The Civil War effectively ended in April 1865, when Confederate Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to William T. Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham County. The Union’s defeat of the Confederacy resulted in massive societal change and opened up a brief time of tremendous potential for reform and change. During the period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), the Federal Government maintained a military presence in the South and went about setting the conditions by which southern states could return to the Union. Among a host of political, social, and economic exigencies, was the question of what to do with the nearly four million formerly enslaved people who were freed with no land, jobs, money, or rights of citizenship.
In the first year of Reconstruction, an unprecedented event took place: formerly enslaved people were asked by the government what they wanted for themselves. A gathering took place in Savannah, Georgia in 1865 where the question was debated by Black leaders from across the south. Their spokesperson was Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister from Granville County, located just north of Durham. Land was their number one demand: "The way we can best take care of ourselves, is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own."
In the days that followed, the government, under Union General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15, ordered the redistribution of 400,000 acres of land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coast. However, Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson rescinded the order in late 1865, and the promise of reparations through land redistribution was never fulfilled. Economist and folklorist Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen contend that had this order been carried out, it “would have dramatically reversed black asset poverty and reduced black’s economic vulnerability across generations.”53-54
Throughout reconstruction and its aftermath, hunger was rampant across the South and the agricultural system was in chaos. Over the course of the war, critical infrastructure was ruined, farm buildings and machinery were destroyed, livestock ravaged, and agricultural fields laid fallow. The Freedman’s Bureau was the federal agency assigned to provide food, housing, medical aid, schools, etc. to freed people. However, the U.S. government was preoccupied with the political and economic questions of Reconstruction and categorically failed to take responsibility for the health and welfare of freed people. Among the reasonings employed was a concern not to have freed people become dependent on the government. Although it is difficult to quantify, historian Jim Downs estimates that during Reconstruction, more than a million Black people became sick from malnutrition, disease, and near starvation, and tens of thousands died.55-56