Skip to main content
Select Source:

Black Codes

BLACK CODES

A body of laws, statutes, and rules enacted by southern states immediately after the Civil War to regain control over the freed slaves, maintain white supremacy, and ensure the continued supply of cheap labor.

The Union's victory over the South in the Civil War signaled the end for the institution of slavery in the United States. Ratified in 1865, the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution formalized this result in U.S. law, abolishing slavery throughout the country and every territory subject to its jurisdiction.

For the next several months, southern states sought a way to restore for the white majority what the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment had tried to deny them, supremacy, control, and economic power over the fate of African Americans. Under slavery, whites had disciplined the blacks largely outside the law, through extralegal whippings administered by slave owners and their overseers. After the slaves were emancipated, panicky whites feared that blacks would seek revenge against them for their harsh and inhumane treatment on the southern plantations. Former slave owners feared for themselves, their families, and their property.

While some white southerners thought that African-Americans were best controlled through vigilantism, Mississippi whites began passing laws to take away the former slaves' new found freedom. The first such law was enacted on November 22, 1865. It directed civil officers to hire orphaned African Americans and forbade the orphans to leave their place of employment for any reason. Orphans were typically compensated with a free place to live, free meals, and some type of nominal wage. Other white employers were prohibited from offering any enticement to blacks "employed" by someone else.

The Mississippi legislature next passed a vagrancy law, defining vagrants as workers who "neglected their calling or employment or misspent what they earned." Another Mississippi law required African Americans to carry with them written evidence of their present employment at all times, a practice that was hauntingly reminiscent of the old pass system under slavery. The final piece to the puzzle came when Mississippi established a system of special county courts to punish blacks charged with violating one of the new state employment laws. The law imposed draconian punishments, including "corporal chastisement" for blacks who refused to work or otherwise tried to frustrate the system. African Americans who committed real crimes, such as stealing, could be hung by their thumbs.

Widely considered to be the first set of Black Codes passed in the south after the Civil War, these Mississippi laws represented a concerted effort by white lawmakers to restore the master-slave relationship under a new name. Within a few months after Mississippi passed its first such law, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina followed suit by enacting similar laws of their own.

Congress quickly responded to the Black Codes by passing the civil rights act of 1866, which made it illegal to discriminate against blacks by assigning them an inferior legal and economic status. Two years later the states ratified the fourteenth amendment, which guaranteed "equal protection of the laws" to the residents of every state.

But the southern states were not deterred. They soon passed a new set of laws that permitted local officials to informally discriminate against blacks, without specific statutory authority. The thrust-and-parry exchanges between Congress and the southern states continued throughout the period Reconstruction (1865-77) and through the first half of the twentieth century.

further readings

Kramer, William. 1984. "How 'Black Codes' Virtually Nullified the Emancipation Proclamation." The Los Angeles Daily Journal 97.

Pulliam, Ted. 2001. "The Dark Days of Black Codes." Legal Times 24.

cross-references

Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Cases; Civil Rights Movement; Corporal Punishment; Fourteenth Amendment; Jim Crow Laws; Reconstruction; Segregation; Thirteenth Amendment.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Black Codes." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Black Codes." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes

"Black Codes." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes

Black Codes

BLACK CODES

BLACK CODES were the acts of legislation enacted in the Confederate states in 1865 and 1866 to limit the freedom of recently freed blacks. Some apply the term to Southern antebellum legislation that restricted the action and movements of slaves, although such laws are more frequently referred to as slave codes. Persons using the term "black codes" to include all such laws see the codes as originating in the seventeenth century, continuing until the Civil War, and being reenacted in slightly modified form immediately after the war.

The laws passed in 1865–1866 by the several states did extend some civil and legal rights to freed persons—permitting them to acquire and own property, marry, make contracts, sue and be sued, and testify in court cases involving persons of their own color. But the main purpose of the legislation was to stabilize the black workforce by compelling African Americans to work and by limiting their economic options. The codes typically had provisions for declaring blacks to be vagrants if they were un-employed and without permanent residence. As vagrants, they were subject to being arrested, fined, and bound out for a term of labor if unable to pay the fine. The codes also imposed penalties for refusing to complete a term of labor as well as for breaking an agreement to work when it was entered into voluntarily. Those who encouraged African Americans to refuse to abide by these restrictive laws were themselves subject to penalties. In like manner, black orphans could be apprenticed to work for a number of years. In many of these cases the whites to whom blacks were assigned turned out to be their former owners. The codes barred African Americans from testifying in court cases involving whites, often prohibited them from bearing firearms, and forbade intermarriage between the races. Of the states with the most restrictive legislation, Mississippi limited the types of property blacks could own, and South Carolina excluded blacks from certain businesses and from skilled trades.

