Various Selections of Black Codes in the South Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The status of the African American emerged as the primary problem during Reconstruction, the decade immediately following the Civil War when four million slaves earned their freedom. The Thirteenth Amendment legally abolished the institution of slavery, but white lawmakers in the South were resolute in making sure African Americans did not encroach on their social, political and economic spheres. They passed related laws that thus aimed to thwart their desire for freedom and individual as well as community independence. Although the provisions of these laws differed by state, they had similar effects on former slaves and people of African descent.

Known as the Black Codes, these laws severely limited several aspects of African Americans’ lives. They gave former slaves some legal rights such as the right to acquire personal property and to marry. However, African Americans were subject to vagrancy laws and employment stipulations included in them. The Black Codes also made interracial marriage illegal, and African Americans could not serve on juries. Although African Americans could be called as a witness in court, they could not testify against any white person. These laws exemplify the attitudes of Southern whites toward former slaves and those of African descent. Furthermore, they reveal how such racial attitudes persisted for centuries and would continued to do so for decades to follow. Finally, such laws demonstrate that the Reconstruction plan enacted by President Andrew Johnson did not go far enough to rectify race relations in the South; institutional and structural racism would forever plague the South.

Summary Overview

The status of the African American emerged as the primary problem during Reconstruction, the decade immediately following the Civil War when four million slaves earned their freedom. The Thirteenth Amendment legally abolished the institution of slavery, but white lawmakers in the South were resolute in making sure African Americans did not encroach on their social, political and economic spheres. They passed related laws that thus aimed to thwart their desire for freedom and individual as well as community independence. Although the provisions of these laws differed by state, they had similar effects on former slaves and people of African descent.

Known as the Black Codes, these laws severely limited several aspects of African Americans’ lives. They gave former slaves some legal rights such as the right to acquire personal property and to marry. However, African Americans were subject to vagrancy laws and employment stipulations included in them. The Black Codes also made interracial marriage illegal, and African Americans could not serve on juries. Although African Americans could be called as a witness in court, they could not testify against any white person. These laws exemplify the attitudes of Southern whites toward former slaves and those of African descent. Furthermore, they reveal how such racial attitudes persisted for centuries and would continued to do so for decades to follow. Finally, such laws demonstrate that the Reconstruction plan enacted by President Andrew Johnson did not go far enough to rectify race relations in the South; institutional and structural racism would forever plague the South.

Defining Moment

In early 1865, after four years of bitter fighting, the Civil War finally came to an end. Although the struggle ended, the social system in the antebellum South had yet to be reconfigured. Both the federal government and white Southerners did not commit to the idea of equal rights for African Americans, which meant that former slaves and persons of African descent would struggle to obtain citizenship and the privileges it entailed. The needs of the four million former slaves became an afterthought, although Congress did create the Freedmen’s Bureau prior to the end of the war to aid in the transition from slave life to being free. The Bureau provided food and medical services and it created public schools for freedmen. Its most important task was to help former slaves find a job and help protect them from exploitation. Nonetheless, by the end of 1865, states in the South refused to grant African Americans equality before the law.

Only days after the Civil War officially ended, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. As a result, vice president Andrew Johnson was tasked with the job of reconstructing the country and reincorporating the south into the Union. As a Southerner, Johnson favored allowing the Southern states to rejoin the Union as soon as possible. He decided to appoint former Confederate leaders as military governors until new state governments could be organized. The Southern states resented both the presence of the Freedman’s Bureau and military governors and wanted to become autonomous as quickly as possible. In the summer of 1865, many of the states held constitutional conventions to frame their new state governments. Because only white delegates could vote on matters, many laws were passed that limited the freedoms of former slaves. These laws were very similar to those in the antebellum period, as white lawmakers felt no reason not to continue the tradition of treating blacks in America unequally.

