Black Codes and White Lives Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following the Civil War, many former Confederate states sought to limit the effects of Reconstruction by passing laws designed to discriminate against free blacks. These so-called black codes represented a form of repression less evil, perhaps, than slavery yet somewhat more overtly harsh and restrictive than the later Jim Crow laws. The codes imposed penalties for minor offenses, such as vagrancy, that allowed whites to selectively assert control over local populations of freedmen and return them to conditions of involuntary servitude. They also proclaimed white supremacy as the law of the land despite the dawning of Reconstruction and its stated aim of realizing for African Americans. Two examples of state black codes are given in the present section.

Following the Civil War, many former Confederate states sought to limit the effects of Reconstruction by passing laws designed to discriminate against free blacks. These so-called black codes represented a form of repression less evil, perhaps, than slavery yet somewhat more overtly harsh and restrictive than the later Jim Crow laws. The codes imposed penalties for minor offenses, such as vagrancy, that allowed whites to selectively assert control over local populations of freedmen and return them to conditions of involuntary servitude. They also proclaimed white supremacy as the law of the land despite the dawning of Reconstruction and its stated aim of realizing for African Americans. Two examples of state black codes are given in the present section.

Not all Southern whites, of course, were enthusiastic supporters of such laws, but many of them accepted the black codes' underlying premise of white superiority and the supposed inherent inability of freedmen to develop as members of human society on par with whites. Such attitudes can be detected, among other places, in letters and diaries from the period. We present two examples of such writings in this section. Also included is a chapter from a published memoir, Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation since the War, by a former slave-holding plantation resident, Frances Butler Leigh. In all of these documents one can witness the complicated relationships between blacks and whites in an ostensibly free society as its members embarked on a new path.

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