40 Acres and a Mule...How about a Jim Crow Instead?

January 17, 2014 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

This guest column by Richard Cuff shares the story behind "40 acres and a mule" and how Jacksonville was on the map of set aside land.

News of this atrocity quickly made it to President Abraham Lincoln and General Sherman was ultimately held accountable.  Today a historical marker stands one mile south of Ebenezer Creek and it reads in part, “Following a public outcry, Sec. of War Edwin Stanton met with Sherman and local black leaders in Savannah on January 12, 1965.  Four days later, President Lincoln approved Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, confiscating over 400,000 acres of coastal property and redistributing it to former slaves in 40 acre tracts.”

In light of the massacre at Ebenezer Creek, whatever you thought about the promise of 40 acres and mule is changed forever.  Some historical accounts present the offer of 40 acres of land as government benevolence toward wandering refugees, but it's not about the 40 acres at all.  It's about the actions of General Jefferson C. Davis at Ebenezer Creek.  It’s about the bloody massacre of hundreds of freed slaves.  And it’s about the local leaders and pastors who had already put the incident behind them, just like they had with the 250 years of slavery; they were ready to start anew and they had a solution.  

As a part of the negotiations between Sherman and Black leaders, the families would work the land until they paid the government what the land was worth, they would then own it for life.  The Field Order clearly stated that 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, were to be reserved and set apart for the settlement of the “negroes” now made free by the acts of war and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  And according to the Field Order, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, would be permitted to reside on that land.

On April 15, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated and one of the first things that the new president, Andrew Johnson, did once he took office was to rescind Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15.  Thousands of African Americans were removed from land previously promised to them by the government and that confiscated land, with a simple pledge of loyalty, was returned to its former owners – the very people who fought to destroy the nation in the first place.

The 400,000 acres of confiscated land stretched from North Carolina, 30 miles inland from the coast, all the way down to the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, FL.  Imagine, North Jacksonville was a territory once owned by freed slaves and was well on its way to being the epicenter of a whole new world.  Instead the very people who had seen centuries of oppression were doomed to see yet another century of a different, yet just as brutal, kind of oppression.  A list of 6,000 thousand people lynched between 1865 to 1965 has on it my name – Richard Cuff – as being lynched on August 6, 1884 in the very county where I was born.  Growing up I had been told of an ancestor who killed a man in self-defense, but I was spared the tale of the lynching.  It makes you wonder what if this nation was bold enough to allow these freed slaves build a state full of self-sufficient African-Americans, 40 acres at a time, protected by federal troops and free of the influence of 150 years of white hatred, bigotry, and racism.  

Today, we need only look to the divisive politics of Washington, D.C. to catch a glimpse of what the political environment must have been like during Reconstruction.  As fast as one Federal law could be passed to protect recently freed slaves, the Southern States would pass another law to give whites broader power.  Each time Blacks felt their rights were violated they’d look to the Federal government in an effort to exercise their First Amendment right to redress a grievance and each time the states claimed “states’ rights.”

It would take three Constitutional Amendments during Reconstruction to put an end to the legal tit for tat.  Amendment 13 abolished slavery (‘except’ in prison), the 14th gave Blacks “equal protection” but not equal citizenship (white lawmakers would never go for that) and thanks to Citizens United corporations now enjoy that same protection, and the 15th stopped the extreme racist from shipping Black babies born free here in America back to Africa as some lawmakers in the Southern States proposed to do.

What brought Reconstruction to an end was a secret meeting in the Wormley Hotel between presidential candidates Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, and Samuel J. Tilden, a Democrat who had won both the popular and the electoral vote.  The counting of the votes was challenged and the Democrat was accused of oppressing the Black vote in the South.  In that secret meeting, known as the Compromise of 1877, an agreement was made to put an end to Reconstruction.  Talks of 40 acres and a mule were banished to the pages of history and so was the African-American Constitutional battle for equality.
With a simple handshake, Tilden agreed to give Hayes the presidency if he in turn would put an end to Reconstruction.  Pledging his earnest desire to heal the rift between the North and South, Hayes ordered federal troops out of the South.  Unfortunately, as Hayes healed the rift between the North and the South, he effectively buried any chance that African-Americans would ever see an opportunity to collectively own 400,000 acres as freedmen.  

The Jim Crow era that followed Reconstruction, was a thinly veiled attempt to create “separate but equal” societies but that experiment in social equality failed miserably. 150 years later the question is where did we go wrong and how do we fix it?   At this point, it’s anybody’s guess.

Guest Column by Richard Cuff

Richard Cuff is president of CTI Marketing and founder of the NASEMBA Business Alliance – an organization that provides support and encouragement to small and emerging market businesses.  Born in Edison, GA and raised in the Liberty City community of Miami, FL, he discovered his gift of entrepreneurship as a seven-year old and over the next forty years he would spend his life pursuing his entrepreneurial vision and sharpening his managerial skills.  

He is a graduate of Miami Northwestern Sr. High and Bauder College where he studied broadcasting and he is currently a student at Jacksonville University where, in summer of 2014, he will graduate with a double major; a Bachelor’s in Marketing and a Bachelor’s in Management.  
Richard served in the United States Army as an Indirect Fire Infantryman and was promoted to the rank of E-5/Sergeant before being honorably discharged.  As a social entrepreneur and community advocate, Richard serves as Executive Director of League of Florida Orchestras, Inc., a capacity building organization through which he developed the Guiding Success Program – a kindergarten to college pathway initiative for preschool students developed to encourage literacy through entrepreneurship and the arts.  

A standup comedian, personal development coach, and inspiring public speaker, Richard works to develop the next generation of entrepreneurs through his Get Ready for Greatness Workshop Series

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