40 Acres and a Mule: Black Americans’ Landholding and Economic Mobility after Emancipation

How different might have been the economic progress of Black Americans if postbellum land redistribution policies had been successfully pursued? We have assembled a micro-level dataset that allows us to observe the landholding of the first generation of former slaves in 1880 alongside the homeownership and labor market outcomes of their sons in 1900. First, we document for the first time that less than 7 percent of Black farmers owned an owner-operated farm in 1880 exceeding 40 acres, implying that granting such farms to Black families would have represented a sizable improvement in their average economic status. Second, we show that the sons of landowning Black farmers were more likely to be homeowners in 1900 and more likely to be literate than their non-owning peers. We view this as an upper bound estimate of the effect of growing up with a landowning father, since it is likely that Black households with such farms in 1880 were positively selected. Third, we show that the differences in labor market outcomes for sons of Black land owners were minimal. The distribution of 1900 labor market outcomes of Black sons from such farms was much closer to that of other Black workers than it was to that of Whites, a clear illustration of the limits of Black economic mobility. Finally, we explain that this is a useful but narrow view of the “40 acres” question; the political economy of the South would likely have been different with a large Black land-owning class circa 1880.