Johnson significantly altered President Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction by adding provisions that punished wealthy planters whom he blamed for the secession crisis and ensuing Civil War. Furthermore, he made it increasingly difficult for former Confederates to acquire citizenship, and he mandated that the Southern states repeal their ordinances to secede and ratify the Thirteenth Amendment in order to make slavery illegal throughout the country. While his plan appeared demanding, in reality it was far from onerous. He sought to punish former Confederates and elite planters in the South, but he did not demand that Southern states give citizenship to African Americans. Johnson’s Reconstruction plan did not include the extension of suffrage to African Americans. Rather, only white males over the age of twenty-one retained the right to vote.

President Johnson convened a constitutional convention in 1865 to negotiate the matters of the abolition of slavery as well as the repeal of the secession ordinances demanded by the president in his Reconstruction plan in order to construct a new constitution. The convention concluded that secession ordinances would be nullified, although many of the delegates argued that they would concede only if former slave owners were repaid for their lost human property. Nonetheless, the institution of slavery was abolished not by consent but through sheer force. The language used by Southern delegates regarding the issue of slavery thus conveyed the idea that while slavery was by law made illegal, it had in fact not been destroyed. Most blacks believed that the Southern states would try to repress them into a status of quasi-slavery–which was what the Black Codes tried to do. When the convention ended, delegates from the South called for various state legislatures to withhold certain privileges from former slaves. According to the delegates, many were morally inferior and were vagabonds and lawless. Such notions undergirded the crafting of the Black Codes, which paved the way for the Jim Crow laws that maintained a caste system not only during Reconstruction but for many subsequent decades.

The Black Codes were written only months after the Civil War ended. These series of laws were very similar to the state slave codes that were in place prior to the Civil War and emblematize the efforts of white Southerners to dictate the meaning of citizenship and freedom for former slaves and those of African descent. They reveal that whites intended for the condition of free blacks to be no different from when they were enslaved. Furthermore, they convey the fear whites had in a post-slavery society of black political influence in states where the black population outnumbered the white population. At the same time that these regressive laws were passed, white vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) formed throughout the South and terrorized African Americans in order to impede them from exercising their legal rights as free people. As a result, any progress made during the early years of Reconstruction was lost. As a result, blacks did not gain legal equality for another century.

Author Biography

President Andrew Johnson encouraged Southern lawmakers in state legislatures to pass laws that would help white Southerners become economically self-sufficient since the institution of slavery, the catalyst of the Southern plantation economy, had been disbanded. Many Southern white legislators who had a vested interest in keeping free blacks in a state of legal servitude took part in the drafting of the Black Codes in the former Confederate states. They did so to reestablish civil authority over the area and to ensure that white hegemony would persist. Furthermore, the Southern economy relied on plantation agriculture, so these legislators passed these laws not only to maintain their own wealth as planters but also to ensure that an agricultural economy in the South prevailed. To do so meant securing a cheap labor force very similar to the slave system.

In Mississippi, then Governor Benjamin Grubb Humphreys is attributed with pushing the bill through the state legislature despite the fact that he did not actual author the law. Humphreys was born on August 26, 1808 in Claiborne County, Mississippi. Humphreys served as a general in the Confederate army and was a native of Mississippi. Prior to the war, he briefly attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before getting expelled for his involvement in a boisterous altercation. As a result, he returned home to Mississippi and became a politician and a cotton planter. In 1865, at the beginning of the Reconstruction era, Humphreys was elected governor of Mississippi. The majority of the time in postwar sessions for the Mississippi legislature was occupied by debates over the laws that would become the Black Codes. The law was only approved when Governor Humphreys compromised with state legislators; some legislators wanted a more forceful Reconstruction process while others demanded that the governor ignore the federal government’s plan. As a cotton planter and politician, Humphreys benefitted from the Black Codes because he relied on cheap labor to subsist. While serving as a Democratic governor for Mississippi, he promoted Jim Crow laws and promulgated that even though blacks were free they were not entitled to citizenship or social and political equality. Once Congress took control of Reconstruction in 1868, Humphreys was physically removed from office by U.S. occupying forces.

