Black Codes

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 43

A body of laws, statutes, and rules enacted by southern states immediately after the Civil War to regain control over the freed slaves, maintain white supremacy, and ensure the continued supply of cheap labor.

The Union's victory over the South in the Civil War signaled the end for the institution of SLAVERY in the United States. Ratified in 1865, the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution formalized this result in U.S. law, abolishing slavery throughout the country and every territory subject to its jurisdiction.

For the next several months, southern states sought a way to restore for the white majority what the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment had tried to deny them, supremacy, control, and economic power over the fate of African Americans. Under slavery, whites had disciplined the blacks largely outside the law, through extralegal whippings administered by slave owners and their overseers. After the slaves were emancipated, panicky whites feared that blacks would seek revenge against them for their harsh and inhumane treatment on the southern plantations. Former slave owners feared for themselves, their families, and their property.

While some white southerners thought that African-Americans were best controlled through VIGILANTISM, Mississippi whites began passing laws to take away the former slaves' new found freedom. The first such law was enacted on November 22, 1865. It directed civil officers to hire orphaned African Americans and forbade the orphans to leave their place of employment for any reason. Orphans were typically compensated with a free place to live, free meals, and some type of nominal wage. Other white employers were prohibited from offering any enticement to blacks "employed" by someone else.

The Mississippi legislature next passed a VAGRANCY law, defining vagrants as workers who "neglected their calling or employment or misspent what they earned." Another Mississippi law required African Americans to carry with them written evidence of their present employment at all times, a practice that was hauntingly reminiscent of the old pass system under slavery. The final piece to the puzzle came when Mississippi established a system of special county courts to punish blacks charged with violating one of the new state employment laws. The law imposed draconian punishments, including "corporal chastisement" for blacks who refused to work or otherwise tried to...

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