Black Codes

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Black Codes

A body of laws, statutes, and rules enacted by southern states immediately after the Civil War to regain control over the freed slaves, maintain white supremacy, and ensure the continued supply of cheap labor.

The Union's victory over the South in the Civil War signaled the end for the institution of Slavery in the United States. Ratified in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formalized this result in U.S. law, abolishing slavery throughout the country and every territory subject to its jurisdiction.

For the next several months, southern states sought a way to restore for the white majority what the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment had tried to deny them, supremacy, control, and economic power over the fate of African Americans. Under slavery, whites had disciplined the blacks largely outside the law, through extralegal whippings administered by slave owners and their overseers. After the slaves were emancipated, panicky whites feared that blacks would seek revenge against them for their harsh and inhumane treatment on the southern plantations. Former slave owners feared for themselves, their families, and their property.

While some white southerners thought that African-Americans were best controlled through Vigilantism, Mississippi whites began passing laws to take away the former slaves' new found freedom. The first such law was enacted on November 22, 1865. It directed civil officers to hire orphaned African Americans and forbade the orphans to leave their place of employment for any reason. Orphans were typically compensated with a free place to live, free meals, and some type of nominal wage. Other white employers were prohibited from offering any enticement to blacks "employed" by someone else.

The Mississippi legislature next passed a Vagrancy law, defining vagrants as workers who "neglected their calling or employment or misspent what they earned." Another Mississippi law required African Americans to carry with them written evidence of their present employment at all times, a practice that was hauntingly reminiscent of the old pass system under slavery. The final piece to the puzzle came when Mississippi established a system of special county courts to punish blacks charged with violating one of the new state employment laws. The law imposed draconian punishments, including "corporal chastisement" for blacks who refused to work or otherwise tried to frustrate the system. African Americans who committed real crimes, such as stealing, could be hung by their thumbs.

Widely considered to be the first set of Black Codes passed in the south after the Civil War, these Mississippi laws represented a concerted effort by white lawmakers to restore the master-slave relationship under a new name. Within a few months after Mississippi passed its first such law, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina followed suit by enacting similar laws of their own.

Congress quickly responded to the Black Codes by passing the civil rights act of 1866, which made it illegal to discriminate against blacks by assigning them an inferior legal and economic status. Two years later the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed "equal protection of the laws" to the residents of every state.

But the southern states were not deterred. They soon passed a new set of laws that permitted local officials to informally discriminate against blacks, without specific statutory authority. The thrust-and-parry exchanges between Congress and the southern states continued throughout the period Reconstruction (1865-77) and through the first half of the twentieth century.

Further readings

Kramer, William. 1984. "How 'Black Codes' Virtually Nullified the Emancipation Proclamation." The Los Angeles Daily Journal 97.

Pulliam, Ted. 2001. "The Dark Days of Black Codes." Legal Times 24.


Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Cases; Civil Rights Movement; Corporal Punishment; Fourteenth Amendment; Jim Crow Laws; Reconstruction; Segregation; Thirteenth Amendment.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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