Skip to main content

Historian Allison Dorsey Featured in “40 Acres and a Lie,” Historic Breakthrough Investigation

Allison Dorsey

The project used innovative techniques to get to the bottom of the often misunderstood history of “40 acres and a mule,” a government program that has been mischaracterized as a “broken promise.”

Professor Emerita of History Allison Dorsey, a prominent scholar of Black American history, is featured in 40 Acres and a Lie, a new historical investigation. 

40 Acres and a Lie is the culmination of a two-year investigation into records from The Freedmen’s Bureau. The project used innovative techniques to get to the bottom of the often misunderstood history of “40 acres and a mule,” a government program that has been mischaracterized as a “broken promise.” 

By evaluating 1.8 million records with the help of an artificial intelligence model, investigators discovered that 1,250 formerly enslaved people were not only granted land titles and plots of land, but some had actually moved onto or started working their land. The investigation uncovers how, within only a year and a half, nearly all of the freedmen’s land and titles were rescinded and returned to plantation owners. As a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, PRX’s Reveal podcast, and Mother Jones, the findings of this incredible investigation now form a three-episode podcast as well as a series of magazine articles.

The 40 Acres articles on Mother Jones provide an overview of what the project discovered, take readers behind the scenes of the investigation, highlight The Landings, a gated community in Georgia where dozens of freedmen received land titles to 40 acres before the program was dismantled, and discuss how technology and genealogy make an undeniable case for reparations. On the project’s landing page, Mother Jones published the full list of the 1,250 freed men and women identified to have received possessory land titles.

Part one of the podcast aired on NPR on Saturday, June 15, and, along with Dorsey, features both the Black and white descendants of a Civil-War era plantation owner, and the starkly different ways they’ve been affected by the sabotaged 40 acres program.

During the Civil War, military leaders tried to figure out what should be done for newly freed people, so they visited freedmen in Georgia to ask what it is they needed and wanted. The response was resounding: they wanted land and to be left alone. Union General William Sherman then issued Special Field Order No. 15, distributing roughly 400,000 acres of land to newly freed Black families in parcels of 40-acres or less. The distributed land stretched from Charleston, S.C., to the St. John’s River in Fla., spanning from the Atlantic coastline to 30 miles inland, as well as all of the Sea Islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. This land was confiscated from Confederate loyalists, including plantation owners, who fled as the South was losing the war. 

“I don’t think we can underestimate what it meant for freed people to think about this as the promise of the future,” says Dorsey.

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president and soon overturned Field Order No. 15, betraying the freedmen. Under Johnson’s new directives, plantation owners could get their land back if they pledged an oath of allegiance, acknowledging they would now be loyal to the United States. The plantation owners claimed they didn’t truly abandon their land and that they’d only been following orders to evacuate. Dorsey deems the plantation owners' arguments as irrelevant.

As Dorsey explains: 

“The reason that you’re being encouraged to evacuate as the Confederacy is losing is that the Union Army is on the march, but you sided with traitors against your nation. So you can spin that any way you want to. I’m sorry, as a 19th-century historian and as an African American, and as someone who’s three generations deep in military service, everybody in the Confederacy is a traitor to the United States. I don’t know what else I can say.”

Dorsey, who taught at Swarthmore College for 25 years, is the author of the book To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906, and examined African American history and films, Black women in the civil rights movement, and food in America. For her research on Mustapha Shaw, a Black freedman along the Georgia seacoast, Dorsey is featured in the “Justice” episode of Hulu’s The 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Nikole Hannah-Jones, covering the events that denied Black Americans the opportunity to build generational wealth and that examine what reparations the U.S. owes to the descendants of slavery. Dorsey also serves as a commissioner of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. 

The second and third episodes of 40 Acres will air on June 22 and 29, respectively. Episode two will focus on The Landings, and episode three will explore the debate around reparations, as a rising number of American states and cities, as well as Brazil, are actively exploring how to make amends to the descendents of enslaved people. 

40 Acres and a Lie is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Reveal's website.

Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing