Today we will view a summary of the Black Codes.

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The Black codes in the United States were any of numerous laws enacted in the states of the former Confederacy after the American Civil War, in 1865 and 1866; the laws were designed to replace the social controls of slavery that had been removed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and were thus intended to assure continuance of white supremacy.

The black codes had their roots in the slave codes that had formerly been in effect. The general philosophy supporting the institution of chattel slavery in America was based on the concept that slaves were property, not persons, and that the law must protect not only the property but also the property owner from the danger of violence. Slave rebellions were not unknown, and the possibility of uprisings was a constant source of anxiety in colonies and then states with large slave populations. (In Virginia during 1780-1864, 1,418 slaves were convicted of crimes; 91 of these convictions were for insurrection and 346 for murder.) Slaves also ran away. In the British possessions in the New World, the settlers were free to promulgate any regulations they saw fit to govern their labor supply. As early as the 17th century, a set of rules was in effect in Virginia and elsewhere; but the codes were constantly being altered to adapt to new needs, and they varied from one colony, and later one state, to another.

All the slave codes, however, had certain provisions in common. In all of them the color line was firmly drawn, and any amount of Negro blood established the race of a person, whether slave or free, as Negro. The status of the offspring followed that of the mother, so that the child of a free father and a slave mother was a slave. Slaves had few legal rights: in court their testimony was inadmissible in any litigation involving whites; they could make no contract, nor could they own property; even if attacked, they could not strike a white person. There were numerous restrictions to enforce social control: slaves could not be away from their owner’s premises without permission; they could not assemble unless a white person was present; they could not own firearms; they could not be taught to read or write, or transmit or possess “inflammatory” literature; they were not permitted to marry.

Obedience to the slave codes was exacted in a variety of ways. Such punishments as whipping, branding, and imprisonment were commonly used, but death (which meant destruction of property) was rarely called for except in such extreme cases as the rape or murder of a white person. White patrols kept the slaves under surveillance, especially at night. Slave codes were not always strictly enforced, but whenever any signs of unrest were detected the appropriate machinery of the state would be alerted and the laws more strictly enforced.

The black codes enacted immediately after the American Civil War, though varying from state to state, were all intended to secure a steady supply of cheap labor, and all continued to assume the inferiority of the freed slaves. There were vagrancy laws that declared a black to be vagrant if unemployed and without permanent residence; a person so defined could be arrested, fined, and bound out for a term of labor if unable to pay the fine. Apprentice laws provided for the “hiring out” of orphans and other young dependents to whites, which often turned out to be their former owners. Some states limited the type of property blacks could own, and in others blacks were excluded from certain businesses or from the skilled trades. Former slaves were forbidden to carry firearms or to testify in court, except in cases concerning other blacks. Legal marriage between blacks was provided for, but interracial marriage was prohibited.

It was Northern reaction to the black codes (as well as to the bloody antiblack riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866; see New Orleans Race Riot) that helped produce Radical Reconstruction (see Reconstruction) and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created in 1865 to help the former slaves. Reconstruction did away with the black codes, but, after Reconstruction was over, many of their provisions were reenacted in the Jim Crow laws, which were not finally done away with until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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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 fromoffering 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 Mississippilaw 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 underslavery. 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 themaster-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 statutoryauthority. 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.

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