Ever wonder where the phrase “40 acres and a mule” came from? It’s the allotment General Sherman promised to former slaves in January 1865, when he confiscated thirty miles of Southern coastland abandoned during the Civil War by plantation owners: roughly 400,000 acres, divided into 40-acre parcels, along with one mule a piece, for approximately 18,000 African American families.
When Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln and returned the parcels to their former owners a few months later, he set a discouraging example for generations to come of broken promises and land grabs for those who had literally slaved just to get their hands on a few acres.
Black Americans acquired property nonetheless—and lots of it. Some owned land prior to the war; others received land deeded to them by slaveholders; some, as children of those slaveholders, inherited property; and many more bought land over a period of years, one small payment at a time.
By 1910, blacks owned close to 15 million acres of arable farmland, nearly all of it in the South. Today, that number has dwindled to about two million, largely because Jim Crow laws enabled whites to divest black landholders with impunity. But cheating, intimidation and violence worked wonders too.
In her third novel, If Sons, Then Heirs, Lorene Cary (Black Ice) tells the story of the Needham family of Beaufort County, South Carolina, whose forty-plus acres of land, already safeguarded at heartbreaking cost, could now end up as part of a forced sale unless the collective heirs can move quickly.
The late King Needham warned on countless occasions of the need to “check your damn fences,” teaching his sons and daughters and grandchildren to walk their farm daily, taking careful stock of every foot of the family farm. “It was the only way to keep the land,” he said. But it wasn’t until the mid-’40s when King bought an additional 15 acres from a white hog farmer, that his land troubles began in earnest, shortly before his premature and unexplained death.
The book opens in 2010, when King’s widow and second wife, Selma, calls on her great grandson, Rayne Needham, to come to Beaufort to help her transfer ownership of the property to him, King’s blood heir. She’s too old and fragile to continue to pay taxes on or fight for the land, which is now in danger of being sold to a developer due to complicated laws developed precisely for the purpose of easily wresting land from African Americans.
Cary pieces together a complicated history, both personal and historical. Mirroring the confusion black landowners have long experienced over what was rightfully theirs, exact details remain frustratingly fuzzy. Though the family must establish who owns all the shares and then acquire quitclaims to clear the title, all the documents are either missing or inadequate. Dates are nonexistent. No one seems to know where the original 40 acres came from. King’s will and his brothers’ quitclaims to their shares are in a strongbox buried somewhere in the house, Selma isn’t sure where.
What’s more, she is sure these complex legal requirements would never apply to whites. “You know they don’t tell that mess to nobody but black people,” she says. “They say everybody owns it, and then force a sale for a price that can’t nobody but a big developer can pay.”
Rayne has his own problems with disinheritance, having grown up at his grandmother’s home after his unmarried mother, Jewell, abandoned him there at age seven. Now 30, and on the verge of a commitment to his live-in girlfriend and her young son, Rayne is ambivalent, unsure he can deal with the buried feelings that the word “family” dredges up.
He hopes to convince Selma to sell her land, then use the money to set her up in a retirement home in Philadelphia. But when he questions her in person, he discovers that she doesn’t own it, despite having paid taxes for over 60 years, when [should have been “ever since”] a horrifying incident more deeply buried than any strongbox split the family and scattered its members.
In the plight of Rayne’s mother, Jewell, Cary explores a theme from her 1991 memoir, Black Ice, about her years at a prestigious New England prep school and her efforts to navigate a formerly all-white, all-male environment while remaining true to her African-American heritage. Though Jewell marries a white lawyer and consequently “passes” in the North, she will eventually have to come to terms with her Southern background in order to ensure her son’s inheritance.
As will every character in this slow-moving but illuminating story about some of the worst injustice ever carried out in the name of agricultural policies, air strips, shopping malls, corporate parks and timber rights. Read it and wonder if the suburb you live in today might once have been part of someone’s lost land—that even now is missing its rightful heir.