Black Codes

Author:William M. Wiecek

Page 189

In 1865?1866, the former slave states enacted statutes, collectively known as the "Black Codes," regulating the legal and constitutional status of black people. The Black Codes attempted to accomplish two objectives: (1) to enumerate the legal rights essential to the status of freedom of blacks; and (2) to provide a special criminal code for blacks. The latter objective reflected the two purposes of the antebellum law of slavery: race control and labor discipline.

In the view of white Southerners, emancipation did not of its own force create a civil status or capacity for freedmen. The southern state legislatures accordingly specified the incidents of this free status: the right to buy, sell, own, and bequeath property; the right to make contracts; the right to contract valid marriages, including so-called common-law marriages, and to enjoy a legally recognized parent-child relationship; the right to locomotion and personal liberty; the right to sue and be sued, and to testify in court, but only in cases involving black parties.

But the Codes also reenacted elements of the law of slavery. They provided detailed lists of civil disabilities by recreating the race-control features of the slave codes. They defined racial status; forbade blacks from pursuing certain occupations or professions; prohibited blacks from owning firearms or other weapons; controlled the movement of blacks by systems of passes; required proof of residence; prohibited the congregation of groups of blacks; restricted blacks from residing in certain areas; and specified an etiquette of deference to whites, such as by prohibiting blacks from directing insulting words at whites. The Codes forbade racial intermarriage and provided the death penalty for blacks raping white women, while omitting special provisions for whites raping black women. (See MISCEGENATION.) They excluded blacks from jury duty, public office, and voting. Some Black Codes required racial SEGREGATION in public transportation or created Jim Crow schools. Most Codes authorized whipping and the pillory as punishment for freedmen's offenses.

The Codes salvaged the labor-discipline elements of slave law in master-and-servant statutes, VAGRANCY and pauper provisions, apprenticeship regulations, and elaborate labor contract statutes, especially those...

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