Mississippi Black Code Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After Union victories ended the Civil War in the spring of 1865, the United States faced the difficult task of creating a truly united nation. Among the challenges was the integration of a newly freed black population into a Southern society that had fought a devastating war to prevent just that result. Influenced by racist ideologies and a history of legalized oppression, Southern legislatures, led by Mississippi, began passing restrictive legislation that left former slaves in essentially the same conditions, practically speaking, as they had endured under slavery. These so-called Black Codes took hold across the South, effectively denying African Americans many civil rights and creating a racially discriminatory society. After Radical Republicans in Congress took control of Reconstruction, the Northern officials who managed Southern governments declared most of these codes invalid. However, they provided a model for the later “Jim Crow” laws that kept African Americans in a position of second-class citizenship for many decades.

Summary Overview

After Union victories ended the Civil War in the spring of 1865, the United States faced the difficult task of creating a truly united nation. Among the challenges was the integration of a newly freed black population into a Southern society that had fought a devastating war to prevent just that result. Influenced by racist ideologies and a history of legalized oppression, Southern legislatures, led by Mississippi, began passing restrictive legislation that left former slaves in essentially the same conditions, practically speaking, as they had endured under slavery. These so-called Black Codes took hold across the South, effectively denying African Americans many civil rights and creating a racially discriminatory society. After Radical Republicans in Congress took control of Reconstruction, the Northern officials who managed Southern governments declared most of these codes invalid. However, they provided a model for the later “Jim Crow” laws that kept African Americans in a position of second-class citizenship for many decades.

Defining Moment

Slavery and racism had been a part of American life since the earliest days of white colonization. The agricultural fertility of lands in the Caribbean led to the creation of a society built on the backs of enslaved African workers. As British settlement spread north from the Caribbean to the southeastern reaches of what became the United States, it carried a slave-based agricultural economy with it. Fearing the possibility of slave uprisings that would topple this system, southern colonies enacted slave codes that kept enslaved workers in a state of oppression and white landowners in a state of essentially unchallenged authority. Slave codes established that bonded workers were chattel, or property, with few if any legal rights. As white settlers stretched westward during the 1700s and early 1800s, they instituted these practices across the American South.

The expansion of slavery became the key political question of the age. Increasingly, Northern states, lacking the kind of agricultural economy that necessitated large pools of very cheap labor, passed laws ending slavery and gradually emancipating enslaved residents. At the same time, Southern states saw an increase in enslaved populations as cotton plantations drove their economies. Southern leaders fought to ensure that Northern interests could not gain such control of the federal government that a ban on slavery in their states would become a possibility. Sectional disputes over slavery eventually tore the nation asunder. Convinced that the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 spelled the end of slavery, South Carolina's legislature voted for secession.

Between 1861 and 1865, federal Union and rebelling Confederate forces fought to determine the South's fate. At first, the war had the simple aim of denying Confederate secession and keeping the United States intact. Over time, however, political and moral imperatives made the war one also fought to abolish slavery. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the US Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in early 1865.

As the war ground to a close, Union officials looked for a way to rejoin the divided states. After Lincoln was assassinated, the new president, Andrew Johnson, devised a plan to restore the Union that allowed former Confederate states a great deal of leeway in developing their own postwar governments. The first state to hold a constitutional convention under Johnson's plan was Mississippi. In the summer of 1865, delegates gathered in the capital of Jackson to write a new constitution. Their debates showed that Confederate ideals had outlived the failed secession attempt, as Mississippians at the convention hotly debated whether the abolition of slavery violated the state's sovereignty. In this atmosphere of commitment to traditional Southern practices, a new state legislature convened in the fall of 1865 to address the management of the new social order and prepare for readmission to the Union.

Author Biography

Mississippi was one of the first former Confederate states to begin the process of rejoining the Union, holding a constitutional convention in August of 1865 and electing a new government two months later. Unlike Southern state governments formed later in the Reconstruction era, under the watchful eye of the Republican-dominated federal government, this Mississippi government lay largely under the control of former Confederate supporters; the state's new governor, for example, had been a Confederate general. Equally, the state legislature filled its ranks with former Confederates, who wished to maintain the social structure of the antebellum South as much as the changes brought about by the Civil War would allow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first actions of the new state legislature was to enact legislation that sought to reinstitute the social and economic supremacy of white Mississippians over the black freedmen who had been their slaves just a short time before.

