Black History: 40 Acres and a Mule

High ranking government officials met with 20 black ministers and deacons.
High ranking government officials met with 20 black ministers and deacons.

By Dawn Baker - email | bio

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - You've probably heard the phrase "40 acres and a mule," but did you know those words were first spoken right here in Savannah?

As we celebrate Black History Month, we share the story behind the promise. This goes all the way back to the Civil War in 1865. It was a promise made to slaves before the war ended. Although it never came to pass, it forever changed blacks in America.

In the Green Meldrim House on January 12, 1865, General William Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had a meeting that was unheard of for the times. These high ranking government officials met with 20 black ministers and deacons.

"They begin discussing what the Civil War represents to African people. For them, it is not just about freedom but land and for them to work it and sustain themselves from that meeting they could then go out and build wealth," explains Jamal Toure', owner of Day Clean Journeys Tour Company.

General Sherman was so impressed with what happened in the meeting and how the men handled themselves that he went to Second African Baptist Church and issued Special Field Order #15 better known as 40 acres and a mule.

It basically said from Charleston County on down to Florida to the St. John's River, Africans shall have all of the abandoned rice plantations that is on the islands and 30 miles inland.

Very shortly, they began moving to the islands. But before the news could really sink in, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order, saying Sherman didn't have the authority to offer the land and returned the land to the former white owners.

"Even after the government reneged, when Africans got their freedom, they started buying land at tax auctions they started going to some of the plantation owners and saying, 'can I buy some of your land?'" says Toure'.

So even though most blacks never got the 40 acres that Sherman promised them, that promise changed blacks and at least got them thinking about owning land and building a better future in their new home far from the shores of Africa.

To learn more about history in the Low Country and Coastal Empire visit,