Freed Men

Freedom, 40 Acres and Farming

Images Courtesy of Library of Congress LESSON 1 OVERVIEW MODULE 1 MODULE 2 MODULE 3



Plantation landscapes are dynamic spaces. Their legacy and function changed over time and generations, from slave plantations to post-plantation agricultural spaces. Their inhabitants changed from enslaved laborers to emancipated people, to sharecroppers and tenants, day laborers and landowners.

The wealth and capital created by the exploitation of enslaved people shaped the structure of property and power in the United States. It established a system of highly unequal land ownership that has persisted over centuries and continues today.

Queen Sugar sugarcane graphic

EXPLORE this interactive timeline highlighting important milestones as they relate to Black Americans and farming.

0{{current_slide_index}} 0{{total_slide_count}} Black American

A History CONT IMAGE: Boderlon Farm in St. Josephine Parish, Louisiana
IMAGE: Descendents of the Mende woman become The Gullah, who still reside and retain their cultural heritage on the sea islands of North and South Carolina. 0{{current_slide_index}} NEXT 0{{total_slide_count}} January 1, 1700
Africa to
the Americas
A Mende woman from Sierra Leone smuggles rice seeds into North Carolina during the transatlantic slave trade. North Carolina farmers would traffic thousands of men, women and children from Africa's 'rice coast' to cultivate rice plantations in the Carolinas, eventually making it the top cash crop of the Lowcountry.
IMAGE: Howard Speese and Family, Nebraska Homesteaders | Nebraska State Historical Society 0{{current_slide_index}} NEXT 0{{total_slide_count}} May 2, 1862
The Homestead Act
The Homestead Act of 1862 gives millions of acres of land to settlers. All US citizens, including women, African Americans, freed slaves and immigrants, were eligible to apply to the federal government for a “homestead,” or 160-acre plot of land. Between the late 1870s and early 1880s, more than 20,000 African Americans left states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas to head for the Oklahoma Territory, Kansas and other locations in the Great Plains. The movement was labeled "The Great Exodus" and the Black Americans seeking safety and a new home were known as "Exodusters." Notable Black homesteader colonies include Nicodemus (KS); Dearfield (CO); Sully County (SD); DeWitty (NE); Empire (WY); and Blackdom (NM).
IMAGE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress 0{{current_slide_index}} NEXT 0{{total_slide_count}} October 8, 1896
George Washington Carver
Director of Research at Tuskegee
Scientist George Washington Carver begins work as the director of agricultural research at Tuskegee Institute, pioneers groundbreaking uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans, thus helping to diversify southern agriculture.

IMAGE: In 1939, one thousand Missouri Sharecroppers are evicted during winter months and stage a protest along Highway 60. | Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress 0{{current_slide_index}} NEXT 0{{total_slide_count}} 1920
16 Million Acres
Owned by Black Farmers
In 1920, more than half of all Black people in America lived on farms, mostly in the South. By comparison, only one quarter of white Americans lived on farms across the United States. That year, Black Americans made up 14 percent of all the farmers in the nation and worked 16 million acres of land. —NPR
IMAGE: Courtesy of the Library of Congress 0{{current_slide_index}} NEXT 0{{total_slide_count}} 1969
Fannie Lou Hamer Founds the Freedom Land Cooperative
Fannie Lou Hamer founds the Freedom Land Cooperative. The former sharecropper purchases 40 acres of prime Delta land. It was her attempt to empower poor Black farmers and sharecroppers, who, for generations, had been at the mercy of the local white landowners.
IMAGE: Shirley Miller Sherrod oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Albany, Georgia, 2011 September 15. | Courtesy of the Library of Congress 0{{current_slide_index}} NEXT 0{{total_slide_count}} 1969
New Communities Inc.
New Communities Inc. is founded in Southwest Georgia by former SNCC activists Charles and Shirley Sherrod. Along with several other civil rights organizations, they create the largest Black-owned farm cooperative in the United States with the intent of supporting Black landowners in gaining economic independence.

