‘40 Acres and a Lie’ tells the story of a broken promise’s legacy

Formerly enslaved people were told they would receive land they could use to build a life. The incredibly valuable property never reached their descendants.

By Shelly BrisbinJune 26, 2024 2:19 pm,

The phrase “40 acres and a mule” dates back to Reconstruction – the time after the Civil War when formerly enslaved people were promised land, often on the plantations where they had once been captives.

Those promised plots of land never materialized and Black Americans had no chance to build the kind of generational wealth their white neighbors did. In fact, many formerly enslaved people did receive – and then lost – the land they had been promised.

Now, a new investigation by the public radio show Reveal has discovered the legacies this policy.

The three-part series, “40 Acres and a Lie” was reported by Alexia Fernández Campbell and April Simpson. Fernández Campbell joined Texas Standard to discuss the series. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Your reporting comes out of some significant new research at the National Archives. Can you tell us about what you were looking to find and what made this new reporting possible?

Alexia Fernández Campbell: Yeah. I was actually working with April and some colleagues on a different project, and someone suggested I look through the Freedmen’s Bureau records at the National Archives, which I wasn’t familiar with at all. And I was looking through a miscellaneous folder, and I found what looked like this really old land title. And I looked closely at it, and I had someone’s name, Fergus Wilson. He got 40 acres on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

And then there are all these other crumpled-looking land titles also in this digital folder and they all had mostly “40 acres” on it. So that kind of gave off the alarm bell. It said “under the order of Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15” – I didn’t know what it was. And after doing a little research, I realized, “oh my goodness, people actually got land as part of 40 acres and a mule.”

And, you know, historians have from the Reconstruction era knew of the existence of these land titles. But here what we did was we found the names. We have identified more than a thousand people who got them. And we also were able to track down a lot of their descendants. 

Wow. What was the reaction that you got when you did track down some of these descendants?  

So we were able to identify like 41 living descendants. I wish we could have found more, and I’m sure that hopefully other people will be able to take on this work. But some people, like most people, did not respond. The ones who did respond were very excited to talk about this. 

You and your producer had the chance to talk to some of these descendants. And I’m wondering if we can listen to one conversation from this series. Let’s hear the clip.  

Fernández Campbell: So here I’m showing you two different land titles of two freedmen who got 40 acres on the plantation that is where your house is located. 

Linda Brown: So we didn’t know that there were paperwork involved, that there was paperwork involved in it. It was just sort of spoken from the field. That was how we perceived it. Just spoken from the field.

So never did we think that anything beyond that happened. And my brother, who was a captain in the Army, he understood field laws and then he was an attorney. He didn’t even know it.  

Fernández Campbell: Is it surprising to you to see that there were these actual land titles given? 

Linda Brown: Absolutely. But it gives you, you know, you could feel chills. Didn’t know that they had it, and then they just pulled the rug out from under them, so to speak. This is breaking news, really, for some. It is to me. 

Texas Standard: Now, could you tell us what’s going on there? You’re talking with Linda Brown, right? 

Correct. So Nadia, the producer – Nadia Hamdan from Reveal – and I went to this huge gated community in Getaway Island, Georgia, which is near Savannah. It’s a mostly white, massive gated community.

We had figured out, with my colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity, that this is a place that was made up of six plantations, where I think almost 100 freed people got land titles. So we wanted to go and see what had happened to this land today. How much was it worth?

And Linda Brown is one of the two residents that took us around and they didn’t know about the land titles. And so she was really shocked about when I told her that her house was on a plantation where people got these titles. 

I’m unclear. The promise was made. The titles apparently were issued. The land was received, or not?


So how did that evaporate for these freed people? 

I would say that the single most consequential thing that happened, that changed everything, was Lincoln was assassinated.

These land titles, they didn’t convey full permanent ownership. They were called “promissory land titles.” And they were issued by Freedmen’s Bureau with the understanding that Congress had to ratify – and the president, too – to make them permanent. But that was just assumed because Lincoln had always expressed support. There was a majority of people in Congress who supported it.

But then when Lincoln was assassinated, his vice president, Andrew Johnson, took over. And he was a white supremacist, and he began pardoning the former slave holders – the Confederates – and many of them wanted their land back, and he gave it to them. 

So most of the land, as I understand it, was in Georgia and South Carolina. But I would imagine you’re talking about the diaspora – you know, the descendants of these folks who might have some kind of connection to this land. What did you find and where are you keeping records? Do you have a list of names of people who are connected to those properties?

Yes, absolutely. So what we’ve noticed when we’re doing our research is that a lot of the freedmen and women who got land titles, their descendants left the South. Many are still in the South. We found descendants in Ohio, California, New York, Michigan. So we feel like this is a story that impacts Americans all over the country.

And we published a list at motherjones.com and 40acresandalie.com with a list of all 1,250 names of the freedmen and women, with links to the documents for anyone who may want to see if one of their ancestors is there. 

Your series focuses on the ways that having or not having this land – generational wealth – affected Black and white residents in communities where these land promises were broken. Can you say more about how that resonates now, more than 150 years later? 

I think there’s one number that really kind of drives home what I mean by the generational wealth that many Black Americans weren’t able to pass on to their descendants.

So one of my colleagues, Pratheek Rebala, he calculated the value of 40 acres in this gated community where you heard Linda Brown and I speaking, and 40 acres there is worth at least $20 million. And that’s without any house or anything. Just the land is worth $20 million.

And there were dozens of people who got land titles. They were there farming the land, they had built a community – a Black community – on the island. They had elected a governor and a sheriff. In their view, this was their land. And they were told it was their land, and then they had to leave or they had to start working for their enslavers. 

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