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Black Codes

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Black Codes

The Black Codes were a series of laws that were enacted in various Southern states after the Civil War to limit the newfound freedom of Black Americans. The Confederacy may have surrendered in April 1865, but they still tried to hold on to the white supremacy they had fought for through the Black Codes. The Confederate states long used slavery as an economic and social basis for their society. When the Confederate states rejoined the Union, they were forced to accept a new law of the land that forbid the enslavement of human beings. The laws were an attempt to find new legal ways to keep Black Americans under their White owners, even if they were technically no longer enslaved.

A black and white photo of enslaved person Rentry Taylor StudySmarterRentry Taylor, an Enslaved Person who was Later Freed/Wikimedia Commons

A Changing Southern Society

Southern society was experiencing rapid changes which dramatically reorganized the social and political order. Southerners had lived for generations under a system where White owners had benefitted from the forced labor of enslaved Black people who they felt were inferior. Suddenly, with the Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth Amendment, and Reconstruction, the Black people who had been enslaved were free, could vote, and even hold political office themselves. These changes created great resentment among many White Southerners whose place in society had been altered.

Beginnings of the Black Codes

Shortly after the Civil War ended in Spring 1865, Black Codes started to pop up in answer to the new reality of Southern life. Before the end of 1865, the first black codes had already begun to appear in Mississippi and South Carolina. Quickly these new laws spread across the South.

Andrew Johnson and the Black Codes

When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the end of the Civil War, Andrew Johnson inherited the office. Johnson was a Southern Democrat who owned enslaved people but had remained loyal to the Union. He was much more lenient toward the former Confederate states as they reentered the Union. He clashed with the Republican Congress as he supported Southern states' rights to decide their own laws. He even vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which helped end the Black Codes but was overridden by Congress.

Labor Shortage

Southern society had long relied on the free labor of enslaved people. Once given their freedom, former slaves typically did not want to work the grueling hours that they had been forced to under enslavement. Fearing an economic collapse, Southern states viewed the Black codes as a way to maintain the economy they had developed over generations.

Examples of Common Black Code Laws

The Black Codes varied from state to state across the South. They were not a single body of laws. Still, the attitudes that created them prevailed across the former Southern states and many were very similar. The plight of Black Americans was shared across the South as they struggled to exercise their new freedom.

Labor Contract Laws

Many states required that all Black people present written evidence by January 1866 that they had employment for the entire year. For many recently freed slaves, this meant staying on where they had previously been enslaved as forced labor. They may have been earning a wage, but their situation was remarkably similar to slavery. If they quit their job, they could be arrested and all of their wages for the part of the year they had worked until that point were lost.

Vagrant: A vagrant is a person who does not have a steady home or work

Vagrancy Laws

Vagrancy laws often interacted with Labor Contract Laws. If a Black person did not have steady work, they could be charged with vagrancy. A punishment for this could be forced labor on a plantation. All a Black person had to do to effectively be forced back into slavery was be unable to find a job. This was accomplished by the Thirteenth Amendment which freed the slaves offering a caveat that slavery could only be used as the punishment for a crime.

Apprentice Laws

Apprentice laws were forced labor laws passed in Southern states that applied specifically to minors. Instead of being placed with foster families or in orphanages, young orphans were forced by courts to work for White people as laborers. The apprentice laws described the practice as "hiring" instead of "enslavement". Apprentice laws could also apply to children with guardians if a court determined that their guardian was incapable of providing sufficient financial support to the minor.

Anti-Enticement Laws

Anti-Enticement laws made it a crime to offer a Black person a better wage to leave their current employer. This law targeted not just Black workers but also White employers. It created a system where the Black employee had to accept the wages and conditions of their employer.

South Carolina enacted a law that required any Black person whose occupation was not farmer or servant to pay a tax which ranged from ten to one hundred dollars per year.

Limited Rights

Although people who had been freed from enslavement had new rights such as to marry who they wished or vote, Black Codes limited even the rights they did have. Black people were allowed to own property but some areas limited what kind of property they could own. They could testify in court cases but only against other Black people, not against White people. They could make contracts but anti-enticement laws limited their options.

Enforcement of the Black Codes

The Black Codes were enforced by local police and state militias. These organizations were all White. Many of the members were former Confederate soldiers who lost the war. They resented the freedom of Black people as something forced upon them by a conquering army and a loss of their place in society.

End of Black Codes

Republicans in the North were outraged by the Black Codes that Southern Democrats passed. Congress passed laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments aimed at ending the Black Codes and bolstering equality. Before being allowed reentry into the Union, Southern States were forced to restore the rights of Black people with new state constitutions. This resulted in most of the Black Codes no longer being law by 1866.

Legacy of the Black Codes

The sentiment that gave birth to the Black Codes did not end with changing laws. Underground, illegal campaigns of intimidation by groups like the Ku Klux Klan replaced the laws on the books as a way to oppress Black people in the South. When Reconstruction was long over, new laws began to appear around 1890. These were the Jim Crow laws, a descendent of the Black Codes.

Black Codes - Key takeaways

  • The Black Codes were laws aimed at limiting the rights of Black people in the South after the Civil War
  • Fear of a labor shortage in an economy that had relied on human enslavement as drove the laws
  • The laws were ended by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments
  • The effects of the laws were replaced by intimidation and then later the Jim Crow Laws

Frequently Asked Questions about Black Codes

The Black Codes were similiar laws passed in Southern States to take away the new freedom of Black Americans 

The Black Codes in various ways took away the freedom of Black Americans and tried to keep them under their former owners 

The purpose of the Black Codes was to reverse the changes in Southern society

The Black Codes began in 1865

A common restriction included in the Black Codes was the requirment to have a labor contract 

Final Black Codes Quiz

Question

What were the first states to pass Black Codes?

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Answer

Mississippi and South Carolina 

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Question

What were the Black Codes?

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Answer

Laws designed to take away the rights of Black Americans 

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Question

What ended the Black Codes?


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Answer

The Civil Rights Act of 1866

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Question

Besides racial issues, what contributed to the passage of Black Codes?

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Answer

Fear of a labor shortage

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Question

What were labor contract laws? 


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Answer

Laws stating a Black American must have a signed employment contract every year 

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Question

Under vagrancy laws, forced labor could be a a punishment for not having a job for Black Americans 

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Answer

True 

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Question

What were apprenticeship laws? 


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Answer

Apprentice laws were forced labor laws passed in Southern states that applied specifically to minors. Instead of being placed with foster families or in orphanages, young orphans were forced by courts to work for White people as laborers. The apprentice laws described the practice as "hiring" instead of "enslavement". Apprentice laws could also apply to children with guardians if a court determined that their guardian was incapable of providing sufficient financial support to the minor. 


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Question

What were anti-enticement laws?

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Answer

Anti-Enticement laws made it a crime to offer a Black person a better wage to leave their current employer.

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Question

What quickly replaced the Black Codes?


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Answer

Intimidation and violence from groups like the KKK

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Question

How were the Black Codes organized?


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Answer

They were national laws in the Confederacy that all former confederate states still held 

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