Louisiana Black Code Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Louisiana Black Code consisted of a series of laws passed in December 1865 to regulate the transition of former slaves into a society where they would be allowed to earn a living without disrupting the economic and social order of the state. The newly elected, all-white legislature feared that without strict controls on the newly emancipated black population, the state's agrarian economy might not recover from the setbacks of the Civil War. The code set out certain limited rights for blacks, especially the right to enter into contracts, but at the same time placed heavy restrictions on their right to seek employment by creating penalties for vagrancy and establishing requirements for apprenticeship that effectively forced former slaves and their descendants to continue working for those who had once been their masters. Local authorities were given wide authority to enforce these restrictive practices.

Summary Overview

The Louisiana Black Code consisted of a series of laws passed in December 1865 to regulate the transition of former slaves into a society where they would be allowed to earn a living without disrupting the economic and social order of the state. The newly elected, all-white legislature feared that without strict controls on the newly emancipated black population, the state's agrarian economy might not recover from the setbacks of the Civil War. The code set out certain limited rights for blacks, especially the right to enter into contracts, but at the same time placed heavy restrictions on their right to seek employment by creating penalties for vagrancy and establishing requirements for apprenticeship that effectively forced former slaves and their descendants to continue working for those who had once been their masters. Local authorities were given wide authority to enforce these restrictive practices.

Defining Moment

At the end of the Civil War, the agrarian economy of the South was in ruins. Nowhere was the devastation worse than in Louisiana, which during the antebellum period, depended heavily on slave labor to produce profitable crops. Whites wondered if newly emancipated African Americans would migrate to the North or West, creating a labor shortage. Some also feared that, unless strictly controlled, former slaves might take up arms against their former masters or other whites. At the same time, in the North, several influential politicians, civic leaders, and former abolitionists were campaigning for programs to grant former slaves equal rights immediately. Several radical groups and individuals urged that large plantations be broken up and their land given to former slaves.

In the fall of 1865, the newly reconstituted Louisiana Legislature decided that dealing with the potential labor crisis and thwarting more radical calls for equal rights for blacks was one of its most pressing issues. Legislators thought the most efficient and effective solution to avoiding potential chaos and thwarting Northern attempts to dictate economic policy was to adopt laws similar to those already passed in Mississippi, where legislators had enacted statutes to limit the ability of newly freed slaves to relocate out of areas where they were once held in bondage. Mississippi's Black Code actually granted new (though limited) rights to blacks, such as the right to acquire and dispose of property, to bring suit and sit on juries when issues involved other blacks, and to marry other blacks legally. At the same time, however, local authorities were given power to arrest any black person they determined to be a vagrant–that is, one not able to prove employment. Blacks were permitted to enter into contracts with employers, almost all of whom were white. However, to keep wages down and assure owners of large farms and other businesses a ready supply of labor, owners were prohibited from attempting to lure away workers by offering more lucrative wages to those already employed at another business or plantation.

Despite cries of alarm from newspapers such as the New Orleans Tribune, which championed the rights of African Americans, Louisiana's legislators moved quickly to enact a series of laws that would achieve two important goals: First, these laws would provide assurances for upper-class whites that they might continue to enjoy cheap, if not free, labor to restore the lifestyles they enjoyed before the war. Second, the laws would send a signal to the entire population that, despite the outcome of hostilities, the caste system that existed before the Civil War would remain intact, preserving the privileged status of all whites over blacks within the state.

Author Biography

Although Louisiana's new Black Code was officially the work of a joint committee of the legislature (signed by Duncan S. Cage and Albert Voorhies), the driving force behind the legislation was Duncan Farrar Kenner, a wealthy sugar planter and entrepreneur from Ascension Parish in the southern part of the state. Born in New Orleans in 1813, Kenner built a thriving business before the Civil War, becoming one of Louisiana's wealthiest citizens and largest slave owners. He also served several terms in the state legislature. When Louisiana seceded, Kenner helped draft the Confederate Constitution and served in the Confederate Legislature. After the war, he regained his property, which had been confiscated by federal troops. In October 1865, he was elected to the new Louisiana Legislature and immediately began lobbying for laws that would secure a workforce for himself and his fellow plantation owners. Until his death in 1887, he led efforts to improve Louisiana's sugar harvest, and was the first president of the Louisiana Sugar Planters' Association.

