Saturday, December 29, 2007


BLACK CODES Following the American Civil War, many south­ern whites feared that the newly freed blacks would take ad­vantage of their freedom by inciting a general uprising in the hope of not only "retaliating" against their former masters but also of dispossessing them of their property. Such fears, coupled with traditional and ingrained racial assumptions, resulted in the passage of what were called black codes throughout the former Confederacy in 1865-66.

In many respects similar to the repressive slave codes of the antebellum period, the new black codes were designed to severely limit the mobility and personal liberties of African Americans in the South. In a very real sense, the black codes of 1865-66 repre­sented an attempt on the part of southern legislators to "legally" evade the Thirteenth Amendment. Many states, for example, pro­hibited blacks from drinking liquor and possessing firearms. Seditious speeches, insulting gestures or acts against white people, and curfew violations by blacks were punishable offenses. Vagrancy laws were common and generally provided local law enforcement authorities with the power to "farm-out" vagrants to employers as punishment for their "crime." This, of course, was a form of forced labor somewhat similar to antebellum slavery. Moreover, the employment relationships between white employers and black employees were remarkably reminis­cent of the master-slave relationship. The South Carolina black code of 1865, for example, provided that "all persons of color who make contracts for service or labor, shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract shall be known as masters." The South Carolina law also provided that if a black resigned his job, he could be arrested and imprisoned for breach of contract.

Rejecting the southern rationale that the black codes were necessary in order to reestablish adequate and workable relations in a bi-racial society, the North reacted quickly by generally supporting a more forceful reconstruction policy advocated by congressional radicals as opposed to the relatively lenient policy endorsed by President Johnson. Moreover, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1868) ultimately had the effect of nullifying the black codes by "officially" conferring citizen­ship upon the African American and by providing that no state "shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United .States." See also: FOUR­TEENTH AMENDMENT and SLAVE CODES.

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