Document Analysis

Southern lawmakers passed Black Codes in order to place the status of blacks as a form of legal servitude. They did not embrace black freedom after the Civil War concluded, and their fears dictated the laws they desired to be put in place as a result of Union victory. In the minds of white Southerners, free African Americans posed a menacing threat because they might refuse to work or could not be trusted to perform the labor with which they were tasked. Furthermore, they posed serious threats against their former masters and other white landowners. Most evident in this regard is that economic motivations undergirded the Black Codes of the South, as the Codes clearly contradicted the free labor ideology that the North espoused. Moreover, it is clear that Southerners wanted to keep in place an economic system characterized by plantation agriculture in the postwar years. The Southern economy was fueled by free labor up into the nineteenth century, so white Southerners wanted to force former slaves to work for them under the terms that they themselves decided. They viewed the freed slaves in the same way they had viewed their slaves and were determined to dominate and control them in the same fashion. Emancipation dissipated the former ties between masters and slaves which incited fear and paranoia in white Southerners that their former slaves no longer considered themselves as savage and inferior, a prerequisite for their acceptance of the idea that they were human labor. Mississippi passed the harshest set of laws in its Black Code, and those laws are emblematic for what the Black Codes in the South sought to achieve. The Code is divided into three sections designed to limit the civil rights of African Americans, to force African Americans into unpaid labor, and to render them vagrants and thus subject to incarceration. These impulses reveal that white lawmakers sought to maintain political, economic, and social control over African Americans and mulattos because they feared them as a threat to white hegemony once slavery was dismantled by Thirteenth Amendment. It becomes clear that blacks still possessed no voice in the political system during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, and that the South still viewed African Americans as inferior to the white populace. Such attitudes persisted not only throughout the Reconstruction era but in the decades that followed, laying the groundwork for the Jim Crow system which plagued race relations in the South well into the twentieth century.

All public laws such as the Black Codes are passed in order to mold the socioeconomic behavior in the public sphere and sometimes the private one. The denizens and visitors of those living in the Southern states where the Black Codes were passed thus were the intended audience for such laws that structured their social relations and socioeconomic structures. However, Southern residents, law officials, lawyers and even some judges most like did not read the entire text of the laws themselves. Nonetheless, the presence of the Black Codes shaped socioeconomic behaviors and fostered an environment of fear for the black population while ensuring that white hegemony remained, especially in the political and economic systems. They further reveal the structural racism embedded in the legal system in the South that has persisted from the inception of the United States into the Reconstruction era and the epochs thereafter. The identity of the South hinged on the notion of white hegemony while the character and nature of those of African origin were deemed inferior to the character and nature of the white man. The Black Codes reflect the South’s refusal to concede to a Northern conception of the black population that considered them a free people worthy of U.S. citizenship.

Through the Black Codes, white Southerners sought to control the labor of former slaves despite appearing to grant them some rights regarding property. African Americans possessed the right to buy and sell any property that was not real estate, meaning they could not own land and thus were forced to rent it out. In doing so, Southern lawmakers ensured that African Americans would remain dependent on them for both housing as well as labor. In Mississippi, African Americans were permitted to rent property in towns and cities only if local government officials allowed them to. Because local government often forbade them from renting property, African Americans were forced to live in the countryside where they would work as agricultural laborers. White Southerners believed that agricultural work befitted former slaves, who could not perform any other kind of work. This elucidates a powerful stereotype of former slaves that emerged after the war: that blacks belonged on the plantation.

Various other ways to control labor of African Americans appear in the Codes. African Americans were expected to have a legally valid address and some form of employment at the outset of every calendar year which would coincide with when labor contracts were negotiated and signed. These contracts offered them a degree of protection, but the language used in the Codes implicate that white Southerners still did not view former slaves as free. Black “servants” signed contracts in order to serve their “masters,” and the contract would include a list of obligations the servant owed his or her master and mistress. The “servant” did not have the ability to break their contract, and if they did they would be prosecuted in court and would be forced to forfeit their wages. Such language reflects a powerful stereotype about ex-slaves that emerged after the war ended: blacks were naturally and inherently servile. Those who broke their contracts were treated in a very similar way to how runaway apprentices were treated by law enforcement. Some Black Codes even limited the occupations blacks could have to being a servant or farmer. If they sought any other occupation, they would be heavily fined. In doing so, it becomes clear that white Southerners were skeptical that African Americans could be trusted to perform their labor.

