After slavery was abolished during the Civil War, Black Codes were enacted to limit African Americans’ freedom and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force. Even though the Union victory liberated approximately 4 million enslaved people, the issue of freed Blacks’ postwar status in the South remained unresolved.
Many states required Black people to sign yearly labor contracts under Black Codes; if they were denied, they risked being prosecuted, charged and forced into unpaid labor. Outrage over Black Codes harmed President Andrew Johnson’s and the Republican Party’s popularity.
The Reconstruction Process Begins
When President Abraham Lincoln announced the anticipated passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863, the stakes of the Civil War shifted substantially. A Union victory would mean a revolution in the South, where slavery had overtaken political, economic, and social life in the antebellum period.
As the war came to an end in April 1865, Lincoln shocked many by advocating limited suffrage for African Americans in the South. He was assassinated a few days later, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, would preside over the start of Reconstruction.
Did you know that? In the years following Reconstruction, the South reinstituted many of the provisions of the Black Codes under the guise of “Jim Crow laws.” These remained in place for nearly a century before being repealed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Johnson, a former Tennessee senator who remained loyal to the Union during the war, was a fervent defender of states’ rights and believed the federal government had no influence in state-level concerns such as voting rules.
Former Confederate states were expected to uphold the end of slavery (as made official by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution), confess loyalty to the Union, and pay off their war debt under the Reconstruction policies, which began in May 1865.
Aside from those restrictions, states and their ruling classes—traditionally run by white planters—were given relatively complete freedom in rebuilding their governments.
Adoption of the Black Codes
Even as formerly enslaved people started fighting for their independence and economic independence during the early years of Reconstruction, white landowners used a system similar to that of slavery to control the labor force.
In late 1865, South Carolina and Mississippi implemented the first Black code. Every January, the Mississippi act required Black individuals to have written proof of income; if they left before the conclusion of the contract, they were forced to forfeit prior earnings and were imprisoned.
In South Carolina, an act prohibited Black people from working in any profession other than agriculture or as slaves unless they paid an annual tax of $10 to $100. This provision was especially harsh on free Black people already living in Charleston and former slave artisans. Black people were subjected to harsh penalties for vagrancy in both states, including forced plantation labor in some cases.
How the Black Codes Restricted African American Advancement after the Civil War
When slavery was abolished in the United States, freedom remained elusive for African Americans who were subjected to the repressive set of laws known as the Black Codes. Following the Civil War, during the period known as Reconstruction, these laws limited Black people’s rights and exploited them as a labor source.
In fact, for African Americans enslaved to the Black Codes, life after enslavement was not very different from life during enslavement. This was intentional, as slavery had been a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and the former Confederate states sought a way to keep this system of subjugation going.
“They may have lost the war, but they’re not going to lose power civically and socially,” says M. Keith Claybrook Jr., an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach’s Department of Africana Studies. “In that sense, the Black Codes were an attempt to restrict and limit freedom.”
Following the Civil War’s defeat, the South was forced to accept Reconstruction-era measures that abolished slavery. However, the former Confederacy could effectively keep these newly liberated Americans in virtual servitude and by using the law to deny African Americans the same opportunities and privileges as white people.
A Gap in the 13th Amendment
In some states, white planters denied Black people the opportunity to rent or buy land and paid them a pittance. The 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, and it prohibited slavery and servitude in all circumstances “except as a punishment for crime.” Due to this loophole, Southern states passed Black Codes to criminalize activities that would make it easy to imprison African Americans and effectively force them back into servitude.
The Black Codes, which were first enacted in 1865 in states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, differed slightly from place to place but were generally very similar. They forbade “loitering and vagrancy,” according to Claybrook. “The concept was that if you want to be free, you should work. If three or four Black people were standing around talking, they were considered vagrants and could be charged with a crime and imprisoned.”
In addition to criminalizing African Americans’ unemployment, the codes required Black people to sign annual labor contracts ensuring they received the lowest possible pay for their work. The codes included anti-enticement provisions to prevent prospective employers from paying Black workers more than their current employers. If a contract of employment is not signed, the offender faces arrest, unpaid labor, or a fine.
The Black Codes not only forced African Americans to work for free, but also put them under constant surveillance. Their movements, meetings, and church services were all closely monitored by authorities and local officials. Passes and white sponsors were required for Black people to move from place to place or leave town. These regulations, taken together, established African Americans as a permanent underclass.