IMAGE: Courtesy of White House Archives 0{{current_slide_index}} 0{{total_slide_count}} December 8, 2010
President Obama Funds
Settlement for Minority Farmers
President Barack Obama signs a $1.15 billion measure to fund a settlement initially reached between the Agriculture Department and minority farmers during the 1997 Pigford v Gickman discrimination case. The legislation also funded a separate $3.4 billion settlement reached with the Department of Interior for mishandling Native American trust funds, along with four separate water rights lawsuits brought by Native American tribes.

Land Ownership and Inequalities:
The Legacy of Sharecropping

With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War in 1865, more than four million enslaved people were freed, with many seeing land ownership as a critical aspect of their freedom and a pathway to prosperity.

The 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery resulted in the need for a different system of labor for agricultural production. Plantation owners found themselves without workers. Although Black people ceased to be owned, assuming the newly acquired identity of freedmen without property, money or a place to call home made for an unsustainable life. The system that emerged, with the assistance of local landowners and governments, was sharecropping and tenant farming.

To access the labor force that had produced their crops, enslavers subdivided and leased their land to the formerly enslaved. The landowners allowed a tenant to farm the land in exchange for a share of the crop. In addition to leasing the land, sharecroppers rented supplies and equipment from the landowners or other merchant stores on credit in order to work the land. Come harvest time, sharecroppers were required to give as much as half of their harvest to landowners as rent for the land.

On its face, sharecropping could have appeared to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. But in actuality, many freed slaves continued to work on white plantations, incurring debt on rented equipment and supplies using a credit system that charged excessive interest rates and benefited and advantaged white landowners. Most sharecroppers did not have any disposable income left, even after they had sold their share of the crop. If harvests were poor, sharecroppers remained in debt to the landowners and stores until the next year. Laws favoring landowners made it difficult or even illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to others besides their landlord—which meant they couldn’t earn a competitive rate—or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord. This debt cycle tethered sharecroppers to the land they were working. While legally they were freedmen and women, in this system many Black people couldn’t become fully “free,” as they remained beholden to white land owners. Through sharecropping, white landowners hoarded the profits of Black workers’ agricultural labor, trapping them in poverty and debt, and obligating them to work their land for generations.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sharecropping on St. Joseph Plantation

In June 2022, the National Park Service interviewed St. James Parish native and artist Reginald Roussell (b. 1959), who discussed memories of his childhood at St. Joseph Plantation.

Roussell’s grandmother’s cabin still stands on the St. Joseph Plantation property, which serves as the site of Ralph Angel’s farm in QUEEN SUGAR. With the help of historian and genealogist Ja’el Gordon, Roussell uncovered his own familial connections to the elders he remembered from the plantation. Both of his parents were also raised on the property.  Roussell, an artist, has drawn sketches from memory of what he remembers from his childhood; his sketches include cabins that no longer exist due to wear and tear, time, movement and destruction.

Take a look at the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s 3D laser scan of the St. Joseph Plantation cabins, including Roussell’s grandmother’s cabin which is the middle cabin


Using Freedmen’s Contracts to Understand Slavery after Emancipation

The Emancipation Proclamation, though expansive in wording (“that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free”) was limited in practice.

Let’s take a closer look at artifacts and resources from the Freedmen’s Bureau to explore what life was like for the Bordelon family and other families post-slavery. Along the way, compare and contrast enslavement with life after emancipation.

STEP 1: Watch and Read

STEP 2: Take Action

STEP 3: Research Using Freedmen Agreements

The Freedmen’s Bureau documents titled “Agreement with Freedmen” show newly freed men and their plantation owning employers. Jesse is listed as the fourth freedman on the agreement while his former owner Alexis Ferry is still listed as his employer.

  1. Within the written passage on the record, what stipulations and provisions are listed in the contract for each of the workers? In other words, how many days off are they allotted? How much will they be paid?
  2. What could be a reason a newly freed person would continue to work on the plantation property on which he or she was previously enslaved?

Image: Freedmen’s Bureau “Agreement with Freedmen,” February 6, 1865

STEP 4: Research Using Plantation Owner Monthly Reports

The second set of Freedmen’s Bureau documents are the plantation owners’ monthly reports that show the number of freed persons (men, women and children) that were employed and the totals for the acreage of land that was cultivated. Records for Alexis Ferry’s plantation, which he called Home Place, are included in this report dated June 13, 1868.

