40 acres and a mule was a practice in 1865 of providing arable land to Black former slaves who became free as Union armies occupied areas of the Confederacy, especially in Sherman's March. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's January 16, 1865 Special Field Orders, No. 15[1] provided for the land, and some of the recipients received from the Army mules for use in plowing as well;[2] the combination was widely recognized as providing a sound start for a family farm.

40 acres (16 hectares) is a standard size for rural land, being a sixteenth of a section, or a quarter quarter-section, under the Public Land Survey System used on land settled after 1785.

Sherman's orders specifically allocated "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".

After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, his successor, Andrew Johnson, revoked Sherman's Orders. It is sometimes mistakenly claimed that Johnson also vetoed the enactment of the policy as a federal statute (introduced as U.S. Senate Bill 60). In fact, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill which he vetoed made no mention of grants of land or mules. (Another version of the Freedmen's bill, also without the land grants, was later passed after Johnson's second veto was overridden.) However, the Special Field Orders, also known as operational orders issued by Sherman were never intended to function as the official policy of the United States in application to all slaves, and were issued "throughout the campaign to assure the harmony of action in the area of operations".[3]

By June 1865, around 10,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (160,000 ha) in Georgia and South Carolina. Soon after, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order and returned the land to its white former owners. Because of this, the phrase has come to represent the failure of Reconstruction and the general public to return to African Americans the fruit of their labors.

Appearance in popular culture[edit | edit source]

Template:Popular culture

  • In 1992, Hip Hop duo Showbiz and A.G. released the album Runaway Slave, featuring the song "40 Acres & My Props". The tracks lyrics compare the treatment of black musicians by record labels at the time to the 1865 practice, stating "Record labels try and juice me (for what?) for my papers, they offer me a mule (and what else?) and 40 acres"
  • Promoters of income tax scams have claimed that African Americans are entitled to a tax credit for slave reparations, sometimes claiming that African Americans can deduct the cost of 40 acres (16 ha) and a mule from their taxable income. The IRS considers these to be frivolous tax arguments and has prosecuted persons who attempt to avoid income tax in such a manner.
  • On the episode of The Daily Show on November 6 2008, Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore made a reference to 40 acres and a mule when speaking about then President-Elect Barack Obama. He says "we would have been happy with 40 acres and a mule".
  • E. L. Doctorow fictionalizes an account of Sherman's order in his 2005 book The March.
  • Spike Lee, a prominent African American film director, named his production company 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks.
  • A brief scene in the film Gone with the Wind pictures freed slaves listening to a carpetbagger promising them 40 acres (16 ha) and a mule.
  • In Wild Wild West the movie, Captain James West (played by Will Smith) is told he may have gotten "40 acres and a mule", but that he can't go in to see the President any time he likes.
  • The West Wing episode "Six Meetings Before Lunch" makes specific reference to Special Field Orders, No. 15 and the phrase "40 acres and a mule".
  • In an episode of My Name Is Earl Joy Turner makes reference to this, believing that her African-American husband Darnell and their son have it coming to them. When Darnell tells her his family migrated from Canada, she tells him "When they come around with the mules, you let me do the talking!"
  • Layzie Bone Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Young Noble from the album Thug Stories, the song "Put Me in a Cell" references "waiting on my forty acres and a blunt to blaze from the slavery you gave me a racist way".
  • In the song entitled, "Dear Mr. President" from the album 2pac + Tha Outlawz, Tupac Shakur asks "Where's our 40 acres and a mule fool?" to President Clinton.
  • Was also referenced in the 2004 Kanye West hit song "All Falls Down": "We tryin' to buy back our 40 acres".
  • Referenced by Nas in the song You Owe Me from his album Nastradamus: "Owe me back like you owe your tax/Owe me back like 40 acres to blacks".
  • Parliament mentions 40 acres and a mule in their song about Washington D.C., "Chocolate City": "Uh, we didn't get our 40 acres and a mule but we did get you, CC".
  • Gov't Mule, in the song "Mule", Warren Haynes sings in the chorus "Where's my mule? Where's my forty acres?"
  • Most recently referenced by Jay-Z in the song "Say Hello": "Y'all ain't gave me 40 Acres and a mule/So I got my Glock 40 now I'm cool".
  • Lyrics from "Who Stole the Soul?" on Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet mention both items: "Got a question for Jack ask him 40 acres and a mule Jack".
  • In the song "Nellyville" performed by Hip-Hop artist Nelly, in describing a fictional city, he sings "40 acres and a mule, fuck that, Nellyville, 20 acres and a pool".
  • In the song "On my way to Georgia": Fishscales says "40 acres and mule give me 2 and a Porsche."
  • The Commodores song "Gimme My Mule" has the refrain "Gimme my mule, please" in obvious reference to the 40 acres and a mule promise.
  • In the song "Misanthropy" performed by rapper X-Raided with the line, "Fuck a 40 acre and a mule, I want everything that you owe me. It's time to pay your dues"
  • Gil Scott-Heron begins the song 'The Train from Washington' with a reference to 40 acres and a mule.

Primary sources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

fr:40 acres et une mule it:40 acri e un mulo he:40 אקרים ופרד ja:40エーカーとラバ1頭

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