Being strikingly similar to the antebellum slave codes, the black codes were, at the very least, not intended to protect the rights to which African Americans were entitled as free persons. The laws aimed to replace the social controls of slavery, which had been legally swept away by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, and to reinstate the substance of the slave system without the legal form.

Enactment of black codes in the Southern states was a factor in the conflict within the federal government between the executive and legislative branches for control of the process of Reconstruction. More than any other single factor, it demonstrated what African Americans could expect from state governments controlled by those who had actively supported the Confederate cause. Northern reaction to the codes helped to produce Radical Reconstruction and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which temporarily removed such legislation from the books. Following Reconstruction, many of the provisions of the black codes were reenacted in the Jim Crow laws that continued in effect until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Litwack, Leon F. Been In the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Wilson, Theodore B. The Black Codes of the South. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1965.

Henry N.Drewry/c. p.

See alsoCode Noir ; Jim Crow Laws ; andvol. 9:Black Code of Mississippi ; Police Regulations of Saint Landry Parish .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Black Codes." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Black Codes." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-codes

"Black Codes." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-codes

Black Codes

BLACK CODES

Black codes were state laws passed in the South during Reconstruction (18651877), the period of rebuilding that followed the American Civil War (18611865). The laws were intended to restrict the civil rights of African Americans. Though they varied by state the codes were usually written to prevent land ownership by African Americans and limit their freedom of movement. Some prevented them from owning weapons. The enactment of the codes prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 to protect African American citizens in the South. President Andrew Johnson (18651869) opposed the 1866 measure enacted during his administration. However, the radical Republican-led Congress was able to overturn presidential vetoes to determine Reconstruction policy. Under the watchful eye of Congress and federal military administrators who were sent to the South to reorganize the states for readmission to the Union, two African American men, Hiram Rhoades Revels (18221901) and Blanche Kelso Bruce (18411898), became U.S. senators. Fifteen other African Americans were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

But after the withdrawal of federal troops from the South (1877) racial discrimination intensified despite ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868). The amendment protected the rights of all citizens regardless of race. Black codes were strengthened by Supreme Court decisions in the 1880s and 1890s. One of these was Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring separate-but-equal facilities for whites and blacks in railroad cars. Such policies of strict segregation were called "Jim Crow laws": Jim Crow was the stereotype of a black man described in a nineteenth century song-and-dance act. As the social, political, and economic climate in the South worsened for African Americans many of them migrated north to urban centers. Some of them went west to settle towns and establish farms on the open plains. African American farmers joined the Populist (People's party) movement during the late 1800s, which worked to improve conditions for growers and laborers. The system of segregation born out of the Black Codes prevailed until the mid-1900s. Most segregation laws were overturned by decisions of the Supreme Court during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

See also: Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, Jim Crow Laws, Nineteenth Amendment, Plessy v. Ferguson, Reconstruction, Thirteenth Amendment

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Black Codes." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Black Codes." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes-0

"Black Codes." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes-0

black codes

black codes, in U.S. history, series of statutes passed by the ex-Confederate states, 1865–66, dealing with the status of the newly freed slaves. They varied greatly from state to state as to their harshness and restrictiveness. Although the codes granted certain basic civil rights to blacks (the right to marry, to own personal property, and to sue in court), they also provided for the segregation of public facilities and placed severe restrictions on the freedman's status as a free laborer, his right to own real estate, and his right to testify in court. Although some Northern states had black codes before the Civil War, this did not prevent many northerners from interpreting the codes as an attempt by the South to reenslave blacks. The Freedmen's Bureau prevented enforcement of the codes, which were later repealed by the radical Republican state governments.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"black codes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"black codes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes

"black codes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes

black codes

black codes (1865–66) Laws passed in former US Confederate states restricting the civil and political rights of newly freed blacks. They limited freedom of employment, freedom of movement, right to own land, and freedom to testify in court. The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution (1868) outlawed the Black Codes.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"black codes." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"black codes." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes

"black codes." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-codes