Race, Reconstruction, and Reparations


This is a guest post by Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian of the 19th c. American South. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2014 and works as an independent scholar in Atlanta. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites, Slavery, and Capitalism in the Deep South, is currently under review with Cambridge University press. Keri Leigh is also co-editing a collection of essays on southern labor history and has begun work on her second monograph, 1865: The Year of the First Black Power Movement. She regularly presents work at academic conferences, and has several speaking engagements planned for the upcoming year. Follow Keri Leigh on Twitter: @kerileighmerrit


Immediately following the news of emancipation, joyous freedmen and women gathered in every southern city and town in a near-ecstatic state of celebration. For generations they had prayed, hoped, and fought to escape slavery. Yet after a few short, jubilant years filled with the reuniting of families, the construction of new churches and schools, and the endowment of basic citizenship and suffrage rights, blacks found themselves at the bottom of free society, just one step removed from bondage. Indeed, in no more than a decade after emancipation, many African Americans were questioning the severe limitations that the nation’s whites were continually placing upon their “freedom.” As W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”[1]

When judged comparatively with other nations’ emancipatory histories, America’s experience is unique. While African Americans were the only freed slaves to be granted political rights so soon after emancipation, those rights were limited for a people without land, capital, or job prospects. Even the mantle of citizenship was inconsequential for a people whose economic choices were limited to signing predatory labor contracts or remaining jobless – all while their families were suffering from hunger and want.

Escaped slaves – who were emancipated when they reached the North – in the mid-1860s in Freedman’s Village, Virginia Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Perhaps one of the most lasting myths about Reconstruction is that the “forty acres and a mule” proposal was simply too radical to ever succeed. A comprehensive policy of post-war land reform would have served as the primary source for reparations among newly freedmen. Yet when the failure of land distribution among blacks is judged in the context of the simultaneously-implemented Homestead Acts, the reality of the situation is laid bare. While freedmen waited in vain for any type of recompense – for generations of brutality and violence and toil – millions of whites were given free land by the federal government. The problem was not the radical nature of land reform. The problem was race.

Southern slaveholders had successfully prevented the passage of the Homestead Act during the late antebellum period. Fearing a nation of small farmers who would ostensibly become anti-slavery proponents, the master class had used their weighty political power to table any discussion of agrarian reform prior to the Civil War. Yet soon after secession, the push for the Homestead Act was renewed. The original Act granted about 1.5 billion acres of western land – an area close to the land mass of both California and Texas – to individual Americans, virtually for free. As Trina Williams Shanks explained,

The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent…

Since the Homestead Act was signed into law by Lincoln in May 1862, few people from the South initially received any benefit from it. Yet given that it remained in place until 1934, well over a million and a half white families – both American-born and immigrant – profited from it. Even though the process was rife with fraud, as many homesteaders sold their plots to corporations, the original grantees were able to pocket the income from land sales, establishing a basis of wealth and capital. By the end of the Act, more than 270 million acres of land had been transferred to individuals, almost all of whom were white. Nearly 10 percent of all the land in the entire United States was granted to homesteaders for little more than a filing fee.[2]


Just one year after Appomattox, the Southern Homestead Act sought to accomplish the same objectives as the original act, yet on a much smaller scale. Opening up 46 million acres of public domain land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the guidelines to claiming land were similar to the original Homestead Act. During the first year of the Act, unoccupied southern land was exclusively offered to African Americans and loyal whites, but after 1867 even landless former Confederates could apply. Although the law ostensibly offered an agrarian solution to several pressing Reconstruction era issues, in reality, a large percentage of the land offered was un-farmable. Much of the Southern Homestead land was either heavily wooded, covered with swamps, or lay very far from transportation routes.[3]

Still, the ownership of capital would have been the only realistic way for blacks to achieve a level of self-sufficiency after generations of slavery. Perhaps the most important reason agrarian reform failed concerned the year-long labor contracts freedmen had been cajoled or forced into signing. Leaving a job before the contractual end date frequently resulted in virtual re-enslavement on a chain gang. Although many of these jobs had been arranged under the Freedman’s Bureau, blacks were locked into these contracts until the very date – January 1, 1867 – that they stopped receiving special homesteading benefits. Furthermore, it was hard to administratively arrange homesteading, especially for people who owned no cash, and had no experience in dealing with bureaucracy. Most southern states had only one land office, meaning the administrative duties cost far more than the filing fees for the actual land. Depending on where the office was located, it could take several weeks to simply make the trip.[4]

