After the Civil War, the southern states were devastated and destroyed by the fighting. Many men from the South who fought in the war were small farmers or plantation owners. Many did not come back from the war, and those who did had nothing to come back to. Once productive fields, the landscape was ravaged by the war. Wealthy landowners lost everything, and there wasn't much money to plant and harvest the crops. The southern economy that relied on cotton, tobacco, and the slave trade no longer existed. In an attempt to provide work for the millions of slaves freed after the war, the government proposed to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule so they not only had an ability to provide for themselves and their families, but it would also recharge the economy, the businesses, and the production of cash crops. By giving former slaves a small plot of land and a mule that could be used to plow the fields, the hopes were that it would give former slaves a "hand up" or opportunity to improve their lives independent of white owners. It would also stimulate the southern economy.
Unfortunately, many former slaves were never given the acreage, and ultimately, those who did get the "gift" from the government lost their land to wealthy, white landowners after the South began to recover from the war. Fortunately, there were some black families who were able to hold onto their land and became successful farmers. Many of these farms are still an integral part of many African American families. Other slaves, not so fortunate, ended up becoming sharecroppers, again enslaving them to an economic system that used blacks as its main work force.