NEW YORK — Forty acres and a mule. We were supposed to get 40 acres and a mule. It always sounded like a myth to Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a kind of urban legend black people told one another. Like when her grandfather would occasionally complain about some sort of government injustice and invariably end his grumbling by saying ” … and they still owe us our 40 acres and a mule.”
Yet Farmer-Paellmann eventually learned that what her grandfather was talking about wasn’t folklore. He was referring to an 1865 field order issued by Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman, which granted freed slaves a piece of land and the means to work it–a promise that was broken and has come to symbolize a debt owed to the descendants of slaves by an indifferent government.
Once Farmer-Paellmann learned the truth about the “40 acres and a mule” mantra, she wanted to learn more. Driven by what she calls an “Afrocentric consciousness,” Farmer-Paellmann began to research slavery and to learn all she could about the businesses that played a prominent role in the slave trade.
Her work took her to musty state historical archives, where she dug around for insurance policies written on slave lives and other documentation of corporate culpability. The search also took her to law school, where Farmer-Paellmann tailored a curriculum that would help her devise a strategy to get reparations for the descendants of millions of enslaved Africans.
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