Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code

Fearing the consequences of the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, southern states began passing laws designed to limit the rights of newly freed African Americans.

Summary of Event

The months immediately following the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) were a period of great uncertainty. The Union’s wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, had been assassinated, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, was untested as a leader. Strong leadership could not be expected from Capitol Hill, either, as Congress had gone into a long recess. Within the defeated southern states, a host of questions required immediate answers. Foremost among these were questions relating to the new role of the recently freed slaves. Would they continue to furnish an economical and reliable labor force for southern cotton planters? Would they try to exact subtle or blatant revenge upon their former masters? Should lawmakers grant them the vote? Should the U.S. government give them land? Should the states pay the cost of their basic education? What legal rights would these five million African Americans enjoy in the postbellum South? Black codes
Mississippi;black codes
African Americans;and black codes[Black codes]
Reconstruction;and black codes[Black codes]
[kw]Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code (Nov. 24, 1865)
[kw]Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code, Mississippi (Nov. 24, 1865)
[kw]First Post-Civil War Black Code, Mississippi Enacts (Nov. 24, 1865)
[kw]Civil War Black Code, Mississippi Enacts First Post- (Nov. 24, 1865)
[kw]Post-Civil War Black Code, Mississippi Enacts First (Nov. 24, 1865)
[kw]Black Code, Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War (Nov. 24, 1865)
[kw]Code, Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black (Nov. 24, 1865)
Black codes
Mississippi;black codes
African Americans;and black codes[Black codes]
Reconstruction;and black codes[Black codes]
[g]United States;Nov. 24, 1865: Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code[3880]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Nov. 24, 1865: Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code[3880]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 24, 1865: Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code[3880]
Humphreys, Benjamin G.
Sickles, Daniel E.
Terry, Alfred H.
Trumbull, Lyman

President Johnson Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]
Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] developed a lenient plan for the postwar reconstruction of the South, one that called on the southern states quickly to reorganize their own governments. His only major demands of these new governments were that they agree that no state had the right to secede from the Union, and that they ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States.

As reconstituted southern state legislatures began to meet, their exclusively white members were eager to pass laws that would answer some of the nagging questions about the future place of African Americans in southern society. Many legislators believed former slaves would not work unless forced to do so, and they feared the double specter of an economy without a labor supply and a huge mass of discontented black people who would live on charity or plunder. In earlier years, laws known as the slave codes had controlled the African American population. Some lawmakers now called for a renewal of the slave codes to control the freed black population.

Mississippi’s legislature was the first to take up the question of African American rights. When it met in October, 1865, it quickly fell into arguments over what policies on racial matters should be enacted. Nearly half the legislators favored laws that would, in almost every way, return African Americans to the position they had occupied in the time of slavery. However, Governor Benjamin G. Humphreys Humphreys, Benjamin G. intervened to urge lawmakers to ensure certain basic rights to the newly freed slaves. After Humphreys intervened, moderates in the Mississippi legislature had the upper hand and, on November 24, 1865, enacted a bill titled An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen.

As its title promised, Mississippi’s new law did confer some rights on African Americans that they had not enjoyed as slaves. These rights included the right to sue and be sued, the right to swear out criminal complaints against others, the right to purchase or inherit land, the right to marry, and the right to draw up labor or other contracts. Although the title of the law mentions civil rights, the law was remarkable primarily for the rights that it denied to African Americans. While it gave African Americans the right to own land, it denied them the right to rent rural land, thereby helping to perpetuate the existence of a large class of landless agricultural workers who would have to work for low wages. The act recognized the right of African Americans to marry but also provided that interracial marriage Marriage;interracial
Marriage;and black codes[Black codes] would be punished by life imprisonment for both parties. The right to testify in court was eroded by certain provisions that said the right to testify applied neither to cases in which both parties in lawsuits or criminal cases were white, nor to criminal cases in which defendants were African Americans.

Most ominous was the provision in Mississippi’s law that every black Mississippian sign a one-year labor contract by the first of each year and honor that contract. Should employees leave their employers before the end of the year, law-enforcement officers were empowered to return them forcibly to their places of employment. In a provision reminiscent of the old laws that forbade giving help to runaway slaves, this new law made it a crime to give food, clothing, or shelter to black workers who left their employers while still under contract. The punishment for helping runaways was up to two months in jail. Those who helped fugitives find work in states other than Mississippi could be sentenced for up to six months in jail. Once again, securing a stable labor supply for the state was at the forefront of lawmakers’ goals.

