Cherokee Freedmen, 40 Acres, and a Mule

From the Atlantic:

Up From Slavery

How great a difference would the famous “40 acres and a mule”— the plot of land promised to freed slaves after the Civil War but never distributed—have made to the long-term prospects of African Americans? In a new paper, a University of Michigan economist examines the fortunes of slaves freed after the Civil War by the Cherokee Nation. As Cherokee citizens, these freedmen were granted the right to “claim and improve any unused land in the Nation’s public domain.” Analyzing farm data from 1880, 15 years after emancipation, the paper finds that a black freedman in a Cherokee community was five times as likely to be a landowner as the typical African American in the former Confederacy. The average black Cherokee man owned livestock worth 80 to 90 percent as much as the livestock of a nonblack Cherokee citizen, whereas the typical Southern black’s livestock was worth only 45 to 60 percent as much as the livestock of the average white man. And the data suggest that Cherokee blacks were more likely to make savvy long-term investments: in 1880, 60 percent of Cherokee freedmen farmers had planted peach and apple trees (which take three to seven years to bear fruit), compared with only 5 percent of black landowners in the South. This evidence, the author concludes, vindicates General O. O. Howard, the superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, who claimed that “more might have been done to develop the industry and energy of the colored race if I had been able to furnish each family with a small tract of land to till for themselves.”

“The Righteous and Reasonable Ambition to Become a Landholder: What Would Have Happened If Former Slaves Had Received Land After the Civil War?,” Melinda Miller, University of Michigan