Black Codes in the USA

Black Codes in the USA

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The Black Codes were laws put in place in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 after the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 with the effect of limiting the basic human rights
Human rights
Human rights are "commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being." Human rights are thus conceived as universal and egalitarian . These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in both national...

 and civil liberties
Civil liberties
Civil liberties are rights and freedoms that provide an individual specific rights such as the freedom from slavery and forced labour, freedom from torture and death, the right to liberty and security, right to a fair trial, the right to defend one's self, the right to own and bear arms, the right...

 of blacks
Blacks may refer to:* All Blacks, New Zealand rugby union team* Black people* Blacks Leisure Group, owner of Blacks and Millets in the United Kingdom* The Blacks , a play by Jean Genet* Zamora, California, formerly called Blacks...

. Even though the U.S. constitution originally discriminated against blacks (as "other persons") and both Northern
Northern United States
Northern United States, also sometimes the North, may refer to:* A particular grouping of states or regions of the United States of America. The United States Census Bureau divides some of the northernmost United States into the Midwest Region and the Northeast Region...

 and Southern states
Southern United States
The Southern United States—commonly referred to as the American South, Dixie, or simply the South—constitutes a large distinctive area in the southeastern and south-central United States...

 had passed discriminatory legislation from the early 19th century, the term Black Codes is used most often to refer to legislation passed by Southern states at the end of the Civil War to control the labor, migration and other activities of newly-freed slaves.

In Texas, the Eleventh Legislature produced these codes in 1866, right after the United States Civil War. The legislation reaffirmed the inferior position that slaves and free blacks had held in antebellum Texas and was intended to regulate black labor. The codes reflected the unwillingness of white Texans to accept blacks as equals and also their fears that freedmen would not work unless coerced. Thus the codes continued legal discrimination between whites and blacks. The legislature, when it amended the 1856 penal code, emphasized the continuing line between whites and blacks by defining all individuals with one-eighth or more black ancestry as persons of color, subject to special provisions in the law.

The black codes were enacted immediately after the American Civil War. Though varying from state to state, they each endeavored to secure a steady supply of cheap labor, and continued to assume the inferiority of the freed slaves. The black codes had their roots in the slave codes that had formerly been in effect. The premise behind chattel slavery in America was that slaves were property, and, as such, they had few, if any, legal rights. The slave codes, in their many loosely-defined forms, were seen as effective tools against slave unrest, particularly as a hedge against uprisings and runaways. Enforcement of slave codes also varied, but corporal punishment was widely and harshly employed to great effect.

Expansion: 1830–1860

As the abolitionist
Abolitionism is a movement to end slavery.In western Europe and the Americas abolitionism was a movement to end the slave trade and set slaves free. At the behest of Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas who was shocked at the treatment of natives in the New World, Spain enacted the first...

 movement gained force and escape programs for slaves such as the Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists,...

 expanded, concern about blacks heightened among some whites in the North. Article 13 of Indiana's 1851 Constitution stated "No Negro or Mulatto
Mulatto denotes a person with one white parent and one black parent, or more broadly, a person of mixed black and white ancestry. Contemporary usage of the term varies greatly, and the broader sense of the term makes its application rather subjective, as not all people of mixed white and black...

 shall come into, or settle in, the State, after the adoption of this Constitution." The 1848 Constitution of Illinois led to one of the harshest Black Code systems in the nation until the Civil War. The Illinois Black Code of 1853 extended a complete prohibition against black immigration into the state.

All the slave states passed laws banning the marriage of whites and blacks, so-called anti-miscegenation laws
Anti-miscegenation laws
Anti-miscegenation laws, also known as miscegenation laws, were laws that enforced racial segregation at the level of marriage and intimate relationships by criminalizing interracial marriage and sometimes also sex between members of different races...

, as did several new free states, including Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. Indiana and Illinois shared borders with slave states and the southern populations of these states had cultures that shared more values with the South across the Ohio River than the northern populations. In several states the Black Codes were either incorporated into or required by their state constitutions, many of which were rewritten in the 1840s.

Post-Civil War

After the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, passed by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. On...

, all former slave states adopted new Black Codes. During 1865 every Southern state passed Black Codes that restricted the Freedmen, who were emancipated but not yet full citizens. While they pursued re-admission to the Union, the Southern states provided freedmen with limited second-class civil rights and no voting rights. Southern plantation owners feared that they would lose their land. Having convinced themselves that slavery was justified, planters feared African Americans wouldn't work without coercion. The Black Codes were an attempt to control them and to ensure they did not claim social equality.

The Black Codes granted African Americans certain rights, such as legalized marriage, ownership of property, and limited access to the courts. But the Black Codes denied them the rights to testify against whites, to serve on juries or in state militias, or to vote, and express legal concern publicly. And, in response to planters’ demands that the freed people be required to work on the plantations, the Black Codes declared that those who failed to sign yearly labor contracts could be arrested and hired out to white landowners. Some states limited the occupations open to African Americans and barred them from acquiring land, and others provided that judges could assign African American children to work for their former owners without the consent of their parents.

These are detailed elements of the black codes of Mississippi
Mississippi is a U.S. state located in the Southern United States. Jackson is the state capital and largest city. The name of the state derives from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary, whose name comes from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi...

 and South Carolina
South Carolina
South Carolina is a state in the Deep South of the United States that borders Georgia to the south, North Carolina to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Originally part of the Province of Carolina, the Province of South Carolina was one of the 13 colonies that declared independence...


