In the early days of Reconstruction, the Freedman's Bureau made the dream of land ownership a reality for many newly-freed slaves. Radical Republicans understood that the formal freedom provided by the Fourteenth Amendment needed to be supplemented by the substantive economic freedom that widespread land ownership among AfricanAmericans would bring.
However, by 1872 public support for Reconstruction was on the wane, without the necessary political will in Washington to keep the policy alive. Under pressure from Southerners in Congress, the government quietly dismantled the Freedmen's Bureau, effectively leaving African Americans at the mercy of white supremacists in the South, who didn't believe they should have been freed in the first place, let alone granted land.
Gradually, much of the land that had been granted to African Americans was taken from them by Southern legislatures. Instead, they had to make do with sharecropping, a system where a white landlord allowed black tenants to work the land in exchange for a share of the crop.
In practice, sharecropping turned out to be slavery by another name. The system effectively tied black laborers to specific plots of land, as they had to stay put to generate the biggest harvest possible, thus maximizing their share of the crop. This discouraged agricultural laborers from seeking opportunities elsewhere.
White landlords further tightened their grip on black tenants by keeping them severely indebted. They would lease equipment to their tenants as well as offering food, fertilizer, seed, and other items on credit until the next harvest season. In the vast majority of cases, black sharecroppers would be unable to pay back what they owed, ensuring that they had no choice but to continue working for their white landlords.