The black community and the black code of 1865

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            Contrary to what was expected after the Civil War, the black community during the late 19th century continued to feel the remnants of slavery although no longer in its blatant form. In other words, the kind of freedom given to the black community was not the absolute kind, and it was definitely not what they had anticipated. The reason for this was simple: the whites in the region, despite the apparent collapse of slavery, continued to depend on the slaves or the black as laborers. The end of the Civil War marked the end of slavery for 4 million black Southerners. But the war also left them landless and with little money to support themselves. White Southerners, seeking to control the freedmen (former slaves), devised special state law codes and for many Northerners, these codes were nothing but blatant attempts to restore slavery. The Black Code was an ingenious way for the white community to continue to control the African American community through the so-called Black Code.

According to Wikipedia, many ex-slave states adopted their own versions of the Black Code systems that had developed in the North before the war. This took place after the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment of The United States Constitution. In fact, during the first year of the Presidential Reconstruction, every Southern State passed new black codes that basically restricted the freedmen ––those who were free but were not yet considered as citizens. They gave freedmen only a limited set of second-class civil rights, and no voting rights, while pursuing a goal of re-admission to the Union. Southern plantation owners feared that they would lose their land or, if not, that blacks would not do their field work; many Southern whites feared that blacks would consider themselves their equals. (Wikipedia, 2006)

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Hence, in 1865 southerners created Black Codes, which served as a way to control and inhibit the freedom of ex-slaves. Codes controlled almost all aspects of life, and prohibited African Americans from the freedoms that had been won. As noted by Jessica McElrath in her online article The Black Codes of 1865, Black Codes left African Americans with little freedom. Even the freedom to choose a type of work was often regulated.

According to McElrath, many white southerners believed blacks were predestined to work as agricultural laborers. In addition, the advantage of regulating occupations provided them with laborers. In South Carolina, for example, a special license and certificate from a local judge attesting to a freedman’s skill had to be obtained in order to pursue work in any occupation other than in agriculture or domestic work. (McElrath, 2006)

In addition, self-sufficiency among the black community was also discouraged since the Codes basically prevented the black community from raising their own crops. McElrath notes that in the state of Mississippi, African Americans were restricted from renting or leasing any land outside of cities or towns and black ownership was left up to local authorities. In essence, almost every aspect of life was regulated, including the freedom to roam. McElrath explains that blacks were often prohibited from entering towns without permission. In fact in Opelousas, Louisiana, blacks needed permission from their employer to enter the town. A note was required, and it had to state the nature and length of the visit. Any black found without a note after ten o’clock at night was subject to imprisonment. Residency within towns and cities was also discouraged. Local ordinances in Louisiana made it almost impossible for blacks to live within the towns or cities. Residency was only possible if a white employer agreed to take responsibility for his employee’s conduct. (McElrath, 2006)

            In Alabama the Black Codes stipulated that it was the duty of all “Civil officers” of a county to report “the names of all minors whose parents have not the means, or who refuse to support said minors.” They might be treated in the same way, arrested, fined, and then sentenced to work off their fines. In bidding for the services of “said minor . . . the former owner . . . shall have preference.” In Mobile unemployed blacks, those who had no “fixed residence or [could not] give a good account of themselves,” were required by another section of the code “to give security for their good behavior for a reasonable time and to indemnify the city against any charge for their support. In the event they could not meet this requirement, they were, again, “to be confined to labor for a limited time, not exceeding six calendar months . . . for the benefit of said city.” Also in Alabama, municipalities were authorized to “restrain and prohibit the nightly and other meetings or disorderly assemblies of all persons and to punish for such offences by fixing penalties not exceeding fifty dollars for any one offence Again if the accused were not able to pay the fine, he or she might be sentenced to labor for a period of time not exceeding six months. (Smith, 2002)

            Smith also noted that the laws of Florida resembled those of Alabama but were, if anything, more severe since a vagrant might be hired out for twelve months. No “negro, mulatto, or person of color” was allowed in Florida and most other Southern states to “keep any bowie-knife, dirk, sword, firearms, or ammunition” without a license. A black owning any weapon “of any kind” had to surrender his arm or arms to the informer, “stand in the pillory … for one hour, and then [be] whipped with thirty-nine lashes on the bare back.” The same penalty might be invoked for “any person of color . . . who shall intrude himself into any religious or other public assembly of white persons or into any railroad-car or other vehicle set apart for the accommodation of white persons.” (Smith, 2002)

