Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes

Although “black codes” that discriminated against African Americans are generally associated with the post-Civil War South, the first such laws were enacted in the northern state of Ohio, most of whose white citizens wished to discourage fugitive slaves and free blacks from entering their state.

Summary of Event

The Northwest Territory that was created by the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 Northwest Ordinance (1787)
Northwest Territory was eventually divided into the states of Ohio Ohio;creation of , Indiana, Indiana;creation of Michigan Michigan;creation of , Illinois Illinois;creation of , and Wisconsin. Wisconsin;creation of In 1800, what was to become the state of Ohio separated from the rest of the territory. Two years later, Ohio elected delegates to a constitutional convention in preparation for a statehood petition, which the U.S. Congress approved in 1803. Black codes
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[kw]Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes (Jan., 1804)
[kw]Enacts the First Black Codes, Ohio (Jan., 1804)
[kw]First Black Codes, Ohio Enacts the (Jan., 1804)
[kw]Black Codes, Ohio Enacts the First (Jan., 1804)
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[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan., 1804: Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes[0230]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan., 1804: Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes[0230]
Tiffin, Edward

Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery Slavery;and Northwest Ordinance[Northwest Ordinance] in the Northwest Territory, Ohio’s constitutional convention debated the issue during its sessions. With the slaveholding states of Virginia on Ohio’s eastern boundary and Kentucky on its southern boundary, there was considerable pressure for Ohio to recognize slavery. Many immigrants to Ohio came from slave states and saw nothing wrong with the institution. However, while many southern Ohioans did not object to slavery, residents of the northern part of Ohio were more inclined to oppose it. Immigrants from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania tended to accept the concepts of the Enlightenment, as expressed in Thomas Paine’s Paine, Thomas
The Rights of Man
Rights of Man, The (Paine) (1791-1792) and the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the concepts of liberty and equality for all people. Northern Ohioans, many of whom had had little contact with either free or enslaved African Americans, usually opposed slavery from an idealistic perspective. Thus, a geographic division with regard to slavery existed within Ohio from the first.

Delegates at the 1802 constitutional convention debated several questions that focused on African Americans, including the issue of whether slavery should be permitted within Ohio. If slavery were prohibited, should the new state permit indentured servitude? Regardless of the outcome of those discussions, the place of African Americans in the new state had to be defined: Should African Americans be allowed to vote? Should they be granted civil rights? Should they be encouraged to immigrate to Ohio?

Edward Tiffin Tiffin, Edward served as president of the convention. Before leaving Virginia, he had freed his own slaves, but he did not necessarily support the concept of equal rights for African Americans. When the convention had a tie vote on the question of granting African Americans the right to vote, Tiffin cast the deciding negative vote on the issue.

There was little strong feeling for instituting slavery in Ohio. There was, however, a strong sentiment in favor of granting limited rights for African Americans. At the moment Ohio’s constitutional convention opened in Chillicothe on November 1, approximately five hundred African Americans lived in the Ohio territory. African Americans constituted approximately 10 percent of Ohio’s total population, but none of them was represented in the constitutional convention because none could meet the property qualifications required for voting. Voting rights;and black codes[Black codes] After a major debate over allowing African Americans to vote at the convention, it was decided not to delete the word “white” from the qualifications for the franchise. Nevertheless, Ohio’s African American population grew from five hundred in 1800 to nearly two thousand by 1810. Most of this growth probably occurred before the passage of the first Ohio black codes.

Former southerners living in Ohio were primarily responsible for the state’s black codes. In 1804, the legislature debated and passed the first of these laws, which was titled An Act to Regulate Black and Mulatto Persons. Mulattoes The intent of this legislation was clearly to discourage African Americans from moving into Ohio and to encourage those already there to leave. Many delegates from parts of Ohio near Virginia and Kentucky undoubtedly supported the codes because of their geographic locations. Ohio shared a 375-mile border with the two southern states, and many legislators did not want to see a mass influx of black people into Ohio. Early Ohioans generally rejected slavery but not strongly enough to protest against it. At the same time, they opposed African Americans living in Ohio as free citizens.