Examine the report.

  1. What is the average age of a freedman working as a sharecropper?
  2. The column reporting the number of children attending school shows 0 for all plantation owners. What year was the first school for African American children documented in St. James Parish, Louisiana?

STEP 5: Research Using the 1870 and 1880 Census

The 1870 United States Census is the first census record that listed formerly enslaved African Americans and their families as people with names. Look closely at these two documents, an 1870 census record and an 1880 census record. Find the name Jesse Priestley.

  1. What are some of the differences between questions asked on the 1870 census vs those asked on the 1880 census?
  2. On the 1880 census, Jesse’s occupation was listed as carpenter. What occupations are documented for both of his sons?
  3. In what county and state do they live?
  4. What could have influenced his sons’ decision to seek jobs that were not typically held by freedmen in rural Louisiana during this time?

1880 Federal Census Record

Watch the video, then continue with this lesson.

Queen Sugar sugarcane graphic

In season 3 of Queen Sugar, viewers see the Landry’s attempting to use eminent domain to build a prison right in the middle of St. Josephine’s Parish. The prison is a cruel symbol that calls back to the cycle of enslavement of Black people via a loophole in the 13th Amendment that resulted in the practice of convict leasing.

While the amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States, it included the caveat, “except as punishment for crime.” A person could not be the property of another, but the policy maintained a system of incarceration that, per its design, continues to enslave Black people.

Black Farming and Land Ownership Today

In spite of the many obstacles to land ownership, many Black families were able to acquire land and gain a greater sense of freedom and independence, and their land would be gradually transferred from relative to relative for generations, as a safe haven to raise families and farm. Ripped away from their countries and ancestral lands, Africans in America created spaces for themselves in a place that had stolen so much from them and built a new legacy of land. Generations had lived on the land, farmed it, and died for it. Although Black identity has become associated with the urban, a connection to the landscape is also an important aspect of Blackness. Unlike slave owners who saw the swamps and borderlands as uninhabitable and valueless, enslaved and free people of color often viewed the lack of oversight and harsh conditions of this terrain as an opportunity to eke out their own spaces. This previously undesirable land would later be stripped from Black owners as predatory developers targeted absentee owners of properties or inconsistencies in the public records to claim ownership.

By the turn of the twentieth century, former slaves and their descendants had amassed 14 million acres of land. Black agriculture was a powerhouse; per capita there were more Black farmers than white farmers. But by the turn of the twenty-first century, 90 percent of that land was lost.

Black farmers—then and now—continue to face more challenges than white farmers as a result of a multitude of “legal” tactics used to dispossess Black farmers of their land. To this day, Black farmers are frequently denied access to credit and struggle to compete with their white counterparts when they don’t have equal access to federal relief funding necessary to keep up with the pace of agricultural modernization. Additionally, practices such as eminent domain and disproportionate property tax levies have been used to force tax foreclosure sales.

Additional Resources

Learn more about the topics covered in this lesson.

Why aren’t there more Black farmers in the United States?

“Farmer essentially meant white.” Black farmers, historians and generational land owners discuss the past, present and future of farming.

How southern Black farmers were forced from their land.

The majority of land lost by or stolen from Black farmers in the United States has occurred since 1950. The Atlantic calls this The Great Land Robbery. Learn more about how the lack of loans from the federal government and voting rights helped to push Black farmers off their land.

How Property Law is used to appropriate Black land.

Black Americans acquired a significant amount of property after the Civil War in areas that were not considered prime real estate. Most of that land has now been lost and VICE News’ Alzo Slade explores the vulnerability of Black landowners in the South.

Lesson One: Legacy of the Land

Take a journey with QUEEN SUGAR‘s Bordelon family and follow their generational fight to keep the land of their forefathers.

Queen Sugar sugarcane graphic
Lesson 1 Overview

Overview: Legacy
of the Land

Cotton Farm
Module 1

Queen Sugar
& King Cotton

Module 2

Bordelons, Landrys,
Lynching & Land

Module 3

& Migration