While controlling the labor of blacks remained the primary focus of the Black Codes, they also regulated the social rights and power of African Americans and mulattoes. Slaves possessed the legal right to marry within their own race, but the Codes made it illegal for any person classified as black to intermarry with a white person. For clarification of who is considered black in the eyes of the law, the Codes define a black person as an individual who has a black great-grandparent. This stipulation reflects Southern desires to keep the white race pure, a sentiment that pervaded U.S. society into the twentieth century. States passed several anti-miscegenation laws that were not repealed until the 1950s. Such laws reflect the notion that African-American blood was inferior and would soil the purity of white blood and thus the white race. This view of the African American as biologically inferior despite being free further conveys Southern efforts to preserve white hegemony in a post-slavery society.

Other sections in the Codes outline the rights blacks have in the courts, and many of the stipulations reflect the provisions of the antebellum slave codes. Former slaves and mulattoes had the right to testify against each other, but they could not testify against a white person accused of committing a crime against a black person in any criminal proceedings. Finally, blacks were limited in their Second Amendment right to bear arms, as the Codes did not allow them to possess swords or firearms unless they possessed a license. If caught, they would receive physical punishment and could be forced to work. This provision of the Codes suggests the overriding fear white Southerners had of blacks owning guns and the possibility of mutiny or attack. As a result, the image of a black individual holding a gun rendered him or her as dangerous. This fear of blacks possessing guns in the public sphere persisted into the twentieth century. When in the 1960s members of the radical and militant civil rights group known as the Black Panthers protested on the streets wearing guns, they were immediately arrested. Many of them were convicted and put on death row for merely protesting while holding weapons. Thus, the legacy of the Black Codes can be seen through this public imagining of black people who own guns as a threat to society.

The most well-known part of the Black Codes pertains to the regulation of the relationship between a master and his apprentice, and it demonstrates that white Southerners sought to maintain slavery in some form even after it was outlawed. Blacks under the age of eighteen whose parents could not properly care for them or who were orphans were required to become apprentices under persons who could competently and sufficiently take care of them. African American orphans received far inferior treatment to white orphans. The length of an orphan’s apprenticeship was contingent upon his or her gender: female orphans served usually until the age of eighteen, while male juveniles were apprentices until the age of twenty-one. If apprentices ran away before serving their entire indenture, their masters possessed the authority to recapture and punish them accordingly. The Codes did allow, however, for apprentices to challenge the right of their masters to hold them against their own will. If the apprentice brought a good case to the court that validated that he or she had a right to end the apprenticeship early, then the court had the authority to release the apprentice and fine the master. This section clearly demonstrates the determination of white Southerners to force former slaves to work for them under the terms that they dictated. Such provisions unveil that white Southerners sought to keep former slaves in legal servitude, as these juveniles worked without pay. Slave labor thus continued to fuel the Southern economy even when slavery was outlawed.

The vagrancy laws included in the Black Codes further expose how white Southerners used broad and vague language as a way to legally control blacks and their daily activities. Through them, white Southerners sought to regain control over property that was once theirs. Vagrancy laws have historically targeted racial minorities in the United States because they were viewed as an undesirable caste. These laws demonstrate white Southerners’ fears that former slaves refused to work and presented them as a menace to society unworthy of social, political or economic clout. They became a central tool to regulate black workers and force them to labor for their former masters. The laws defined and policed a racial landscape that remained in place for decades to follow. Signs of vagrancy included excessive drinking of alcohol, gambling, and juggling. All individuals who were not employed, were frivolous with their money, and did not take care of themselves or those who depend on them were classified as vagrants by law. However, employers retained the authority to deduct wages from any employee they found guilty of disobedience, destruction of property, theft, or truancy. Appeals would be heard by local courts or justices of peace, but African American employees accused seldom ever received a favorable ruling. Those convicted of being vagrants were subject to fines up to one hundred dollars, and if they could not pay their fines they would be forced to work them off. They also faced the possibility of imprisonment for a short amount of time. Thus, the possibility of being convicted of vagrancy kept black laborers from leaving their masters’ plantations. Such provisions mirror the antebellum slave codes and reveal that white Southerners sought to keep former slaves in a state of legal servitude. Such provisions reveal how desperate white Southerners were for blacks to return to agricultural labor, and that white Southerners relied on vagrancy provisions to force former slaves to sign labor contracts.