The first Ohio black code, which went into force in January, 1804, had several provisions designed to control African Americans. First, no black or mulatto Mulattoes person could settle in Ohio without a certificate of freedom from a United States court. African Americans and mulattoes already residing in Ohio had until June 1, 1804, to produce such certificates. The certificates cost twelve and one-half cents each and were required of children as well as adults.

The law made it a criminal offense for a white person to employ for more than one hour any black person who did not have the appropriate certificate. Fines ranged from ten to fifty dollars for each offense, with half the money going to the informants who reported violations of the law. The law also required that an additional fifty cents per day was to be paid by white employers to the owners of the black people whom they hired, as it assumed that any black person who did not have a certificate must be a slave. Penalties for aiding fugitives from slavery remained the same, but fines for assisting slaves attempting to escape from the state could be as much as one hundred dollars.

At the convention, the vote on this issue was split, with those in the northern half of the state opposed to placing restrictions on African American employment, while delegates from southern Ohio supported them. The bill eventually passed in Ohio’s lower house by a vote of nineteen to eight and in its upper house by a vote of nine to five, although the geographic lines in the state senate were not as clearly drawn as they were in the lower house.

A few years later, an even stronger bill to restrict African Americans was presented in Ohio’s state senate. In its final version, it forbade African Americans from settling in Ohio unless they could post five-hundred-dollar bonds and present affidavits signed by two white men that attested to their good character. Fines for helping fugitive slaves were doubled. A final provision of the law barred African Americans from testifying against white defendants in court. There is no record of the vote in the state senate, but the bill passed the House by a vote of twenty to nine and became law in January, 1807.

As restrictive as the original black codes were, the new law was far worse. It stripped African Americans of legal protections and placed them at the mercy of whites. Whites, on the other hand, did not need to fear being tried for their own offenses against black people, unless white witnesses were available to testify against them. In at least one instance, an African American was murdered by whites when the only witnesses were black people who could not testify against the culprits. At such times when cases involving African Americans did go to court, they were heard by all-white juries before white judges. Because they also could not vote, African Americans had no legal means of protesting against the discriminatory black codes.


Ohio’s 1804 and 1807 black codes were enforced only infrequently, but they were laws on the books and as such were constant reminders that African Americans had only the barest minimum of human and civil rights in Ohio, and that those rights existed only at the whim of white society. Ohio’s laws gradually fell into disuse and finally were repealed in 1849, long after the abolitionist movement, with its western center located in Oberlin, Ohio, was well under way, and long after the Underground Railroad Underground Railroad had opened several stations in Ohio. After the Civil War (1861-1865) and the abolition of slavery throughout the United States, the former slave states of the South took up Ohio’s earlier example by enacting even more severe black codes of their own in efforts to strip newly free slaves of their rights as American citizens.

Further Reading

  • Bankston, Carl L., III, ed. African American History. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2006. Encyclopedic work on all aspects of African American history, including the black codes.
  • Bell, Howard H. “Some Reform Interests of the Negro During the 1850’s as Reflected in State Conventions.” Phylon 21, no. 2 (1960): 173-181. Brief study of discriminatory laws that includes information on Ohio’s black codes.
  • Erickson, Leonard. “Politics and the Repeal of Ohio’s Black Laws, 1837-1849.” Ohio History 82, nos. 3/4 (1973): 154-175. Discusses the movement to repeal Ohio’s black codes beginning in the 1830’s. Maps, tables, and notes.
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. The standard history of African Americans, from the earliest days of slavery to the present.
  • Knepper, George W. Ohio and Its People. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1989. A thorough history of Ohio, including a significant amount of material on African Americans.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America. New York: Facts On File, 1997. Written for young adults, this brief but comprehensive history of segregation in U.S. history places Ohio’s black codes in a broad perspective.
  • Rodabaugh, James H. “The Negro in the Old Northwest.” In Trek of the Immigrants: Essays Presented to Carl Wittke. Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana College Library, 1964. Discusses the antislavery movement among the New Englanders who settled in the Western Reserve, and the work of the Underground Railroad in bringing escaped slaves into Ohio.
  • Wilson, Charles Jay. “The Negro in Early Ohio.” Ohio Archeological and Historical Quarterly 39, no. 4 (1930). Now difficult to find, but the most complete analysis of Ohio’s black codes.

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