The big payback

6/20/2024, 7 a.m.
Over the next few weeks, we will be devoting a portion of our pages to a three-part story called “40 …

Over the next few weeks, we will be devoting a portion of our pages to a three-part story called “40 Acres and a Lie.” This project is the result of work by the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. 

The story examines a government program that most African Americans are aware of, a broken promise that people who were enslaved in the South would receive 40 acres of land and a mule. If you think you know this story, you’ll be surprised what the reporters (Alexia Fernández Campbell, April Simpson and Pratheek Rebala) found in their research of land records and documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government agency that assisted free black people in the South, founded in 1860s.

While the details about the government program were long buried and forgotten, the idea of it lived on in Black popular culture, among poets, writers and storytellers. That fact may have been key to helping bring this story into the light. One of the writers of the project says when she ran across the phrase “40 Acres and a Mule” in her research for another project, it struck a chord – only because she remembered it from a song by Nas called “You Owe Me” and from Kanye West’s “All Fall Down.”

Yes, we miss old Kanye too. If the writer had been of a certain age, perhaps she would have recalled the name of film director Spike Lee’s production company, “40 Acres and a Mule,” or Gil Scott-Heron’s song about waiting for reparation, “The Train From Washington.” When others forgot, the griots remembered.

In the aftermath of the Juneteenth holiday, this is a timely report that reveals new details about the challenges African Americans faced after the news of emancipation. By unearthing the truth about this broken promise, and others, we gain a deeper understanding of the systemic barriers and injustices that still need to be addressed today.