After the Black Codes were enacted throughout the South in 1865, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted African Americans some additional rights. This legislation gave Black people the right to rent or own property, enter into contracts, and file lawsuits in court (against fellow African Americans). Furthermore, it allowed individuals who violated their rights to sue.
The 14th and 15th Progress
The 14th and 15th amendments provided African Americans with some hope for the future. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted Black people citizenship and “equal protection of the laws,” while the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited states from denying citizens the right to vote based on race. In the end, the South repealed the Black Codes, but this did not significantly improve the lives of African Americans.
“With the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, there was a shift to Jim Crow laws, which were a kind of perpetuation of the Black Codes,” Connie Hassett-Walker, an assistant professor of justice studies and sociology at Norwich University in Vermont. “You don’t just flip the switch and all that structural discrimination and hatred just turns off. It kept going.”
And, contrary to what states enforcing Jim Crow laws claimed, Black Americans were not “separate but equal.” Instead, they had fewer resources than white communities, and white supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized them.
Mississippi was the first to enact Black Codes. Its laws served as a model for those passed by other states, beginning in 1865 with South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana and continuing in 1866 with Florida, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
Due to the intense Northern reaction to the Mississippi and South Carolina laws, some of the states subsequently passed laws to prohibit overt racial discrimination; however, their laws on vagrancy, apprenticeship, and other topics were crafted to implement a similarly racist regime. Even states that carefully removed most overt discrimination from their Black Codes kept laws authorizing harsher sentences for Black people.
After the war, Mississippi was the first state to enact a new Black Code, beginning with “An Act to confer Civil Rights on Freedmen”. This law limited Blacks’ ability to rent land outside of cities, effectively preventing them from earning a living through independent farming.
Every January, Blacks were required to present written proof of employment. The law defined this violation as vagrancy, punishable by arrest—for which the arresting officer would be paid $5, which would be deducted from the arrestee’s wages.
Provisions similar to fugitive slave laws required the return of runaway workers, who would lose their wages for the year if they did not return.
A revised version of the vagrancy law included the following penalties for sympathetic whites:
That all freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January 1866, or thereafter, without lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves, either in the day or night time, and all-white persons so assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freedwoman, free negro or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free negro, or mulatto, fifty dollars, and a white man two hundred dollars, and imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, the free negro not exceeding ten days, and the white man not exceeding six months.
Whites could avoid the code’s penalty by swearing a pauper’s oath. In the case of Blacks, however, it was “the duty of the sheriff of the proper county to hire out said freedman, free Negro, or mulatto, to any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine or forfeiture and all costs.”
The law also placed a special tax on Blacks (aged 18 to 60), and all those who did not pay might be prosecuted for vagrancy.
Another law permitted the state to take custody of children whose parents were unable or unwilling to support them; these children would then be “apprenticed” to their former owners. Masters could use corporal punishment to discipline these apprentices. They could re-capture escaped apprentices and threaten them with imprisonment if they resisted.
Other laws prohibited Blacks from purchasing liquor or carrying weapons, and punishment frequently entailed “hiring out” the offender’s labor for no pay.
On December 5, 1865, Mississippi rejected the Thirteenth Amendment.
In November 1865, General Oliver O. Howard, national head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, declared that the majority of the Mississippi Black Code was invalid.
The Influence of the Black Codes
Many in the North were outraged by the codes’ restrictive nature, claiming that they violated the fundamental principles of free labor ideology.
Republicans in Congress effectively took control of Reconstruction after passing the Civil Rights Act over Johnson’s veto. Before Southern states could rejoin the Union, the Reconstruction Act of 1867 required them to ratify the 14th Amendment, which granted formerly enslaved people “equal protection” under the Constitution.
The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, ensured that no citizen’s right to vote would be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), Black men were elected to southern state governments and even the United States Congress.
However, as evidenced by the passage of the Black Codes, white southerners remained steadfast in their commitment to ensuring their supremacy and the preservation of plantation agriculture in the postwar years. After the early 1870s, support for Reconstruction policies waned, weakened by the violence of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
By the time the last federal soldiers left the South and Reconstruction came to an end in 1877, Black people had seen little improvement in their economic and social status, and the region’s white nationalist groups’ fierce efforts had undone the political advantages they had won. With the rise of Jim Crow laws, discrimination would continue in America, but it would inspire the Civil Rights Movement to come.