Homesteading activity also varied greatly by state, and was sporadic from year to year. Perhaps due to its haphazard administration, the Southern Homestead Act was repealed by Congress in 1876. Only between 4,000 and 5,500 of the 27,800 final SHA patents were ever awarded to African Americans. The precise role racism played in this failure of this policy’s intended claims may never be known. What is known, however, is that very few homesteads were granted to black claimants. Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of whites – American-born and immigrant – succeeded in becoming landowners, and many others would follow in their footsteps over the next few decades.[5]

Homestead_Act_StampThus, by essentially giving away land to white individuals and white-owned businesses, the Homestead Acts were the most extensive, radical, redistributive governmental policy in American history. The number of original (1862) Homestead-recipient descendants living in the year 2000 was estimated to be around forty-six million people, about a quarter of the U.S. adult population. As sociologist Thomas Shapiro pointed out, if so many white Americans can potentially trace their “legacy of property ownership” to these entitlement programs, modern-day issues like “upward mobility, economic stability, class status, and wealth” need to be understood as directly related “to one national policy—a policy that in practice essentially excluded African Americans.”[6]

With the advent of emancipation, therefore, blacks became the only race in America ever to start out – as an entire people – with close to zero wealth. And with no saved, inheritable wealth and assets, loans were nearly impossible to secure. Homelessness and hardship were only one illness, one accident, or one bad crop away. Having nothing else upon which to build or generate wealth, the majority of freedmen had little real chance of breaking the cycles of poverty created by slavery, and perpetuated by federal policy. The stain of slavery, it seems, is much more widespread and lasting than many scholars have admitted. Yet it is the legacy of Reconstruction – particularly the failure of land redistribution – that so closely coupled poverty and race in America. The conversation over the United States’ extreme (and growing) inequality is long overdue, and it is morally imperative that race is a central part of that dialogue.

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935; reprint, New York: Free Press, 1992).

[2] Trina Williams, “The Homestead Act: A Major Asset-building Policy in American History,” Paper commissioned for “Inclusion in Asset Building: Research and Policy Symposium,” Center for Social Development Washington University, St. Louis, Sept. 21-23, 2000, http://community-wealth.org/content/homestead-act-major-asset-building-policy-american-history-working-paper-00-9; “Homestead Act,” National Archives, http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act/.

[3] Ibid., 6; 1; Claude F. Oubre, Forty Acres and A Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership (Baton Rouge: Louisiana, 1978), 197.; 31; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 246.

[4] Katherine C. Mooney, Foreword, in Oubre, Forty Acres, n.p., Oubre, Forty Acres, 90.

[5] Williams, “The Homestead Act,” 10.

[6] Williams, “The Homestead Act ,” 8; Thomas M. Shapiro. The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality (New York: Oxford, 2004), 190.

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Comments on “Race, Reconstruction, and Reparations

  • I don’t disagree with any of the major arguments here, but I would like to re-enforce one. Claimants under the original Homestead Act needed capital to begin the process of turning unimproved land into farmsteads. Estimates of how much was necessary range from $1200 to $1500. Since the Freedmen had no bankable assets, loans were unobtainable. And without capital there is no surprise to learn that only 5000 Freedmen made good on their Southern Homestead Act claims. Congress would have had to provide funds to make the land transfer work, as the Czar did in Russia when serfdom was abolished. I quite agree with the writer that the deck was stacked against the Freedmen and sharecropping and crop lien became the painful alternatives to free labor and farm ownership.

    • Dear Dr. Zieren,
      You are absolutely correct and I do address this in the larger scholarly work. To have truly made a difference after generations of slavery, an influx of capital was also necessary- whether from the federal government or by freedmen’s appropriation of the tools, animals, and seed with which they had always worked. Unfortunately, 1500 words can be limiting, but thank you for pointing out what would have been the next hurtle.
      Keri Leigh Merritt

  • This excellent article powerfully illustrates the necessity of paying reparations to Africans (Black people) who are still colonized in the United States. The Uhuru Solidarity Movement, under the leadership of the African People’s Socialist Party, is organizing white people to pay reparations for the stolen lives, labor and resources of Africans in the U.S., in Africa, and wherever they live. The International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (InPDUM) is bringing a petition to the United Nations charging the U.S. with genocide against Africans and demanding $14.1 trillion in reparations, which a University of Connecticut study showed is the amount owed Africans in the U.S.– for slavery alone. We see from the Homestead Act and other colonial abuses (as Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt writes about), that Africans in the U.S. also have been denied economic opportunities over and over again since slavery officially ended. Such knowledge as shared in this article is as essential to practical efforts to bring about justice as those efforts are essential to showing we truly have gained knowledge, especially white readers who share a responsibility to pay long overdue reparations to Africans. Now that we know, let’s act!