These Black Codes ultimately fostered an environment of fear for the newly freed blacks. In the Louisiana code, section eleven states that all citizens have the duty to act as a police officer in order “for the detection of offences and the apprehension of offenders.” This provision gives the authority to any citizen–implied to be a white person–to accuse and apprehend any person who violates the Codes. The heightened racial tensions meant that blacks were falsely charged and often punished because of the vague and broad language of the Codes. This environment of fear conveyed by white Southerners resulted in African Americans finding themselves in a situation that arguably rivaled slavery.

Essential Themes

While the Black Codes severely limited the freedoms of former slaves, African Americans did make some progress, albeit transient progress, during the Reconstruction era. The restraining nature and overtly racist undertones of the Codes sparked black resistance to their enforcement. Furthermore, many Northerners contended that the Codes violated the principles of free labor enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and reflected the Southern sentiment that blacks were still the natural property of whites. As a result, Congress took over the oversight of Reconstruction and passed the Civil Rights Act in 1866 despite President Johnson’s veto. This act enumerated the rights of U.S. citizens, such as the right to hold property, the right to buy and sell property. However, Congress feared that the Supreme Court would invalidate the act and thus proposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which recognized African Americans as citizens and asserted that they could not be sold for money. As a result, white Southerners rioted against the encroachment of blacks into formerly all white institutions, which lead to Radical Reconstruction in the South in 1867. During Radical Reconstruction, African Americans were enfranchised with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Some blacks even won elections to enter Southern states’ governments as well as U.S. Congress. Most egregious features of the Black Codes were suspended by the Freedman’s Bureau even before the civil rights act was passed. The Black Codes thus produced some meaningful changes for blacks by inciting a response from the North and the U.S. federal government.

The passage of the Black Codes convey Southern lawmakers’ unwavering commitment to ensure that white hegemony remained in the South as well as their desire to ensure that the plantation agriculture that fueled the Southern economy for centuries would survive. Support for Reconstruction declined into the 1870s because of the rise of white vigilante groups such as the KKK that used violence to keep African Americans from exercising the freedoms and rights accorded to them. By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the social, political, and economic gains blacks had made were effectively undone as a result of the widespread efforts of white supremacists. The Black Codes thus remained intact in the majority of the Southern states. They paved the way for Jim Crow laws, as many provisions of the Black Codes served as the foundation for the Jim Crow system which remained intact until the 1960s. As laws that regulated everyday activity, the Black Codes served as a form of personal and collective discipline of the black population and functioned as an instrument in maintaining white supremacy. They ensured that “whiteness” was maintained in the Jim Crow era through the quotidian as well as the legal precedents sets. The personal and collective discipline of a certain sector of society forms one fact of the apartheid state, and thus the legacy of the Black Codes is evident well into the twentieth century.

Bibliography
  • “Black Codes.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Smith, Page. Trial by Fire: A People’s History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Print.
  • Wilson, Theodore Brantner. The Black Codes of the South (Southern Historical Publications, number 6). University: U of Alabama P, 1965. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Cohen, William. Negro Involuntary Servitude in the South, 1865-1940: A Preliminary Analysis. New Orleans: Southern Historical Association, 1976. Print.
  • DuBois, William Edward Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Russell [and] Russell, 1968. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Schurz, Carl. Report on the Condition of the South. Teddington, Middlesex, U.K.: Echo Library, 2006.
  • Stewart, Gary. “Black Codes and Broken Windows: The Legacy of Racial Hegemony in Anti-gang Civil Injunctions.” The Yale Law Journal 107.7 (1998): 2249-279. Print.
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