For a better part of the 18th and 19th centuries, an influx of slaves characterized the demographic and population changes in the United States. These were people abducted from their homes in various regions of the African continent but mostly from West Africa. The thralls were sold to slave merchants who then transported them across the sea to the United States, the Caribbean, and the neighboring countries. This trade that involved the exchange of slaves for raw materials conducted across the Atlantic Ocean was commonly referred to as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Being taken away from their homes meant the chattels had to start a new life in their new homes. They were sold to their owners or masters as the slave owners were also known and made to do menial jobs such as cultivation of plantations and working in grocery stores.
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The hallmark of the lives of serfs was a wretched life in which equality did not exist. It was not easy to find a slave in possession of any noteworthy property. In fact, the most controversial issue among them was ownership of property. In particular, the possession of land by slaves was one of the most significant bones of contention. Thralls were completely prohibited and barred from owning land. Their use was limited to the simple menial duties assigned to them in the plantations and that was about all. In addition, they were not allowed to attend schools and other places that were presumed to be white zones. The school was therefore out of question, and learning was a reserve for the lucky who got the opportunity to obtain one or two pieces of information from their white masters or other sympathizers.
In the wake of the American Civil War, the role slaves played in the events that occurred in the nation came to light. Before then, slaves had not been given any major consideration. However, on the onslaught of the war, their services were called upon to lend a helping hand. The British troops were superior by all standards and the American troops did not stand a chance of winning the war without external aid. That is where the help of the slaves was needed. They were promised a number of changes in their livelihoods if they could join the rest of the Americans in waging war against the British. Most serfs worked together with the resistance. However, others who preferred to maintain their loyalty to the British rule fought on the other side of the war. With the possibility of having a brighter future and getting the past evils against them corrected, the slaves proposed that they should be issued with pieces of land come the end of the war. Land, is one of the critical issues that raised concern among the slaves, was given the priority over the rest of the other demands made. The promise that freed thralls would be issued with the land, therefore, came good. This formed the basis of the concept of “forty acres and a mule”. According to this phrase, all freed slaves would be issued with a maximum of forty acres of land to till and a mule to help in farm work. At the time, the phrase was maintained as a mere rumor. Working under the orders of General Sherman, General Rufus Saxton gave out a number of mules belonging to the United States Army to some of the freed slaves. As it turned out, the rumor did not see the light of day; at least not until the end.
Indeed, there were signs of the rumor coming into effect when in 1865, William T. Sherman, then General of the United States army, issued an order that all plantation land confiscated during the civil war be issued out to the freed slaves. According to the order, each family was to be accorded forty acres of land. Congress went as far as setting up a bureau, called the Freedmen’s Bureau to spearhead the task of redistributing and issuing out the land to the freed slaves. The land in question was that abandoned by former plantation owners in the towns of Savannah, South Carolina, and Georgia. These were people who had decided to support the British troops. They were pushed out and their farms declared vacant by Congress. The land was to be given to the freed slaves to empower them and enable them to fend for themselves.
The joy of the slaves was short lived as President Andrew Johnson soon ordered that the land be given back to the rightful owners. The new president ascended to power in the wake of the assassination of the then sitting one, President Abraham Lincoln. President Johnson excused the white plantation owners who had rebelled against the United States and proposed to issue them amnesty. They had to pledge allegiance to the United States as a condition of getting their property back. Soon, the white plantation owners were demanding back their land in accordance with the presidential amnesty. The freed slaves had to depart from the pieces of land they had been issued. As many as forty thousand freed slaves had already been accorded the pieces of land by the time these events occurred.
The resultant effect was that the slaves went back to their former lives characterized by poverty. They had to live the life of sharecropping to make ends meet.
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