The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 is a United States federal law enacted to break a cycle of debt during the Reconstruction following the American Civil War. Prior to this act, blacks and whites alike were having trouble buying land. Sharecropping and tenant farming had become ways of life. This act attempted to solve this by selling land at low prices so that southerners could buy it. Many people, however, could still not participate because the low prices were still too high.
A "Second Freedmen's Bureau bill" was introduced December 5, 1865, but was vetoed and weakened before eventually overriding a second veto by president Andrew Johnson. Championed by General Oliver O. Howard, chief of the Freedmen's Bureau, and with support from Thaddeus Stevens and William Fessenden, the Southern Homestead Act was proposed to Congress, and eventually passed, and signed into law by President Andrew Johnson on June 21, 1866, going into effect immediately. The Southern Homestead Act opened up 46,398,544.87 acres (about 46 million acres or 190,000 km²) of public land for sale in the Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The land was initially in parcels of 80-acre (0.32 km2) (half-quarter section) until June 1868, and thereafter parcels of 160-acre (0.65 km2) (quarter section), and homesteaders were required to occupy and improve the land for five years before acquiring full ownership.
Until January 1, 1867, the bill specified, only free Blacks and loyal Whites would be allowed access to these lands. Accordingly, the primary beneficiaries for the first six months were freedmen who were in desperate need of land to till. However, the law encountered many obstacles, notably: Southern bureaucrats often did not comply with the law or with the orders of the Freedmen's Bureau, notably not informing blacks of their right to land (thus delaying and allowing Confederates to be eligible, from 1867); violence from Southern whites; poor quality of the land and extremely harsh conditions (on land that had been rejected by previous settlers); and poverty of the farmers (unable to effectively use the land without further money to invest).
Ultimately, before too much land was distributed, the law was repealed in June 1876. Nevertheless, free Blacks entered about 6,500 claims to homesteads, and about 1,000 of these eventually resulted in property certificates.
- Paul Wallace Gates, "Federal Land Policy in the South 1866-1888." Journal of Southern History (1940) 6#3 pp: 303-330. in JSTOR
- Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule (1978), pp. 86–87.
- Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule (1978), p. 81, 93.
- Paul W. Gates, "Federal Land Policy in the South, 1866-1888," Journal of Southern History, 6 (August 1940), 310-315.
- Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule (1978), p. 188.