            In the case of Southern Carolina, the legislature has decreed that no black man “shall pursue the practice, art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic, or shopkeeper, or any other trade or employment besides that of husbandry, or that of a servant under contract for labor, until he shall have obtained a license from the judge of the district court, which license shall be good for one year only.” A black shopkeeper or peddler had to pay $100 a year for a license. If a black man under contract for his labor left or was fired before the end of his contract time, he must “forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.” Moreover, any person “giving or selling to any deserting freedman, free negro, or mulatto, any food, raiment, or other things shall be guilty of a misdemeanor” punishable by a fine of up to $200, and be subject to suit by the employer. In virtually every instance the inability to pay a fine would result in a sentence to labor for a period ranging from six months to a year. In addition, poll taxes were imposed in every state, ranging in amount from Georgia’s $1 per head on every man between the ages of twenty-one and sixty to $2 in Alabama on every person between the ages of eighteen and fifty, and to $3 in Florida. A black man could not buy or rent land except in a city. South Carolina required that a black man pay an exorbitant fee to engage in trade or open a store. Nor, in that state, could he serve on juries. Unemployment was treated as a crime, and the unemployed could be sentenced to work without pay. (Smith, 2002)

            All of these statutes and limitations basically were in direct contrast to what the African American community was expecting after the fall of the Confederate. But what was the underlying factor behind the promulgation of these Black Codes? It was earlier noted that white Americans wanted to continue to control the colored kind even after the collapse of slavery. According to Page Smith, one must bear in mind that white Southerners were entirely convinced that the freedmen presented a fearful menace to white society both by refusing to work (thereby becoming public charges and, more serious, bankrupting all planters who depended on them as a labor force) and by performing violent acts against their former masters. But plainly the principal motivation for the Black Codes was economic. As a result, white Southerners were determined to force freed blacks to work for them on the terms and under the conditions they prescribed. They were determined to dominate their ex-slaves almost as completely as they had dominated them under the institution of slavery itself. (Smith, 2002)

            When one looks at the events that transpired after the demolition of slavery in America, it is noteworthy to assume that little thought had been given to the needs of the newly emancipated slaves. According to the website of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, shortly before the end of the war, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau. It furnished food and medical aid to the former slaves. It also established schools for the freedmen. By 1870, a quarter million black children and adults attended more than 4,000 of these schools in the South. The Freedmen’s Bureau also helped the former slaves in the workplace. It tried to make sure that the former slaves received fair wages and freely chose their employers. The bureau created special courts to settle disputes between black workers and their white employers. It could also intervene in other cases that threatened the rights of freedmen. (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2006)

The same website also noted that white Southerners resented being ruled by Union military governors and Freedmen’s Bureau officials. In fact, they sought to restore self-rule. During the summer and fall of 1865, most of the old Confederate states held constitutional conventions. President Johnson’s reconstruction plan permitted only white persons to vote for convention delegates or to participate in the framing of the new state governments. Not surprisingly, none of the state conventions considered extending the right to vote to the freedmen. South Carolina’s provisional governor declared at his state constitutional convention that “this is a white man’s government.” (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2006)

Eventually, these Black Codes brought more harm than good and resulted into race riots in several states, including Louisiana. The incident of white violence directed against black urban dwellers in Louisiana was influential in focusing public opinion in the North on the necessity of taking firmer measures to govern the South during Reconstruction.

In the end, it was the reaction of the Northern States to the Black Codes that helped bring about Radical Reconstruction as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. Eventually, Reconstruction did away with the Black Codes, but, after Reconstruction ended in 1877, many of its provisions were reenacted in the Jim Crowe laws and which were not finally done away with until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2006: The Southern “Black Codes” of 1865-66 [online]

Available at:

[cited on June 19, 2006]

McElrath, Jessica 2006: African-American History [online]

Available at:

[cited on June 19, 2006]

Smith, Page 2002: Black Codes in the Former Confederate States [online]

Available at:

[cited on June 19, 2006]

Wikipedia, 2006: Black Codes in the USA [online]

Available at:

[cited on June 19, 2006]


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