Black Codes were southern state laws that harshly restricted the rights of African Americans in 1865–66. These laws represented the former Confederate states’ first official response to slave emancipation after rejoining the Union. The legislation recognized African Americans’ freedom in part by stating that people could no longer be legally classified as property, but they denied former slaves the same rights as white men. In fact, the legislators believed that African Americans should be governed by a separate set of laws—by a black code—to firmly set aside freedpeople’s claims to citizenship. Northerners and southerners alike interpreted these laws as a defiant rejection of full African American freedom by an unredeemed southern political elite. The US Congress responded by stripping each state of its sovereignty (except for Tennessee), placing it under military rule, and initiating what became known as Radical Reconstruction.
Mississippi was the first southern state to form a new government after the Confederacy’s defeat and the first to write Black Codes. All eyes were on Mississippi, and state legislators aware of their leadership position decided to take a stand. Ignoring Pres. Andrew Johnson’s plea for moderation, the Committee on Emancipation and Freedmen wrote laws that its members warned might “seem rigid and stringent.” Yet the Black Codes were enacted with remarkable speed in November 1865. Emboldened, the other southern states quickly followed.
The Black Codes fell under three different sections of state law: civil rights, apprenticeship, and vagrancy. All three sections worked to limit freedpeople’s mobility, labor, and autonomy. In Mississippi, the revised civil rights statutes acknowledged the abolition of slavery by granting African Americans access to the courts. This action shifted African Americans’ legal status from property to personhood. Yet the Black Codes denied freedpeople the right to serve as witnesses against white people. African Americans, in other words, were not equal to white southerners under the law.
After establishing freedpeople’s access to the courts, the Black Codes turned to questions of marriage. The law granted marriage rights to African Americans as long as they married within the race. Any person, white or black, who married a member of another race faced life imprisonment. Legislators anticipated that this law would be difficult to interpret since race could often be unclear. In a tortuously complex passage, the marriage statute defined black people as “those who . . . are of pure negro blood, and those descended from a negro to the third generation, inclusive though one ancestor in each generation may have been a white person.”
The civil rights section of the Black Codes also restricted African American rights to property, freedom of movement, and employment. African Americans could not rent or lease land except in towns and cities. African American city dwellers had to carry written evidence of their employment and residence. Finally, African Americans who worked for employers longer than one month had to sign written labor contracts. These restrictions undermined independent farming by blacks, limited their movement in and out of the cities, and forced them to commit to long-term employment. Each of these mandates undercut a central principle of free labor—the ability to move and change jobs.
African Americans’ labor contracts also differed from those of white Mississippians. Former slaves who violated their labor contracts by moving off the plantation before their time of service was finished would forfeit all wages previously earned. Furthermore, the Black Codes granted all white southerners the power to enforce this law, with the legislature promising cash rewards to white people who seized and arrested African Americans who had deserted their jobs.
The Vagrancy Acts put teeth into the Black Codes’ labor regulations. Any African American without a written labor contract two weeks after New Year’s Day could be jailed as a vagrant. This policy left vulnerable to arrest anyone who was self-employed, in the process of moving, or working a short-term job that did not require a formal written contract. Moreover, vagrants had no right to trial by jury. This section of the Black Codes caught national public attention. Many Americans considered a jury trial an ancient right, and newspapers declared that Mississippi lawmakers had made freedom a farce by refusing African Americans this right.
A freedperson found guilty of vagrancy would be jailed. To keep jails from bursting at the seams, state legislators gave sheriffs the right to “hire out” imprisoned African Americans. The people who “hired” vagrants would pay the sheriffs, not the workers, sidestepping the issue of wages. To help finance this system, the state imposed a tax on all African Americans—and declared anyone unable to pay the tax a vagrant.
These laws reflected tremendous planter-class anxiety regarding the maintenance of control over land and labor. With the Vagrancy Law and the laws regulating contracts, planters attempted to guarantee themselves a large labor pool to continue production of cash crops. More pointedly, they wanted these workers cheap. The Vagrancy Law promised convict labor, and the civil rights statutes provided loopholes to avoid paying wages altogether.
The Apprenticeship Law followed the same logic, requiring each county court semiannually to record the names of all African American children under the age of eighteen whose parents “have not the means” to support them. Such boys would be apprenticed to a master until they reached age twenty-one, while girls would be apprenticed until they turned eighteen. The Black Codes required masters to provide apprentices with food, clothing, medical attention, and reading lessons (for children under the age of fifteen) but permitted “the master or mistress . . . to inflict . . . moderate corporeal chastisement.”
African Americans vigorously protested the Apprenticeship Laws and sued to get their children back. Apprenticeship was a painful reminder of slavery when children “belonged to masters,” were valued for their labor, and could be taken from family at will. Children also sued for their freedom.
Anticipating protests about this curtailment of basic freedoms, legislators attempted to keep African Americans from meeting in public. The Black Codes included acts prohibiting freedpeople from “assembling themselves together, either in the day or night,” preaching without a license, making seditious speeches, disturbing the peace, using insulting language and gestures, and carrying weapons. Any gathering, large or small, carried a threat in the eyes of law.
The protests did come, and they came from all directions. Usually sympathetic Mississippi newspapers condemned the legislators’ rashness, outraged northerners claimed that the South refused to accept defeat, and eventually the US Congress disbanded the Mississippi legislature and returned the state to military rule. The Black Codes unwittingly helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of African American citizenship and the right to vote.
- Laura Edwards, Agricultural History (Spring 1998)
- Noralee Frankel, Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (1999)
- James Wilford Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901)
- William C. Harris, Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi (1967)
- Christopher Waldrep, Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817–80 (1998)
- Karen L. Zipf, Journal of Women’s History (Spring 2000)