    • Dear Ms. (Dr.?) Foster,
      Thank you for the fascinating information, and the kind words. Indeed, let us act!
      In solidarity,
      Keri Leigh

      • Excellent article. I totally agree with the need for latter day reparations since the majority of African Americans continue to be locked out of economic opportunity due to segregated housing, poor schools and lack of inherited wealth.

      • You’re welcome! I’m in the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, an organization of white people who work under the leadership of the African People’s Socialist Party (founded in 1972) and the Uhuru (Freedom) Movement. Right now there is a petition to the U.N. charging the U.S with genocide against Africans and demanding $14.1 trillion in reparations. If you or anyone would like information, or would like to join, please let us know!

    • Samantha, perhaps 10% of your assets would be a meaningful amount. Not sure who you should give it to, but I’m sure you will find no lack of eager recipients.
      You are welcome to donate your personal funds to the reparation cause, but please do not be disheartened when the rest of us do not do so. People of today cannot selectively right the wrongs of the past. There is a long line of people who were treated unfairly theoughout history.

    • As a white American I am cognizant of the grave issues from the past which still impact many African Americans to this day. However I oppose this notion of paying reparations since white Americans do not share in any responsibility for the behaviors of the past.
      Reparations are nothing but un earned free handouts obtained from a well of false group guilt. Hopefully this idea will never see the light of day.

  • The post makes an important and powerful point about the origins of white economic power in the United States—the numbers are extraordinarily revealing! But a full consideration of the racial dimensions of the Homestead Acts would require also recognizing that the land redistributed to white settlers was stolen from Native people. Giving African-Americans access to Homestead Act lands would not have made the laws more racially just in that respect.

    Is the absence of this acknowledgment a sign of the disconnect between the historiographies of African-American and Native-American history? Of between African-American and Native-American justice movements? Both?

    • Thank you! This was my first thought as well.

  • I never understood white priviledge until I started doing genealogy. My white ancestors in southwest Mississippi territory were poor yeoman farmers, but they did start with land grants from the war of 1812. Since then white priviledge has insulated them from convict leasing, Jim Crow, lack of access to capital, denial of voting rights, lack of access to education, mass incarceration from the war on drugs, presumption of guilt in any interactions with the police (my sons would have been dead from their insolence to police if they had been black)… I get that now. I just finished reading Fonor’s Reconstruction. The tragic mistake after the Civil War was caving in to states rights rather than equal protection under the law. A scab that continues to be picked at to this day. Citizens of the USA should have the same rights – regardless of which state they live in.

    • States Rights are the foundation of these United States.

  • I’m confused. Why would people who came here as immigrants in the late 1890s or early 1900’s and worked as low wage dirty dangerous jobs want to participate in reparations to people who were enslaved long before they emmigrated. Most immigrants came here with only the clothes on their backs. It makes absolutely no sense to me to pay reparations to people who we’re not even alive during slavery.O

    • Because these individuals benefited from a system that paced them in a protected class. This system allowed these immigrants opportunities, benefits and privileges at the expense of those enslaved. Although the persons of African decent that are alive today and were not slaves themselves they are still effected by it. These unfair systematic practices must be compensated for.

      • No, the past is the past. It is impossible to walk forward when you are looking behind you.

      • Zion Rule: reparations are nothing but muggings under the guise of the evil of group guilt. I feel no guilt and owe you nothing nor will you get anything from me.

    • Maybe they would for the same reason the descendants of the colonists and revolutionary war era Americans would let immigrants in the country: it would better the country for all. I’m for reparations via tax policy. You would think conservatives would at least ponder that but I’ve never heard one consider it for more than ten seconds.

      • In order for tax policy to be used for reparations, the “taxpayers” in question would have to be paying taxes.

    • Exactly

  • I believe I solved a mystery about my family’s homes in NW Arkansas after the Civil War. It appears my great-grandfather must have homesteaded near Bentonville after serving in the Union Army in Kansas. Later, in the 1880’s, the family moved to western Kansas where both my great-grandfather and his oldest daughter homesteaded. At least one of those ranches was still in the family when I was a child in the 1950’s. Coincidentally, one of my two southern-born great-grandfathers may also have homesteaded later in the 1880’s or 1890’s also in northwest Arkansas. That farm was still in the family in the 1930’s.

    Obviously, this “free” land was an enormous benefit to my family. As a politically and socially liberal white person, it seems to me that asset-building opportunities such as these were invaluable to families like mine. How can we go back 150 years in time and repair the injustices done to African-Americans? How can we repair the injustices suffered by the American Indians whose lands in Kansas were homesteaded by my family? We can never repay the debt owed to these two groups of our citizens. However, we SHOULD, we MUST try.

  • A great article and I look forward to the book. Just one comment. The Population of America in 2000 was 282 million. 46 million is 16% not nearly 1/4 of the population. The truth is bad enough; no need to embellish it.

    • Yes, “nearly over one sixth” is more accurate.

  • Thanks for a great article and I look forward to your book. Many people hear “reparations” and can’t wrap their heads around the concept of material reparations for slavery starting from the antebellum period. I’ve been discussing with others about starting with U.S. government housing policy in the 20th century. and the government sanctioned opposition to black wealth accumulation that occurred within living memory, specifically following World War II.

  • My grandfather and family immigrated from Norway in the 1860s. They came with very little. They homesteaded in South Dakota. The farm is still in the family. Many Norwegians were immigrating after learning about “free land” in America. Life was hard, work was hard and they struggled for decades. The Indians who had been on the land got nothing in return.

  • Thank you for clarifying the history of the SHA. Could you speak a little about the forty acres and a mule that General Sherman promised freedmen and started implementing, only to be shot down by Lincoln? Was that the only land grant that included livestock or other animals? Does your book include this? I’d like to be able to enlighten my gr nephews, as they asked me a couple of months ago where our forty acres were. They assumed the mule was dead by now.

  • Reparations is not some cry from victims…it is a policy discussion that seeks systemic, governmental response to remedy centuries of structural inequity. And when I write the word reparation, please do not think that I am solely talking about money. I am talking about “reparation policies” a framework that provides broad governmental and social policies that won’t dismiss historical government data that provides clear evidence on how are lives are impacted. These economic and social disadvantages can be directly traced to our enslavement and lazy application of government collected racial group data that should be used as data that informs reparation policies. For example, it has been known for at least 50 years that African Americans, as a group, live shorter lives than Whites. But yet our social security retirement dates remain the same between these groups. Setting one retirement age that applies to both groups, on the face of it, seems to be fair but in fact it provides less money for African Americans. Why have group data that does not inform our social and governmental policies? This argument could also be applied to gender and gender by ethnic group categories. And don’t tell me that we do not have the technology to perform this type of analysis and to create a distribution model. Have you ever taken a look at how sophisticated Google analytics or conducting Facebook advertising?

    Irrespective of our race or ethnicity, mortality data that is captured by the CDC-P, we still have one retirement date that in turn leaves more group dollars within the social security system, when compared to other groups. The point here is that our government collects morbidity data yet the distribution model does not reflect known and historical group mortality data.

    You can’t tell me that I as a person, or that we as a group of African Americans, who can trace a direct linkage to our ancestors and family enslavement, do not deserve some form of recompense. That we do not deserve a serious congressional, senatorial, or presidential work group examining the feasibility and scope of this problem. We form all types of investigative groups for far less important issues that have little impact on the qualities of our daily lives. We need reparations in order to move us toward the highest form of our democracy.

    To continue our portrayal as a world leader of democratic principles while showing a tepid commitment to democratic principles, weakens our international voice in touting the benefits of democracy. We need to look within, and we need visionary policies that heal our own racial boils. It is , and will be difficult to continue embarking on paths of war and destruction in other countries who engage in similar forms of political ignorance about their own civil injustices, while we do not have a model that shows them what an equitable future looks like.

    We have to examine our own political heart just as this examination was attempted with Truth and Reconciliation processes in South Africa. We can not herald the vision and power of Mandela and King, then stop short of applying their cries for freedom to real economic problems. There is global power in engaging in actions that bolster restorative justice. Reparation policies can be a start to healing the wounds of a large mass of people of color in the US. Groups of people who through music, art, political and social protests much of the world look to as a template for engaging in social and political structures. And we can not lay this issue at the doorstep of our elected officials alone, until we as Americans decide to rectify the problems that we face as people, working side by side.

    Many Whites have, and continue to benefit from inequitable wealth distribution, whose wealth and access to various forms of economic and social capital, is grounded in unpaid slave labor. There are also current systemic remnants, or legacies of how racism has simultaneously disadvantaged black and brown folk while bolstering the quality of life for many Whites. These forms of entitlements are measurable, and using words like White privilege, while instructive, they do not capture the totality of the economic benefits gained in its current social definition. Being born with non-melanated skin and being captured as White in governmental collected data is real, as evidenced by disparity studies that examine structural inequities across almost every political domain that effects our lives: prison sentencing, housing support, jobs, healthcare, education, criminal justice, and so forth.

    And I am not suggesting some post modern, utopian idea that seeks to eliminate race as an indicator, constitutional law continues to wrestle with identity labels and so racial identities are at the centrality of how we function, and eliminating these categories would take a complete revision of all of our current government laws. Furthermore, being colorblind does not solve the paradox of whiteness, because many Whites refuse to acknowledge their ethnic ancestral roots, and if they did, we would see many more polish american, greek american, irish american identities being discussed. Becoming White, and embracing white supremacy as an ideological problem solver, is rewarded in our American society, and treated as forms of social and political capital.

    Being an White ally means engaging in anti-racist practice, this is one way to resolve the paradox of whiteness. For Whites to actively engage in using social and political power to empower others in their identity group to remedy structural inequities. In this way, Whites can maintain their identity labels and engage in activities that illustrate a de-investment afforded to that label.

    Will I continue to be friends with Whites, of course…but our friendships would be elevated to a deeper level if your personal affection for me moved beyond individual forms and moved to connecting my individual Black identity to how I and other individuals of color are impacted by social structures. Social structures whose maintenance thrives on folks complacency and indifference to historical facts. A form of complacency that shuts down any real discussion about examining structural inequity, and discussing what sets of reparations policy might look like.

    Above all, we as Americans are an imaginative people.

    I want to hear your thoughts about what I have wrote above, but do not want to engage with distracting comments that might seek to derail us into a form of in-fighting and circularity that seems to take over social media conversations. I am asking for a conversation, an imaginative one; one What would reparations look like if we gave ourselves permission to entertain its conceptual framework?

    • Brian: time to stop the identity politics game. Polish/Americans do not see themselves as Poles-but just as Americans (white ones of course) for which I make no excuses. Perhaps if you moved to Nigeria or Kenya you would obtain “black privilege.”

  • Interesting issue about why opportunities for farm settlement and ownership were not offered to emancipated slaves. I have often thought about the disconnect in U.S. History textbooks between the Homestead Act and the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau in establishing the initial sharecropping contracts without providing opportunities to be farm owners. Part of it is the racist assumptions people didn’t question, and the other is the economics of farming. Since the government decided it would not expropriate the plantations, there was an economic issue of how to maintain the cotton production for industry and export, as well as other commodities like tobacco and rice. Meanwhile the railroads were building a transportation network in the Midwest and Plains regions. Railroads wanted a big farming economy there and farmers were scarce but there were plentiful Europeans wanting to migrate to U.S. midcentury. I believe that is what the thinking was, and it was negligent in not supporting opportunities for the freedmen to have their own farms.

  • I am a beneficiary of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and of the Homestead Act of 1862.
    On July 23, 1851, the United States government signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, by which the Dakota (aka Sioux) ceded territory in Southern Minnesota in return for about three cents an acre. The Dakota never received full payment.
    On November 5, 1878, my great-great-grandfather, Olof Sodergren, received a homestead patent for 160 acres of this land. Seven years later, on June 25, 1885, his son-in-law, William J. Conner, received a homestead patent for an adjacent 160 acres. The 2016 tax-assessed value of these 320 acres is about $2.6 million dollars.
    I believe I owe reparations to both the descendants of the Dakota and the descendants of the freed slaves. To whom do I give the checks and for what amounts?

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