"Negroes must make annual contracts for their labor
Indentured servant
Indentured servitude refers to the historical practice of contracting to work for a fixed period of time, typically three to seven years, in exchange for transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities during the term of indenture. Usually the father made the arrangements and signed...

 in writing; if they should run away from their tasks, they forfeited their wages for the year. Whenever it was required of them they must present licenses (in a town from the mayor; elsewhere from a member of the board of police of the beat) citing their places of residence and authorizing them to work. Fugitives from labor were to be arrested and carried back to their employers. Five dollars a head and mileage would be allowed such negro catchers. It was made a misdemeanor, punishable with fine or imprisonment, to persuade a freedman to leave his employer, or to feed the runaway. Minors were to be apprenticed, if males until they were twenty-one, if females until eighteen years of age. Such corporal punishment as a father would administer to a child might be inflicted upon apprentices by their masters. Vagrants were to be fined heavily, and if they could not pay the sum, they were to be hired out to service until the claim was satisfied. Negroes might not carry knives or firearms unless they were licensed so to do. It was an offence, to be punished by a fine of $50 and imprisonment for thirty days, to give or sell intoxicating liquors to a negro. When negroes could not pay the fines and costs after legal proceedings, they were to be hired at public outcry by the sheriff to the lowest bidder...."

South Carolina:
"In South Carolina persons of color contracting for service were to be known as "servants," and those with whom they contracted, as "masters." On farms the hours of labor would be from sunrise to sunset daily, except on Sunday. The negroes were to get out of bed at dawn. Time lost would be deducted from their wages, as would be the cost of food, nursing, etc., during absence from sickness. Absentees on Sunday must return to the plantation by sunset. House servants were to be at call at all hours of the day and night on all days of the week. They must be "especially civil and polite to their masters, their masters' families and guests," and they in return would receive "gentle and kind treatment." Corporal and other punishment was to be administered only upon order of the district judge or other civil magistrate. A vagrant law of some severity was enacted to keep the negroes from roaming the roads and living the lives of beggars and thieves."

The Black Codes outraged public opinion in the North because it seemed the South was creating a form of quasi-slavery to negate the results of the war. After winning large majorities in the 1866 elections, the Republicans put the South under military rule. They held new elections in which the Freedmen could vote. Suffrage was also expanded to poor whites. The new governments repealed all the Black Codes; they were never re-enacted.


As one historian has noted, "Racial segregation was hardly a new phenomenon. Before the Civil War, when slavery had fixed the status of most blacks, no need was felt for statutory measures segregating the races. The restrictive Black Codes, along with the few segregation laws passed by the first postwar governments, did not survive Reconstruction," Leon F. Litwack wrote [p. 229] in Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning history Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

Distinction from Jim Crow laws

The Black Codes of the 1860s are not the same as the Jim Crow laws
Jim Crow laws
The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans...

. The Black Codes were in reaction to the abolition of slavery and the South's defeat in the Civil War. Southern legislatures enacted them in the 1860s. The Jim Crow era began later, nearer to the end of the 19th century after Reconstruction.


  • Birnbaum, Jonathan and Taylor, Clarence, eds. (2000). Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle, New York University Press ISBN 0-8147-8215-9
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877 (Harpercollins
    HarperCollins is a publishing company owned by News Corporation. It is the combination of the publishers William Collins, Sons and Co Ltd, a British company, and Harper & Row, an American company, itself the result of an earlier merger of Harper & Brothers and Row, Peterson & Company. The worldwide...

    : 1988) ISBN 0-06-015851-4
  • Horton, James Oliver and Horton, Lois E. (1998). In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860
  • Litwack, Leon F. (1998). Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Alfred A. Knopf
  • Litwack, Leon F (1980). Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery Pulitzer Prize ISBN 0-394-74398-9
  • Lowery,Charles D. and Marszalek, John F. (1992). Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present Greenwood Press
  • Middleton, Stephen (1993). The Black Laws in the Old Northwest : A Documentary History
  • Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson (1917). A History of the United States since the Civil War, New York, Macmillan Company
  • Wilson, Theodore B. (1965). The Black Codes of the South University of Alabama Press
    University of Alabama Press
    The University of Alabama Press was founded in 1945 and is the scholarly publishing arm of the University of Alabama.An Editorial Board composed of representatives from all doctoral degree granting public universities within Alabama oversees the publishing program. Projects are selected that...

  • Waldrep, Christopher (1996). "Substituting Law for the Lash: Emancipation and Legal Formalism in a Mississippi County Court" Journal of American History
    Journal of American History
    The Journal of American History is the official academic journal of the Organization of American Historians. It covers the field of American history and was established in 1914 as the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the official journal of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association...

    1996 82(4): 1425–1451. ISSN 0021-8723 Fulltext: in Jstor. Actual operation of the codes in Mississippi courts.

See also

  • South Africa under apartheid
  • Freedman
    A freedman is a former slave who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, slaves became freedmen either by manumission or emancipation ....

  • Freedmen's Bureau
  • Grandfather clause
    Grandfather clause
    Grandfather clause is a legal term used to describe a situation in which an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations, while a new rule will apply to all future situations. It is often used as a verb: to grandfather means to grant such an exemption...

  • Racial segregation
    Racial segregation
    Racial segregation is the separation of humans into racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a public toilet, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home...

  • Race legislation in the United States
  • Redlining
    Redlining is the practice of denying, or increasing the cost of services such as banking, insurance, access to jobs, access to health care, or even supermarkets to residents in certain, often racially determined, areas. The term "redlining" was coined in the late 1960s by John McKnight, a...

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