Like other southern territories and states, Mississippi adopted strict laws to govern the conduct of slaves. Mississippi built on the statutes previously implemented by slaveholding colonies, which codified and promoted white supremacy as they struggled to define the legal status of slaves. Beginning with the creation of the Mississippi Territory in 1798, the Mississippi slave codes became harsher, though some slaves found legal protection through the courts.
The territorial and state legislatures responded to persistent slave resistance and threats of insurrection with more severe codes. Revising an 1805 law that assured that “no cruel or unusual punishment shall be inflicted on any slave within this territory,” an 1807 measure stipulated that fugitive slaves “be burned in the hand by the sheriff in open court,” and any slave who presented false testimony should receive thirty-nine lashes and have an ear nailed to a pillory for an hour and then cut off. In 1812, on the heels of a slave rebellion in Louisiana, speculation mounted that slaves might use the war with Britain to revolt against their masters, prompting the territorial legislature to place the slave patrols under the supervision of the militia and to streamline the process of trying slaves charged with capital offenses. A three-judge panel would now hear a trial without presentment or indictment, and all participants found guilty in a conspiracy to rebel, murder, or assault a white person would face hanging. Following the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, Mississippi required free blacks to “remove or quit the state,” although the 1860 census listed nearly eight hundred free black residents.
After 1814 the territorial legislature moved to limit punishments for various offenses. Thirty-nine lashes became the standard consequence for a slave caught attending a literacy class or engaging in petty theft. Slaves received the same punishment for possessing a firearm or ammunition without a license from the justice of the peace. Assault and battery of a white person carried a penalty of one hundred lashes. The state gave judges full discretion regarding slaves found guilty of “riots, routs, affrays, unlawful assemblies, trespasses, malicious mischief, seditious speeches, or abusive, provoking or insulting language to any person not being a negro or mulatto person.” The list of capital offenses included such crimes as arson, rape, grand larceny, and murder. The Mississippi slave code of 1857—the last of the antebellum codes—contained twenty-five offenses that could result in the death penalty. Unlike in noncapital offenses, however, state law mandated that slaves receive legal counsel in capital cases. If found guilty, slaves could appeal to the High Court of Errors and Appeals, which at times overturned convictions. Between 1843 and 1861, the High Court reversed or remanded five out of thirteen convictions of slaves who murdered or attempted to murder white individuals.
While owners and overseers maintained their own regulations and punishments, the state and municipalities issued codes to restrict the mobility of slaves when outside their masters’ sight. Slaves throughout Mississippi needed written passes when off their masters’ property. Any slave found without a pass went before the local judge and received up to twenty lashes. A slave who tried to purchase or sell anything without the master’s permission could receive up to thirty lashes. The gathering together of slaves, particularly for worship, necessitated the presence of at least two reputable white people. Codes prohibited slaves or free blacks from performing the functions of a minister unless the services took place on the master’s property. The issue of slaves coming to town on Sundays was a continual problem for the white residents of Woodville, who passed a series of laws in the 1830s and 1840s to try to curtail the mass congregations. Courthouse bells rang at four o’clock in Natchez and nine o’clock in Grenada to clear the towns of slaves on the Sabbath.
The Civil War brought freedom to slaves, but the 1865 legislature passed a series of new laws designed to maintain the subordinate status of black Mississippians. Like slave codes, the new Black Codes restricted the rights and conduct of citizens based on race. The codes prohibited former slaves from renting or leasing land outside of a town and allowed justices of the peace to capture “vagrants” and hire them out. One provision even stipulated that the penal and criminal laws already in effect—that is, the 1857 slave codes—were now “reenacted, and declared to be in full force and effect, against freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes.” The Mississippi legislature did not repeal the slave code of 1857 and all the Black Codes until 1870.
- James T. Currie, Journal of Negro History (Spring 1980)
- Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972)
- Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968)
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1933)