Civil War: Black Codes Summary (Pre-Jim Crow Laws) American History, Apprentice, Civil Rights, Code Noir, Felony, Freedman’s Bureau, Legislature, Louisiana, Mississippi, Mulattoes, Negroes, Penal Laws, Slavery, South Carolina, Vagrant Laws, White Supremacy

Civil War: Black Codes Summary (Pre-Jim Crow Laws) [The editors of Americans All South Carolina ] (c.1865 - ?) American History, Apprentice, Civil Rights, Code Noir, Felony, Freedman’s Bureau, Legislature, Louisiana, Mississippi, Mulattoes, Negroes, Penal Laws, Slavery, South Carolina, Vagrant Laws, White Supremacy


               An Introduction to the Black Codes and Examples of South Carolina,
                                             Mississippi and Louisiana Codes.

Before the Civil War, Northern states prohibiting slavery enacted laws like the slave codes to discourage free Blacks from residing in those states. Blacks were denied equal political rights, including the right to vote, attend public schools and receive equal treatment under the law. In the first two years after the Civil War, white-dominated Southern legislatures passed their own Black Codes modeled after the earlier slave codes. To do this "legally," they passed new laws that appeared, on the surface, to be neutral and fair to all races. However, these laws were designed specifically to repress Black people.

The legislatures were particularly concerned with controlling movement (and labor) of freedmen, now that slavery had been replaced by a free labor system. Landowners and other employers wanted a system to maintain their white supremacy and compel Blacks to work for low wages. One of the defining features of the Black Codes was broad vagrancy law, which allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for minor infractions and commit them to involuntary labor.

Although the Freedmen's Bureau (also known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman, and Abandoned Lands) had a mandate to protect blacks from a hostile Southern environment, it also sought to keep blacks in their place as laborers in order to allow production on the plantations to resume so that the South could revive its economy. The Freedmen's Bureau cooperated with Southern authorities in rounding up black "vagrants" and placing them in contract work. In some places, it supported owners to maintain control of young slaves as apprentices.

Some common elements of the 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.
  • It was illegal for an African American to break or renegotiate contracts for their labor.
  • In the case of legal disputes, Blacks could only testify against other Blacks and all cases were tried by all-white juries.
  • It was difficult--to impossible--for Blacks to purchase property

In late 1865, South Carolina and Mississippi enacted the first black codes. The South Carolina Constitution of 1865, passed only a few months after the Civil War ended, failed to grant African-Americans the right to vote. It also retained racial qualifications for the legislature. Consequently, black people had no power to combat the unfair laws. Some of the Black Codes that were passed around this time stated:

  • No person of color shall migrate into and reside in this state, unless, within twenty days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond with two freeholders as sureties.
  • Servants shall not be absent from the premises without the permission of the master.
  • Servants must assist their masters "in the defense of his own person, family, premises, or property."
  • No person of color could become an artisan, mechanic, or shopkeeper unless he obtained a license from the judge of the district court – a license that could cost $100 or more.

The Mississippi legislature passed the Black Codes right after the Civil War ended in an attempt to formalize a racial hierarchy in which whites could restrict the freedoms of black laborers.

1. Civil Rights of Freedmen in Mississippi

     All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes may sue and be sued . . . may acquire personal property...and may dispose of the same in the same manner and to the same extent that white persons may: [but no] freedman, free negro or mulatto. . . . [shall] rent or lease any lands or tenements except in incorporated cities or towns, in which places the corporate authorities shall control the same. . . .
    All freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes who do now and have herebefore lived and cohabited together as husband and wife shall be taken and held in law as legally married, and the issue shall be taken and held as legitimate for all purposes; and it shall not be lawful for any freedman, free negro or mulatto to intermarry with any white person; nor for any person to intermarry with any freedman, free negro or mulatto; and any person who shall so intermarry shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof shall be confined in the State penitentiary for life; and those shall be deemed freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes 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 . . . 
     All contracts for labor made with freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes for a longer period than one month shall be in writing, and a duplicate, attested and read to said freedman, free negro or mulatto by a beat, city or county officer, or two disinterested white persons of the county in which the labor is to performed, of which each party shall have one: and said contracts shall be taken and held as entire contracts, and if the laborer shall quit the service of the employer before the expiration of his term of service, without good cause, he shall forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.
     . . . Every civil officer shall, and every person may, arrest and carry back to his or her legal employer any freedman, free negro, or mulatto who shall have quit the service of his or her employer before the expiration of his or her term of service without good cause; and said officer and person shall be entitled to receive for arresting and carrying back every deserting employee aforesaid the sum of five dollars . . . If any person shall persuade or attempt to persuade, entice, or cause any freedman, free negro or mulatto to desert from the legal employment of any person before the expiration of his or her term of service, or shall knowingly employ any such deserting freedman, free negro or mulatto, or shall knowingly give or sell to any such deserting freedman, free negro or mulatto, any food, raiment, or other thing, he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor  . . .

2. Mississippi Apprentice Law

     . . . It shall be the duty of all sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other civil officers of the several counties in this State, to report to the probate courts of their respective counties semiannually, at the January and July terms of said courts, all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, under the age of eighteen, in their respective counties, beats, or districts, who are orphans, or whose parent or parents have not the means or who refuse to provide for and support said minors; and thereupon it shall be the duty of said probate court to order the clerk of said court to apprentice said minors to some competent and suitable person on such terms as the court may direct, having a particular care to the interest of said minor: Provided, that the former owner of said minors shall have the preference when, in the opinion of the court, he or she shall be a suitable person for that purpose.
     . . . In the management and control of said apprentice, said master or mistress shall have the power to inflict such moderate corporal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law: Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted . . .