Treatment of African-Americans as seen in the ‘Black Codes’

After their defeat in the Civil War many Southerners wanted the old ways back. They did not want former slaves to enjoy the same rights they did.

Leaders of various Southern States decided to pass laws to limit the opportunities for the newly freed slaves. These laws known as the Black Codes were drawn up between 1865 and 1866.

The codes varied from state to state but shared the view that the freed slaves were inferior and that the purpose of the freed slaves was to be a steady supply of cheap labour.

Most former Confederates bitterly resented racial integration and the emancipation of the slaves. Accordingly, every Southern state passed “black codes” designed to protect white supremacy and to replicate the slave system. While the laws granted freedmen some civil rights, such as marriage and property ownership, the statutes greatly restricted the lives of ex-slaves. To ensure a servile labor force, states barred African Americans from many businesses and trades. Under broadly defined vagrancy laws, unemployed freedmen could be arrested, fined, imprisoned, and bound out as laborers. Some states instituted segregation and most prohibited interracial marriage. Former slaves were forbidden to carry firearms, travel freely, or to testify in court against whites. The black codes and white violence against ex-slaves outraged Northerners and prompted more rigorous Reconstruction policies.

Source: Louisiana Black Code, 1865, Senate Executive Document No. 2, 39th Congress, 1st Session., p. 93. Speaking of America, Vol. II: Since 1865, Laura A. Belmonte.

An example of the type of local laws that were put in place can be seen with the Louisiana Black Codes. In Louisiana, many towns and parishes brought in their own (but similar) regulations.

For example, the parish of St Landry set out rules that black men and woman, referred to as negroes were:

  • not allowed to pass within the limits of said parish without a special permit in writing from his employer.
  • not allowed absent from the residence of his employer after ten o'clock at night, without a written permit from his employer
  • not permitted to rent or keep a house within said parish and any person who did rent or gives his house to former slaves shall pay a fine of five dollars for each offence
  • required to be in the regular service of a white person, or former owner, who is responsible for their conduct.
  • not allowed to hold any public meetings or congregations ... after sunset
  • not permitted to preach, exhort, or otherwise declaim to congregations...without special permission
  • not allowed to carry fire-arms, or any kind of weapon, without the special written permission from his employers unless in the military service
  • not allowed to sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise...without the special written permission of his employer

Breaking these laws would result in a fine, forced work on public roads, or corporal punishment (in the form of confining the body of the offender within a barrel placed over his or her shoulders...such confinement not to continue longer than twelve hours.

The Black Codes severely restricted the rights of former slaves in the South. Although slavery was illegal, whites in the South were able to exercise authority over former slaves and make life very difficult for anyone who complained.

After the American Civil War of 1861–1865, the growth of cities and the railroads led to greater contact between blacks and whites in the American South. Southerners felt the need to introduce a specific legal system of racial control.

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