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40 Acres and a Mule – Black Farmer Debt

July 3, 2022

File:African American farmer in corn field, Alachua County, Florida.jpg
African American farmer standing in a cornfield,
Alachua County, FL, Source Flickr,
Author Florida Memory (State Library and Archives of Florida/Local call no. Rc13671)
No known copyright restrictions

Slavery in the United States denied multiple generations of enslaved people the opportunity to own land [1].

40 Acres and a Mule

During the final months of the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15 which provided for the confiscation of 40,000 acres along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida [2].

This was to be divided into parcels of not more than 40 acres each, for the settlement of 18,000 black refugees who had sought the protection of Sherman.   It is the source for the expression “forty acres and a mule”.

Most recipients assumed the grant of land was permanent.  Pres. Andrew Johnson, however, issued a proclamation returning confiscated land to any Southern owners who took a loyalty oath.

Congress eventually succeeded in enacting legislation which allowed at least some former slaves to retain their land.

Unfortunately, Reconstruction did not emphasize minority land ownership.  After Reconstruction ended, nearly all land allocated during the conflict was restored to its pre-war owners.

American Rescue Plan

The US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) was to begin paying off the loans of minority farmers a year ago [3A].  That, at least, was the intention.

Under Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan – an act Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack classified as one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in decades – some 11,000-13,000 black, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian American, and Pacific Islander farmers who had faced systemic bias were to receive debt relief commencing in June 2021 [3B][4A].

Minority farmers over the past century lost as much as 16 million acres (fully 85%-90% of their land, worth up to $350 billion) due, in large measure, to discriminatory government and business policies making it difficult for them to obtains loans and purchase costly agricultural machinery [4B][7A].

In recognition of this, the USDA was authorized to pay up to 120% of outstanding loan balances for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.  Recipients were to receive 20% of the loan as a cash payment directly to them, to cover the tax burden accompanying such large scale debt relief [4C].

This would have freed up $4 billion in loan payments instead for seed and much needed equipment [3C][4D].


Preliminary injunctions in federal district court cases were the first warning that debt relief payments would be delayed, if not halted entirely [5].

White farmers, bankers, and legislators argued that the promised relief was a prohibited form of reverse discrimination with the potential to harm lenders [4E].

Minority farmers were encouraged to continue making payments while the matter was resolved in the courts.

Significantly, the 98% of American farmers who are white have received some $35 billion in pandemic relief and direct payments [4F][6].  By contrast, black farmers have received 0.1% of pandemic relief.

The Struggle Continues

“In its 1965 report on Black farmers, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights…documented how the USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service, Farmers Home Administration, Soil Conservation Service and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service denied thousands of Black farmers access to services provided to white farmers to help them diversify their crops, increase production, achieve adequate farming operations or train for off-farm employment [7B].”

Similar findings were reported in 1982 and 1997 [7C].

A Texas court has now ruled that there is a time limit on how far back Congress can go to remediate intentional discrimination by the government [7D].

So the struggle for equality continues.

[1]  Wikipedia, “40 acres and a mules”,

[2]  Wikipedia, “Special Field Orders No. 15”,

[3A, 3B, and 3C]  US News, “USDA to Begin Paying off Loans of Minority Farmers in June” by Associated Press, 5/21/21,

[4A through 4F]  Washington Post, “USDA to start debt forgiveness and payouts to some 13,000 Black, Hispanic and other minority farmers in June” by Laura Reiley, 5/21/21,

[5]  US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), “American Rescue Plan Section 1005 Litigation FAQ”,

[6]  US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), “US Agricultural Sector Received an Estimated $35 Billion in Covid-19-Related Assistance in 2020” by Anil Giri et al, 9/7/21,

[7A through 7D]  Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Fighting to Grow:  Black farmers continue to battle systemic discrimination” by Dwayne Fatherree, 2/18/22,


From → Justice, Law, Poverty

  1. Praying for turn around! Wow!

  2. ‘Aluta Contina’ as they still say in my land, our eyes on Christ and his kingdom. Necessary read, thanks Anna.

  3. Thanks for bringing this to light. Progress is being made, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

  4. What a timely post Anna! I am currently working my way through an amazing account of slavery in the United States entitled “Slave Narratives”. This work has caused me no small amount of anguish and heartache due to the unrestricted violence and atrocities committed against slaves in the American South. I dare say it is not for the faint of heart.

    Your post caused me to reflect upon past studies I have read of government sanctioned discrimination against minorities in our country, and it is clear to me that “In God We Trust” is altogether a deceptive slogan intended to mask the evil being wrought against the helpless among us in an effort to profit from their plight.

    There is a God who is going to demand an accounting one day, and those in positions of power who have systematically discriminated against the poor and the weak will be called to stand before the Righteous Judge to answer for what they have done. In that moment, they will find that God does not discriminate.

    • Thank you for this powerful comment, Ron. I wholeheartedly agree.

    • My wife and I are currently re-reading the prophecy of Amos. It is so very relevant to our present times, society and often lethargic Church. And this discrimination flows in so many directions! Amos’s solution is repentance, leading to restoration. PS I’ve found Walther Brueggemann excellent on this topic. The worship of power and mammon.

      • I very much appreciate those recommendations, Erroll, and will be sure to follow-up.

      • Erroll, I have often wondered why/how the lesson of Amos has been largely ignored by the church and society at large. Repentance is at the core of man’s relationship with God, and would be an obvious help in erasing the stigma we call discrimination.

        Unfortunately we in America have swallowed the false notion that if we throw enough money at the problem, we can eradicate it. What our sin-stained hearts don’t want us to understand is that mankind can never “fix” issues of the heart. For that, we must look to our Lord with a “broken heart and a contrite spirit”.

      • So many of the problems mankind faces are “heart issues”.

  5. Very interesting. Hadn’t seen this dilemma presented so clearly before.

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