Contemporary Currier & Ives print of a cartoon commenting on the refusal of southern states to acknowledge the changed status of African Americans after the Civil War. As the white man is about to swept over a cataract, he refuses to accept the help of a free black man, while President Ulysses S. Grant chides him.

After Mississippi passed this first post-Civil War black code, a flood of other laws soon followed in Mississippi and the other southern states. South Carolina’s black codes South Carolina;black codes forbade African Americans from working in any field other than agriculture unless they paid a prohibitively high fee. Black farmworkers in South Carolina were required by law to work from sunup to sundown and forbidden from leaving their employers’ plantations without their employers’ permission.

South Carolina and Mississippi both enacted severe vagrancy laws that called for the arrest of idle persons, drunkards, gamblers, wanderers, fighters, people who wasted their pay, circus hands, actors, and even jugglers. If these persons were African American, they were to be considered vagrants and fined up to one hundred dollars and imprisoned. If they could not pay their fines, their labor would be auctioned off to white employers, and their wages could be used to satisfy their fines.

Black codes varied from state to state, but their northern opponents said they all had the common goal of returning the freed slaves to a system equivalent to bondage. In some southern states, African Americans were prohibited from owning guns. In other states, they were forbidden to assemble in groups or subjected to evening curfews. President Johnson Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;and African Americans[African Americans] , himself a southerner, saw little objectionable in the black codes, but many northern politicians did. For example, General Daniel E. Sickles Sickles, Daniel E. , who commanded federal troops occupying South Carolina, and General Alfred H. Terry Terry, Alfred H. , who commanded federal troops in Virginia, overturned all or parts of the black codes in their areas, pending action in Congress. In Washington, Senator Lyman Trumbull Trumbull, Lyman wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Civil Rights Act of 1866 , which declared that all persons born in the United States were U.S. citizens, and that all U.S. citizens enjoyed equality before the law. Congress passed this measure over the veto of President Johnson. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment;and black codes[Black codes] brought this same promise of equality before the law into the Constitution itself.


The black codes were barely enforced. Overturned by the actions of occupying generals during Reconstruction, and later by the U.S. courts, which found them in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, they were important chiefly for fueling a conflict in Washington between Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction plan and Congress’s insistence that the basic rights of African Americans be protected. These codes are also important for their role in bringing about passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although African American rights generally were protected between 1866 and 1876, the southern states found many ways to draft laws that were color-blind on their face but that could be enforced in a racially biased way. After Reconstruction, few southern elected officials, and few officeholders nationwide, were interested in championing African American civil rights.

Further Reading

  • Bankston, Carl L., III, ed. African American History. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2005. Encyclopedic reference work on African American history that includes entries on the black codes, civil rights laws, and many related subjects.
  • Cohen, William. “Negro Involuntary Servitude in the South, 1865-1940: A Preliminary Analysis.” Journal of Southern History 42 (February, 1976): 35-50. Discusses the larger picture of black labor and its lack of freedoms, linking the black codes to peonage and to the South’s convict labor system.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. This massive volume is the basic history of Reconstruction; chapter 5 covers the black codes and related events.
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. This standard history of the black experience in America examines the changes that former slaves went through in the decades following the Civil War.
  • Harris, William C. Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967. Discusses the drafting of Mississippi’s black codes, which are especially important because they were a model for other southern state legislatures.
  • Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Tells the Reconstruction story as much through the eyes of the freed slaves as from the point of view of white government officials.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America. New York: Facts On File, 1997. This brief but comprehensive history of segregation in U.S. history, which is written for young adults, examines the entire history of racially discriminatory legislation.
  • Wilson, Theodore B. The Black Codes of the South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1965. The only book exclusively devoted to the black codes. Provides thoughtful analysis of the meaning of these laws in southern and African American history.

Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes

Reconstruction of the South

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Birth of the Ku Klux Klan

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Civil Rights Cases

Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters

Plessy v. Ferguson

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