40 acres and a mule refers to a concept in the United States for agrarian reform for former enslaved African American farmers, following disruptions to the institution of slavery provoked by the American Civil War. Many freedmen believed they had a moral right to own the land they had long worked as slaves, and were eager to control their own property. Freed people widely expected to legally claim 40 acres (16 ha) of land and a mule after the end of the war, long after proclamations such as Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act were explicitly reversed.
Some land redistribution occurred under military jurisdiction during the war and for a brief period thereafter. But, Federal and state policy during the Reconstruction era emphasized wage labor, not land ownership, for African Americans. Almost all land allocated during the war was restored to its antebellum owners. Several African American communities did maintain control of their land, and some families obtained new land by homesteading. African American land ownership increased markedly in Mississippi during the 19th century, particularly. The state had much undeveloped bottomland behind riverfront areas that had been cultivated before the war. Most blacks acquired land through private transactions, with ownership peaking at 15,000,000 acres (6,100,000 ha) in 1910, before an extended financial recession caused problems that resulted in the loss of their property for many.