway. Federal and state homestead grants of the time ranged from 1/4 section up to a full section.
After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, his successor, Andrew Johnson, revoked Sherman's Orders. It is sometimes mistakenly claimed that Johnson also vetoed the enactment of the policy as a federal statute (introduced as U.S. Senate Bill 60). In fact, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill which he vetoed made no mention of grants of land or mules. (Another version of the Freedmen's bill, also without the land grants, was later passed after Johnson's second veto was overridden.)
By June 1865, around 10,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) in Georgia and South Carolina. Soon after, President Johnson reversed the order and returned the land to its white former owners. Because of this, the phrase has come to represent the failure of Reconstruction and the general public to assist African Americans.
Appearance in popular culture
- Promoters of income tax scams have claimed that African Americans are entitled to a tax credit for slave reparations, sometimes claiming that African Americans can deduct the cost of 40 acres and a mule from their taxable income. The IRS considers these to be frivolous tax arguments and has prosecuted persons who attempt to avoid income tax in such a manner.
- E. L. Doctorow fictionalizes an account of Sherman's order in his 2005 book The March.
- A brief scene in the film Gone with the Wind pictures freed slaves listening to a carpetbagger promising them 40 acres and a mule.
- Spike Lee, a prominent African American film director, named his production company 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks.
- The West Wing episode "Six Meetings Before Lunch" makes specific reference to Special Field Orders, No. 15 and the phrase "40 acres and a mule."
- Layzie Bone Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Young Noble from the album Thug Stories, the song "Put Me in a Cell" references "waiting on my forty acres and a blunt to blaze from the slavery you gave me a racist way"
- In the song entitled, "Dear Mr. President" from the album '2pac + Tha Outlawz', Tupac Shakur asks "Where's our 40 acres and a mule fool?" to President Clinton
- Was also referenced in the 2004 Kanye West hit song "All Falls Down": "We tryin' to buy back our 40 acres"
- Parliament Funkadelic mentions 40 acres and a mule in their song about Washington D.C., "Chocolate City."
- Gov't Mule, in the song "Mule", Warren Haynes sings in the chorus "Where's my mule? Where's my forty acres?"
- Most recently referenced by Jay-Z in the song "Say Hello": "Y'all ain't gave me 40 Acres and a mule/So I got my Glock 40 now I'm cool"
- Lyrics from "Who Stole the Soul?" on Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet mention both items: "Got a question for Jack ask him 40 acres and a mule Jack."
- In the song "Nellyville" performed by Hip-Hop artist Nelly, in describing a fictional city, he sings "40 acres and a mule, fuck that, Nellyville, 40 acres and a pool."
- NAPPY ROOTS in the song "On my way to Georgia": Fishscales says "40 acres and mule give me 2 and a porsche"