Major Investigation Discovers More Than 1,200 Formerly Enslaved People Received – and Then Lost – ‘40 Acres and a Mule’ After the Civil War

Major Investigation Discovers More Than 1,200 Formerly Enslaved People Received – and Then Lost – ‘40 Acres and a Mule’ After the Civil War

By Accessing 1.8 Million Recently Digitized Records, Black Descendants Can Learn How Their Families Were Denied Intergenerational Wealth

Nearly 160 years after the federal government created what became the nation’s first and most famous attempt to provide reparations by giving “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved people in the South, a major investigation from the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting has identified more than 1,200 people in South Carolina and Georgia who received – and then lost – their land under the program right after the Civil War.

The discovery is significant because it was largely assumed the program only promised land to Black people, and yet this investigation demonstrates that was not the case, even though they were only temporary landholders. It’s also the largest collection of land titles from the “40 Acres and a Mule” program known to ever be analyzed and published.

During their two-and-a-half-year investigation, reporters from the Center for Public Integrity trained artificial intelligence to analyze 1.8 million records recently digitized from the Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Bureau, allowing them to track down 41 living descendants, several of whom were unaware of their ancestors’ land being taken and the intergenerational wealth denied to their families.

“This investigation offers an important historical corrective. For generations it was commonly believed that no formerly enslaved people received the land promised by the federal government. But thousands did, even if it was fleeting,” said Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces Mother Jones and Reveal. “Hopefully this helps the public better understand the origins of the reparations movement, and why support for it is building.”

The Center for Public Integrity created a free, online search tool that allows the public to search 1.8 million documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau and other agencies. Of those, 500,000 are transcribed and can be searched by entering names, places, and keywords, and the remaining 1.3 million documents can be searched through image recognition technology, but not by keyword. The tool was developed using the Smithsonian’s Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project, which is working with volunteers to transcribe handwritten documents.

“This dedicated team of reporters and researchers spent hundreds of hours doing genealogy research and tracking down documents,” said Jennifer LaFleur, assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and former senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity, who coordinated the reporting project. “Employing machine learning to a document search tool allowed the team to find far more land titles and logs in the agency’s digital archives than we ever could have on our own, and that greatly opened up the breadth of this reporting.”

Following the Civil War’s end in 1865, the U.S. government created a program through the Freedmen’s Bureau to give formerly enslaved people up to 40 acres, land that had been part of plantations in the South. But after plantation owners protested, federal officials gave the land back to the former Confederates. The property granted to the more than 1,200 title holders identified by reporters represents just a fraction of all the land that was supposed to be given to Black people across South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in the years after the Civil War.

Reporters identified 744 people in South Carolina and 506 people in Georgia who got land through the program, some of which is now located in gated, majority-white communities and worth as much as $2.5 million. Some of the descendants interviewed in the series are intertwined by slavery, with one family in Edisto Island, South Carolina, being enslaved by another (of which the latter family still owns the land).

“All these years later we’re only now learning the full injustice of the country’s first attempt to provide redress to the formerly enslaved,” said Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wesley Lowery, who is co-chair of the Center for Public Integrity. “This investigation is a testament to the need for thriving and independent journalism in the United States that is willing to look critically at the realities of not only our nation’s present, but its past. This is truly groundbreaking work.”

Center for Public Integrity reporters Alexia Fernández Campbell, April Simpson, and Pratheek Rebala reported the series in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. In addition to the online research tool, the series includes six articles published on Mother Jones’ website and three episodes of the radio show and podcast Reveal, which will be broadcast beginning June 15.