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Archival photo of a late-19th Century Florida land office

Landownership in the Reconstruction South

After Emancipation, formerly enslaved African Americans sought to forge lives for themselves and their families, to determine the meanings of freedom on their own terms. One of the first orders of business was to reunite family members who had been sold or lost during slavery. Another primary goal was to become self-sufficient. Without compensation from the people who previously owned them, the 4 million newly emancipated African American men, women, and children faced immediate challenges to their liberty and autonomy.

In the face of increased hostility, violence, and terrorism and with few or no material resources, African Americans demonstrated courage, creativity, and resilience as they eked out a living subsisting on the land, often "sharecropping," or subcontracting their labor to their former masters. Some set out to find family, or to relocate away from the places where they had been enslaved, while others sought to maintain the communities they established on plantations and estates. Many of those who stayed behind remained tied to the agrarian economy.

Landownership represented economic freedom from slavery's bondage and the servitude of sharecropping or tenant farming. As landowners, these families hoped to ensure that their financial success depended only on their personal skills and tenacity; they were willing to contend with the vagaries of farming conditions in order to realize their own independence. This took a great deal of effort: many families found it too onerous and expensive to obtain the farm tools, implements, seeds, and rations to cultivate and maintain the land successfully.

While the federal government never fulfilled General Sherman's promise of "forty acres and a mule," some newly freed people acquired land through congressional acts like the Southern Homestead Act of 1866. In a major land redistribution scheme, the government opened 46 million acres in Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana to settlement and specified that the applicants could not be discriminated against on the basis of color. Freedpeople saw this as an opportunity to claim property and their rights; in so doing, they hoped that they could control their own land and their own labor.

Through its 10 year history, under the Southern Homestead Act, 67,600 entries were made for land; of these 28,000 were patented. Scholars estimate that 20-25% of those homesteaders who were successful in obtaining title to their property were freedpeople.

Whoopi Goldberg's ancestors William and Elsie Washington acquired property in northern Florida in 1873 using provisions of this law. In Florida, the government set aside 19 million acres of land, by far, the largest amount in any of the states. However, 11 million acres had not been surveyed, rendering in unavailable for homesteading; the remaining 8 million acres was poor in quality. Making the process even more difficult, it was not enough simply to pay the $5 filing fee, to register and receive the parcels of property. The act required homesteaders to settle the land and to make several improvements -- including building a dwelling, enclosing the land, and planting a crop within five years of obtaining the parcel -- before they could receive the title.

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