The right to property or, as the euphism in the declaration of independence states, the right to ‘pursuit of happiness’ has always been the trickiest and most misleading freedom to discuss. Throughout American history one might ask if property is a God given, or at least a government given right then why are massive amounts of the population without property and, going even further, before 1865 on could ask ‘why is a sizable amount of the population considered to be property themselves in their own human form?’ The story of blacks in America being gaining the ability to hold property in any significant number has been a saga. Immediately after the war the Freedman’s bureau, a radically progressive entity set up by the Union military to oversee the transformation of blacks from slavery to freedom, promised every black family in the south 40 acres and a mule; some were actually given this in certain places along the Georgia and South Carolina coastline and on an island dubbed ‘Sherman Island’. This was done under martial law, under a measure called Special Field Order 15. Eventually, with the election of President Johnson, it was revoked and the former owners of the land, i.e the former slave owners, had there land returned to them. And thus begins the saga of a government policy, especially in the South, of denying blacks any ability to better themselves through the aquisition of property. Over the course of the last few decades of the 19th century the closest thing any meaningful amount of blacks had to property were small sharecropping fields on plantations that were chopped up into small subdivisions. Although this wasn’t akin to the days of chattel slavery, much of their labor was done in vein as part of the deal was that the landlord would reclaim some large proportion of the crop yield leaving blacks with little left. In the cities blacks worked as industrial wage laborers; more than often being paid much less than a white worker for doing the same job. This was also true in the north, where the spiral of wage slavery went on for years and even decades without blacks being able to aquire property in some significant number; even when they did manage to buy property blacks were increasingly confined to ghettos because a. due to their denial of occupation mobility they couldn’t afford elsewhere and b. even if they could afford property elsewhere whites would simply refuse to sell to blacks; even into the 1970’s many real estate offices around the country refused to deal with blacks. Now of course throughout all this blacks nominally, or de jure, had the right to acquire property. In the 19th century this seems almost cruel in that every social and governmental institution created and maintained a barrier against blacks acquiring prosperity and property. Today, the dream has been partially realized. Black property ownership has been increasing steadily since the 1950’s. However, a tragically disproportionate amount of blacks today are without property, confined to ghettos as were their first generation of free ancestors. In todays world, the reason for this is largely due to social institutions standing in their war and less so for government policy, but I’m not qualified to go into specifics for this is a certainly a hot button issue.
40 acres and a mule
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