Discovering Your South Carolina Roots

Pensions for Former Slaves….What Happened?

After the Civil War ended, it led the way for the 13th amendment which formally abolished slavery in the United States. But following their emancipation, the majority of former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education.
Attempts were made to reach some shred of economic freedom, such as with the “40 acres and mule,” decree but it was foiled.

Without any federal land compensation or any financial compensation a lot of ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenancy farming, or some other method of basic labor arrangements.

Ex Slave Bill

By 1899, around 21 percent of the black population had been born into slavery, had the government been required to distribute pensions to former slaves near the turn of the century, there would have been a limited number of people to compensate.
But the movement to grant pensions to ex-slaves faced intense opposition, the greatest opposition did not come from southerners in Congress but from three executive branch agencies. It was opposition impossible to overcome.

During the late stages of the Civil War the federal government (primarily Republicans) tried to help relieve the hardship among freed slaves and help them gain economic independence through attempts to allocate land. These efforts, both military and legislative can explain why ex-slaves thought that compensation was possible.

Special Field Orders No. 15, issued by Gen. William T. Sherman in January 1865, promised 40 acres of abandoned and confiscated land in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida (largely the Sea Islands and coastal lands that had previously belonged to Confederates) to the former slaves.

But these efforts were rolled back by President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865. By the latter part of 1865, thousands of freed slaves were suddenly evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15.

The Freedmen’s Bureau issued an order on September 12, 1865, and paired with Johnson’s presidential pardons, provided for restoration of land to former slave owners. With the exception of a small number who had legal land titles the freed slaves were removed from the land as a result of President Johnson’s restoration program.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Act had been established by Congress in March 1865 to help former slaves transition from slavery to freedom. In section four of the act it authorized the bureau to rent no more than 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to freed slaves and loyal white refugees for a term of three years. At the end of this period, or at any point during this period, the male occupants renting the land had the option to purchase it and would then receive a title to the land.

But Johnson’s restitution policy made section four null and void and prevented bureau officials’ from helping the newly liberated to acquire land.
In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was ratified and was intended to give freed slaves and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867.

Congress also misjudged the time it would take for the freed slaves and loyal whites to effectively complete the process of securing a homestead. The process involved filing claims, waiting indefinitely until offices opened or reopened, and working to secure enough money to purchase land. At the same time, freed slaves faced southern white opposition to settling land.

Furthermore, Congress provided no tools, seed, rations, or any form of extra assistance to these people, and most of those affected their earnings barely covered the bare necessities for them to survive. With all these obstacles sustaining a homestead without assistance was almost impossible under those circumstances.

On March 11, 1867, House Speaker Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania introduced a bill (H.R. 29) that sketch out a plan for confiscated land in the “confederate States of America.” Section four of the proposed bill clearly called for land to be distributed to former slaves:

During the 1868 campaign Republicans promised 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves. A couple of decades passed before any further concerted efforts were made to provide economic relief and security for ex-slaves. and when there was another major effort, it was not by the government but by former slaves and their allies.

By the last decade of the 19th century, the concept to procure the enactment of pension legislation for ex-slaves for their years of unpaid labor was put into action. The concept of ex-slave pensions was modeled after the Civil War era program of military service pensions, and the first ex-slave pension bill (H.R. 11119) was introduced by Rep. William Connell of Nebraska in 1890.

It was introduced at the request of Walter R. Vaughan of Omaha, a white Democrat and ex-mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa. He did not believe that it, or subsequent bills, should be identified as a pension bill but instead as “a Southern-tax relief bill.”

Vaughan understood that pensions would financially benefit former slaves and would indeed be a measure of justice for their years of forced labor. Even though Vaughan wanted to help the freed slaves he also wanted these ex-slaves to spend their pensions in the South in order to give the devastated southern economy a financial boost.

The push for ex-slave pensions gained momentum in the 1890s and lingered into the early 20th century. This grassroots movement was composed largely of former slaves, their family members, and friends.

A proposed pension payment scale based upon the age of beneficiaries that appeared in every ex-slave bill from 1899 and moving forward. Ex-slaves 70 years and older at the time of disbursement were to receive an initial payment of $500 and $15 a month for the rest of their lives; those aged 60–69 years old would receive $300 and $12 a month; those aged 50–59 years old would receive $100 and $8 a month; and those under 50 would receive a $4 a month pension. If formerly enslaved persons were either very old or too ill to care for themselves, their caretakers were to be compensated.

Once a freed slave reached a certain age threshold, he or she would then be eligible for the higher pension. This proposed ex-slave pension payment scale is very similar to the Civil War pension gradation scale for soldiers with disabilities. Soldiers who became disabled as a result of military service received pension payments based on the nature of their partial disability and military rank. Over time, the Civil War pension program came to resemble a system of pensions for elderly veterans just as the ex-slave pension movement’s main focus was to secure pensions to particularly aid the elderly.

The downfall of the pension plan for ex-slaves came about from three federal agencies, the Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office Department, and the Department of Justice acted collectively in the late 1890s and into the early 20th century to research individuals and groups in this movement.

These officials who pursued the idea of ex-slaves receiving a pension was unrealistic because the government had no intention of compensating former slaves for their years of involuntary labor. Thus, ending the prospect of any ex-slaves receiving a pension for their years in slavery.


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