Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow
We all know about the false promise of “40 Acres and a Mule.” This pledge was formed by Union General Sherman as he raked through the heart of the South during the Civil War. He wrote and assured that after the war freed slaves would be given land (40 acres) and a means to work it (mule). Many freed slaves looked forward to that event. However, some things occurred to prevent that. President Lincoln probably would have supported the “promise.” However, he was assassinated and replaced by Vice President Andrew Johnson, a democrat from Tennessee. Johnson slammed the “door” on that opportunity. That among other controversies would eventually lead to his impeachment.
However, there was another event that would prove to be quite beneficial to freed slaves. That was a law known as the Homestead Act of 1862. Wikipedia defines the Homestead Act:
“The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. Two hundred and seventy million acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.”
America had been expanding in land size at an exponential rate. Our nation created most of the East Coast through the Revolutionary War. We soon ballooned in size through the Louisiana Purchase from the French. That gave us land all the way to the West Coast (Washington and Oregon). We would eventually seize the massive land mass formerly controlled by Spain and eventually Mexico by way of outright war. President Theodore Roosevelt would call it “Manifest Destiny.” The challenge was to populate all this new land. That’s where the Homestead Act of 1862 would come in.
Blacks, especially freed slaves, were feeling betrayed by the 40 Acres and a Mule promise. However, it was the leadership of a Black visionary from Mississippi named Blanche Bruce that brought about a change for Blacks. Bruce became a Republican senator and his mantra would be for freed Blacks to take advantage of the new Homestead Act. He encouraged all Blacks to apply for these new and free land grants. So, it began in the “new” South. Other Black elected officials encouraged freed slaves to take advantage of this program.
We descendants of freed slaves understood that our grandparents and other relatives living in the South had land. We just assumed they always had it. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that we started understanding how we got that land. During the late 1990s, the National Black Chamber of Commerce formed a partnership with the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management. The BLM was responsible for issuing and managing land grants under the Homestead Act of 1862.
At the same time, a family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, asked the NBCC to help them in a land issue. Their grandfather received a land grant during the tenure of President Grover Cleveland. It was no longer in their possession and they wanted to find out how this happened
They showed me a copy of the grant or deed with President Cleveland’s signature. One hundred and sixty acres was once under their command. They lost it through a forced auction. Under “French Louisiana Law” when land is co-owned by relatives and there is a dispute in parceling the land out to inheritors of it, the court could demand a forced auction to be bid publicly and the proceeds go to the sellers (inheritors) pro rata. This is a Secession.
One of the relatives of the Vincent family was living in a state prison for murder. Someone convinced him to sell his inheritance portion of the land. His share was valued at $1,000 as a result of the auction and that made him happy. The rest of the Vincent family saw their forefather’s estate leave their possession for a fraction of its worth (secession). Wealthy white investors showed up at the auction and took it like “I-40 going west.”
We went to BLM and asked how the Vincents got this grant in the first place. One of the managers started smiling. He replied, “You say your roots are from Louisiana and your family has significant land. Is that correct?” I replied, “Yes and what does that have to do with it?” He then asked for the names of my grandfathers and great grandfathers. He took that information and went to a BLM website. It was a directory of all Homestead Act grants. He went to Louisiana and entered my relatives’ names. The result was shocking!
It showed that my grandfather, Tom Alford, received a land grant of 160 acres in Bellevue, Louisiana in 1916. More shocking, my great grandfather, Cicero Alford, received a similar land grant right next “door” for 160 acres in 1900. I almost went into shock. We had 320 acres of plush Louisiana farmland and now can account for only 40 acres. What’s worse is that this land sits in the middle of the Haynesville Oil Shale. Wow!! What in the world happened?
I got on the phone and shared this finding to as many relatives as I could. Before long, we started figuring it out. We will tell you about it next week.
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, Pre- sident/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the NBCC. Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Emails: [email protected] [email protected].