Document Analysis

The idea of instituting a Black Code in Louisiana was hardly radical. The first Black Code –or slave code, as such laws were known in the antebellum period–had been passed in the eighteenth century, and subsequent legislation over the next 150 years tightened restrictions on activities of Louisiana's slave population. Duncan Kenner, author of Louisiana's statutes, saw the new Black Code as a way to achieve a goal he had first proposed in the Confederate Congress. Near the end of the Civil War, he had argued that the South might justify secession and ward off defeat by freeing its slaves, but could maintain the master-slave relationship by passing legislation that would in effect keep blacks subservient to whites.

On first reading, the language of the Louisiana Black Code appears moderate. The principal stated argument of section one is that, because the state requires a system to regulate labor, local officials are empowered to identify minors and apprentice them to someone who will be responsible for their welfare. Section two grants those who have reached the age of “majority” the right to enter into contracts for certain kinds of employment, and that contracts are binding on both parties. Sections three and four of the legislation clarify the role of local officials in determining who is a minor and make clear that these new laws supersede any earlier ones passed by the state.

Unlike Black Codes in other states, the Louisiana law does not mention African Americans specifically, but embedded in the language of these statutes are words and phrases that point indirectly at the population the legislators wished to control. Under the law, local governments can identify minors for apprenticeships if their parents or guardians “have not the means” or “refuse to provide for and maintain said minors.” Children among Louisiana's indigent black population were most likely to fall into the former category, and determining who was refusing to provide for children is left to white authorities. The term “apprentice” can be seen as a code word for a form of indenture that binds youngsters for years of service to someone free to exploit their labor until they reach the age of majority (under this law, eighteen for women and twenty-one for men). Similarly, the right to enter into contracts is circumscribed by noting that these valid, binding, and oppressive agreements were only for those becoming domestic servants, farmworkers, or laborers in manufacturing establishments–positions that, in Louisiana, were dominated by slaves before the war. Hence, the new employment regulations gave owners the security of hiring workers who could not move easily to better paying jobs, in essence replacing the former system of bondage with one eerily similar to the previous arrangement between slaves and masters.

Essential Themes

Assessing the true impact of Louisiana's 1865 Black Code is difficult because the code remained in effect for only a brief period; within three years all Black Codes in the South were nullified, either by state legislatures or by the actions of the federal government. Although intended to help white planters resurrect the agrarian economy that had allowed them to live luxuriously at the expense of black laborers, the codes alone could not restore real estate confiscated during the war or rebuild homes, mills, and factories destroyed during the conflict. While a few formerly wealthy plantation owners were able to regain prosperity in the postwar South, many were forced to sell their estates at a fraction of their prewar value; others simply abandoned their property, unable to pay taxes. Much of the migration that the Code was intended to stop had already occurred, and Southerners had no mechanism–nor could they create one legally–to force blacks who had fled from plantations during the war to return to the places where they once were enslaved.

Like all other Southern legislators who moved swiftly to enact black codes at the end of the Civil War, Louisiana lawmakers witnessed an almost immediate backlash. Many in the North viewed Black Codes as subterfuges to reinstitute slavery under the guise of labor regulation. Northern newspapers mounted a campaign against these laws, and many Republican legislators (later to become known as Radical Republicans) worked to enact laws that would overturn this new form of racial discrimination. Congress quickly passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, guaranteeing equal protection to all citizens regardless of race, and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, effectively abolishing white legislatures like Louisiana's and placing most Southern states under military rule. Most significantly, although Black Codes enacted by Louisiana and other Southern states were not the sole cause, they contributed to sentiment that led to the drafting and eventual passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which grants citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States and prohibits individual states from abridging a citizen's rights in any way.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bauer, Craig A. A Leader among Peers: The Life and Times of Duncan Farrar Kenner. Lafayette: U of Southwestern Louisiana, 1993. Print.
  • Cohen, William. At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861–1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991. Print.
  • Dubois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction. New York: Harcourt, 1935. Print.
  • Taylor, Joe Gray. Louisiana Reconstructed, 1863–1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1974. Print.
  • Wilson, Theodore B. The Black Codes of the South. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1965. Print.
Categories: History Content