Document Analysis

The Civil War had unquestionably ended slavery. But former Confederates were unwilling to transform their society from one based on chattel slavery to one of complete equality simply because of a change in the legal standing of the region's former slaves. The Mississippi Black Code, passed shortly after the final shots of the Civil War, reveals the extent to which Southern leaders wished to maintain the status quo by supporting white dominance over black freedman through social, economic, and civil controls. To do this, the Black Codes drew on a blend of former slave codes, contemporary laws regulating African American life in the North, and laws addressing vagrancy and other issues to create a system that aimed to keep freedmen from exercising power in society.

Much of the dominance that white Southerners wished to maintain was economic. Mississippi's Black Code established systems of labor that largely prevented freedmen from competing in the labor market and ensured that white land and business owners had a continuing source of cheap labor. The Code's Apprentice Law granted the state the power to assign underage orphans to the care of a guardian who in turn had the right to indenture the young person to another until he or she reached the age of majority. The law required indentured apprentices to be fed, clothed, and given a basic education; however, masters had the right to “inflict moderate corporeal chastisement” and to recapture any apprentice who attempted to desert his or her employment before the indenture period had ended.

Equally, the Code's stated Civil Rights of Freedmen required African American workers with jobs lasting longer than one month to sign binding employment contracts that they could not end without forfeiture of all payment for the time that they had already worked. Unemployed freedmen ran the risk of being declared vagrants and hired out to pay off the resulting fines. Other laws barred freedmen from owning property in incorporated areas and denied others the right to recruit their labor. Under the Black Code, former slaves still lacked true economic freedom.

The Black Code also prevented genuine social and civil equality between the races. Although the laws clearly acknowledged that slavery was over, they kept freedmen from personal liberties large and small. Along with economic restrictions, the Code barred freedman from owning weapons, acting as an unlicensed religious minister, or selling alcohol. African Americans had the right to marry one another, but not to intermarry with whites. Yet the law did guarantee at least some basic rights. African Americans were permitted to sue in the courts and act as reliable witnesses.

Essential Themes

Mississippi was among the first of the former Confederate states to begin the work of rebuilding a government and society. Because of this, its passage of the Black Code set an example that other Southern states quickly followed. The Black Codes allowed white Southern leaders to show their commitment to maintaining the social and economic order of the antebellum period. Contracts rather than bondage tied worker to employer, and laws granted African Americans some basic rights. But the supremacy of white landowners over the black workers whom they oversaw was clear.

In practice, however, the Black Codes had a limited short-term impact. Northern newspapers seized upon the laws as an example of Southern racial tyranny, inflaming Northern sentiment and ultimately paving the way for the Radical Republican faction to create a form of congressional Reconstruction in which the Freedmen's Bureau and Northern military governors enforced desegregation and racial equality in the South. During this era, the most egregious laws of the Black Codes were declared null and void.

However, the influence of the Mississippi Black Code was again felt in the post-Reconstruction era that began in 1877. After Republican-controlled military governments ended their control of Southern states, Democratic “Redeemer” governments steadily gained ground across the former Confederacy. These governments, which shut out African American involvement in politics and government, instituted laws–popularly known as “Jim Crow laws”–that created legal segregation and institutionalized discrimination across the South. Some of these laws directly echoed the post–Civil War Black Codes, just as those laws had recalled the slave codes of earlier eras. Mississippi's Black Code had, for example, barred interracial marriage, and with the passage of Jim Crow laws, these unions remained legally forbidden until the 1960s.

Although federal legislation eventually ended government-sanctioned social oppression of African Americans, the legacy of the Black Codes and the social structures they strove to maintain remained a reality for Southern African Americans for years to come. In the early twenty-first century, poverty rates among black Mississippians were significantly higher than those among their white counterparts, a reflection of African Americans' ongoing struggles for true economic equality.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Foner, Eric. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.
  • Garner, James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi. New York: Macmillan, 1902. Print.
  • Wynne, Ben. Mississippi's Civil War: A Narrative History. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2006. Print.
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