Black Code and Black Codes

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The Black Codes
Civil War Reconstruction

Black Codes History
U.S. Black Codes 1865-1866

Black Code

 

In the United States a black code was one of the numerous laws enacted in the former Confederate states (or former Confederacy) and some Northern states after the American Civil War in 1865 and 1866. The Black Codes limited the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. 

 

"The Black Code 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, or Black Code Laws, had their roots in the former slave codes (Slave Code Laws). The former slave codes were laws each U.S. state had defining the status of slaves and the rights of masters; the slave code gave slave owners near-absolute power over the right of their human property.

 

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. Disobedience and punishment included: whipping, branding, destruction of property, imprisonment, and even death (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, who 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.

 

Some common provisions appeared in many of the states' black codes:

  • Race was defined by blood; the presence of any amount of black blood made one black
  • Employment was required of all freedmen; violators faced vagrancy charges
  • Freedmen could not assemble without the presence of a white person
  • Freedmen were assumed to be agricultural workers and their duties and hours were tightly regulated
  • Freedmen were not to be taught to read or write
  • Public facilities were segregated
  • Violators of these laws were subject to being whipped or branded. 
  • Death (extreme cases as the rape or murder of a white person) 

It was Northern reaction to the black codes (as well as to the bloody anti-black riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866) that helped produce Radical Reconstruction and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments (see: Civil War Reconstruction: Amendments and Acts, Reconstruction Era and Civil Rights, and Reconstruction Era). The Freedmen's Bureau was created in 1865 to help the former slaves. Reconstruction abolished the black codes, but, after Reconstruction ended (Reconstruction Timeline), many of their provisions were reenacted in the Jim Crow laws, which were finally abolished with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sources: 2002 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877; PBS Online.

Recommended Reading: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Review: This "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) made history when it was originally published in 1988. It redefined how Reconstruction was viewed by historians and people everywhere in its chronicling of how Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. This "smart book of enormous strengths" (Boston Globe) has since gone on to become the classic work on the wrenching post-Civil War period -- an era whose legacy reverberates still today in the United States. Continued below...

About the Author: Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.

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Recommended Reading: Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Description: In Forever Free, Eric Foner, the leading historian of America's Reconstruction Era, reexamines one of the most misunderstood periods of American history: the struggle to overthrow slavery and establish freedom for African Americans in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Forever Free is extensively illustrated, with visual essays by scholar Joshua Brown discussing the images of the period alongside Foner's text. (From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review.) Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as "essentially unknown" as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. His analysis of "that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day" addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Continued below…

Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed "visual essays," with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period.

 

Recommended Reading: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Review From Publishers Weekly: The perennial tension between principle and pragmatism in politics frames this engaging account of two Civil War Era icons. Historian Oakes (Slavery and Freedom) charts the course by which Douglass and Lincoln, initially far apart on the antislavery spectrum, gravitated toward each other. Lincoln began as a moderate who advocated banning slavery in the territories while tolerating it in the South, rejected social equality for blacks and wanted to send freedmen overseas—and wound up abolishing slavery outright and increasingly supporting black voting rights. Conversely, the abolitionist firebrand Douglass moved from an impatient, self-marginalizing moral rectitude to a recognition of compromise, coalition building and incremental goals as necessary steps forward in a democracy. Continued below...

Douglass's views on race were essentially modern; the book is really a study through his eyes of the more complex figure of Lincoln. Oakes lucidly explores how political realities and military necessity influenced Lincoln's tortuous path to emancipation, and asks whether his often bigoted pronouncements represented real conviction or strategic concessions to white racism. As Douglass shifts from denouncing Lincoln's foot-dragging to revering his achievements, Oakes vividly conveys both the immense distance America traveled to arrive at a more enlightened place and the fraught politics that brought it there. AWARDED FIVE STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org

 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (Simon & Schuster) (February 5, 2008) (Hardcover). Description: In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party. Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to becoming the greatest chief executive in American history. What carried this one-term congressman from obscurity to fame was the campaign he mounted for the United States Senate against the country's most formidable politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in the summer and fall of 1858. Lincoln challenged Douglas directly in one of his greatest speeches -- "A house divided against itself cannot stand" -- and confronted Douglas on the questions of slavery and the inviolability of the Union in seven fierce debates. As this brilliant narrative by the prize-winning Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo dramatizes, Lincoln would emerge a predominant national figure, the leader of his party, the man who would bear the burden of the national confrontation. Continued below... 

Of course, the great issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery. Douglas was the champion of "popular sovereignty," of letting states and territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. Lincoln drew a moral line, arguing that slavery was a violation both of natural law and of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. No majority could ever make slavery right, he argued. Lincoln lost that Senate race to Douglas, though he came close to toppling the "Little Giant," whom almost everyone thought was unbeatable. Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas brings alive their debates and this whole year of campaigns and underscores their centrality in the greatest conflict in American history. The encounters between Lincoln and Douglas engage a key question in American political life: What is democracy's purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order? These were the real questions in 1858 that led to the Civil War. They remain questions for Americans today.

 

Recommended Reading: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Description: Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, David Brion Davis has long been recognized as the leading authority on slavery in the Western World. Now, in Inhuman Bondage, Davis sums up a lifetime of insight in this definitive account of New World slavery. The heart of the book looks at slavery in the American South, describing black slaveholding planters, rise of the Cotton Kingdom, daily life of ordinary slaves, highly destructive slave trade, sexual exploitation of slaves, emergence of an African-American culture, abolition, abolitionists, antislavery movements, and much more. Continued below…

But though centered on the United States, the book offers a global perspective spanning four continents. It is the only study of American slavery that reaches back to ancient foundations and also traces the long evolution of anti-black racism in European thought. Equally important, it combines the subjects of slavery and abolitionism as very few books do, and it connects the actual life of slaves with the crucial place of slavery in American politics, stressing that slavery was integral to America's success as a nation--not a marginal enterprise. This is the definitive history by a writer deeply immersed in the subject. Inhuman Bondage offers a compelling portrait of the dark side of the American dream.

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