Reparations: Starting point should be promise of ’40 acres of tillable ground’
By Guest Columnist JOE BEASLEY, a human rights activist in Atlanta and founder of the Joe Beasley Foundation
American history is fraught with fables and outright lies. No one envisioned the day when Africans would become part of the mainstream of the nation, the day when our truth would have to be examined and included.
The ground is starting to shift. Congress last week continued a formal discussion of reparations, in the form of House Resolution 40. Others are exploring a more complete history that will reflect how Black people were brought here to serve as slaves and were mistreated for generations.
After 246 years of “chattel slavery,” President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Keep in mind that Lincoln’s vice-president, Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, was a slaveholder described by a senator during Johnson’s impeachment trial as “the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power.”
Near the end of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman met with 20 formerly enslaved African American leaders, primarily pastors, in Savannah. He asked them what did they want. They responded that because of the longstanding animosity between the races, it would be best to have a separate nation.
Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, which Lincoln approved. This encompassed a landmass that extended from Charleston, S.C. to the Georgia-Florida border, including all of the barrier islands, then measuring for 30 miles inland. Sherman ordered that “Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land,” the government will provide enough land so that “each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground….”
Our new nation comprised 400,000 acres of land. We moved expeditiously and, before Lincoln was assassinated, over 40,000 of the formerly enslaved people had relocated to our new nation.
Upon the death of Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson became president. I’ve described his charter earlier with respect to his disdain for African people. Johnson nullified Field Order 15 and returned the land to the former slave masters. In my opinion, that was illegal.
I’m trying to assemble a group of attorneys to ascertain if the actions of President Johnson were legal. If we can not prevail in court to get our nation back, we have calculated how much we are due in reparations and it comes to $70 trillion dollars.
The formerly enslaved were left penniless, with nowhere to go in a capitalistic society. An arrangement known as sharecropping was introduced. Sharecropping was a legal arrangement with regard to agricultural land in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share, normally 50% split. I grew up in Fayette County as the son of sharecroppers.
We had the agreement that we would split any profits 50/50 at the end of harvesting. The catch was that the sharecroppers could not check the books or records, which were maintained by the landowners. We were told that we made no profits, that, in fact, we had a deficit and would have to work for another year under the same arrangement.
However, with the coming of automation, farming was no longer labor intensive. Sharecroppers were replaced by tractors, combine machines, etc. The plantation owners let us know in no uncertain terms that our services were no longer needed. They didn’t know where we were going but we had to vacate their property.
Enter public housing, and massive migration of African Americans from the plantations to the urban ghettos. The cost for public housing was 30% of your salary. If you didn’t make anything you didn’t have to pay anything. As the laws changed, the African Americans men were forced from public housing. This was the beginning of the dissimilation of the nuclear black family, a story for another time.
As our nation begins the discussion of reparations and of presenting a more complete history, please allow me to make a couple of suggestions and offer a couple of observations.
Firstly, read the Doctrine of Discovery, authored in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, in collusion with the monarch’s of Europe. This papal bull declared all lands in the New World not occupied by Christians were subject to a claim by the discoverers. The Supreme Court relied on the doctrine in an 1823 case to establish a claim to the nation’s western frontier.
Secondly, read about the Berlin, Germany Conference of 1884-85. You will learn that the Europeans, again, raped Africa during the era known as the Scramble for Africa. The European powers subdivided the African continent by using brute force and by enslaving the African’s in their homeland, requiring them to speak their language and practice their religion.
A modern situation that I am closely observing is unfolding in Africa Town, USA, just outside Mobile, Ala. The travesty started 52 years after the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A wealthy white man made a wager that he could build a slave ship and go into Africa and return undetected. He accomplished his mission, returning to Mobile aboard the Clotilda with 110 Africans. He enslaved them until five years later, upon the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
These 110 Africans established Africa Town, USA. These formally enslaved people were allowed to observe their African identity. The wealthy white gentleman refused to take them back to Africa. He tried to destroy the ship to cover up his crime. He was in fact caught but never punished. On May 22, 2019 the ship was rediscovered.
The tragedy that exists upon this writing is the white rich family is richer than their rogue ancestor. The formerly enslaved Africans have fallen on really hard times, due in large part to the fact that the white controlled interests that control Mobile made Africa Town a toxic and polluted waste dump.
My second observation is right here in Atlanta, at the site of the closed Chattahoochee Brick Co. When slavery ended, the power’s that be quickly enacted a section in the U.S. Constitution that allows for slavery for criminals. Mayor James English owned the Chattahoochee Brickyard and he needed free laborers to make his bricks at a cut-rate price. In fact, he insisted that the streets and sidewalks be made of bricks. They remain today in many neighborhoods.
Many young African American men, and some women, were made criminals for being broke and without a job. They were placed in jail and leased out to toil until death in places including the brickyard. Coincidentally, after English left the mayor’s office he became police commissioner for 20 years, and railroaded countless of our people into forced servitude.
This site has gained controversy in recent years because developers want to redevelop the 70-acre site. Community leaders and elected officials blocked the development because it lies in a flood plane. Recently, Norfolk Rail Company leased the site and, after considerable opposition including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, agreed last week to withdraw from the project.
This situation with the Chattahoochee Brick Co. shows that the drama continues from the days when we were brought to the United States and sold as commodities on the stock exchange. Disparities in wealth between the races is a direct result of whites passing through the generations wealth that was gained through the work of our people.
It is dangerous to only understand history using anecdotal information. Field Order 15 is a work still in progress. You should join men like Douglas A. Blackmon, who wrote Slavery by Another Name, which gives the account of what happened at that brick company. I admonish you to become a player, not just an observer, as our history continues to evolve.
Note to readers: After growing up as a sharecroppers’ son in Fayette County, Joe Beasley joined the Air Force and spent 20 years in the military.