Between 1865 and 1870 the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth “Reconstruction Amendments” were signed into law with the intent of granting to slaves the same rights once exclusive to white men. While officially blacks were declared equal before the federal law segregation and racism was still institutionalized and enforced by local “black codes.” Amazingly a slave could again find himself working a cotton field for the same master who once owned him, free only in name. The black codes restricted and regulated the civil liberties of the previously enslaved people and by coercion or by complicated government bureaucracy sent them back to the fields by making it difficult if not impossible for blacks to work outside of their defined industry.
It is important to remember that speaking of black codes is similar to speaking of sharia law – no common, unified law existed among the states which enacted black codes, but they were inspired by the same social dispositions, values and history. When we speak of the black codes we are referring to a general response by state and local legislatures to curtail, restrict and regulate black rights without altogether abolishing them in the years before and after the Civil War. Many people today have this naive notion that Lincoln brought about a golden age in which blacks embraced whites in the streets and by the day of the Emancipation Proclamation worked in the same offices and storefronts while singing sweet songs of liberty and brotherhood. The true condition of the situation was much different: the same prejudices prevailed and life for the freedman under reconstruction was little different from life under slavery, as the local law was so biased against him. Blacks transferred from the chokehold of chattel slavery to the enslavement of indentured servitude.
The black codes would come to penetrate every level of the freedman’s life. A black man wishing to marry a white woman in most states under the black codes would be rejected outright while in others he would be required to pay a tax so large that it made marriage economically impossible. This latter tactic was also repeated in the voting booth: blacks technically had the right to vote, as long as they paid a lawfully passed tax required at the booth. As men made free from the manacles of slavery tended to be the most destitute of the destitute these polling taxes as they would come to be called effectively barred them from the booth. This law was particularly divisive as it barred blacks from electing like-minded representatives and thus fundamentally undermined the republican values so prevalent in our society. In other states no tax was required but voting stations were placed geographically in predominantly white areas, forcing prospective voters to travel prohibitive distances in order to have their votes cast. Other insidious measures were taken in order to prevent blacks from voting such as requiring prospective voters to take and pass a literacy test or only allowing those who had grandfathers who voted to vote themselves. In the former restriction few slaves were educated beyond the skills necessary to pick cotton and plow fields and thus were unable to pass the literacy tests while in the latter only a negligible number of blacks had freedman grandfathers who had voted in prior elections. Aside from the fact that de facto restrictions were placed on the ability of a black man to vote the south was also home to increasingly violent vigilantism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan which often terrorized the blacks who could vote into not exercising their civic duty. The combination of all of these measures ensured that few blacks were finally capable of voting into office representatives of similar mind and so were made powerless against resisting the other black codes which restricted personal life and civil liberties.
Many other black codes passed in the years preceding and following the Civil War into Reconstruction which contributed in reducing blacks to second class citizens. In many southern and Border States blacks were forbidden from carrying firearms in public places, serving on a jury, convicting white men in a court of law and working in certain job positions without obtaining expensive and prohibitive certificates. The black codes also curtailed the rights of whites attempting to aid blacks in terms of education, economy and status and threatened them with heavy fines and jail sentences, as the Revised Code of North Carolina clearly states[i]:
Any free person, who shall teach, or attempt to teach, any slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave any book or pamphlet, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, if a white man or woman, shall be fined not less than one hundred nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned, and if a free person of colour, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped not exceeding thirty-nine nor less than twenty lashes.
The last part of that code makes it clear what the legislators were attempting to impose: whipping, a practice for animals and slaves, will continue to effect blacks and for the slightest perceived offenses. The codes were implemented to strip the dignity from the newly empowered freemen and to remind them of the status quo, a society ruled by the white, with the inferior black subservient and uneducated. Many of these black codes were still on the law books through the Jim Crow years and into the 1960s, up until the 1967 passing of the Civil Rights Act.
The intent of the black codes to uphold the values of the antebellum south are in no way more clearly illustrated than in the fact that most codes included a provision barring black men to particular occupations involving agricultural work. Blacks seeking work outside of the agricultural industry had to petition the courts through a complicated and expensive process to finally be granted a certificate which legally entitled them to employ themselves elsewhere. Blacks found working in a non-agricultural industry without a certificate were jailed or fined so heavily that they were forced into jail. Blacks who did decide to work for their former plantation masters found that their days were heavily regulated and that there were no unions or local laws to protect their petty wages or to ensure fair work conditions. Blacks found unemployed were arrested and charged with vagrancy and were assigned to work in the industry, those who refused faced imprisonment.
In Mississippi[ii] blacks were restricted from planting their own crops, leasing or renting their land, and since they were simultaneously barred from working outside of the agricultural industry, they were coerced into returning to the plantations just in order to survive. On the plantations although the blacks were technically free they were subject to the same grueling conditions and work quotas. Insubordinate workers were fined, arrested or whipped by local authorities while obedient workers were forced to sign work contracts which restricted them to a regulated life. In many black code states these contracts also lawfully bound the worker to the employer, allowing the employer to allow or deny the blacks the privilege to leave or access local urban centers without breach of contract. Since breach of contract meant imprisonment, many blacks were again forced into a system of slavery, although this time legally bound. The inability of the blacks to represent themselves through the restrictions placed upon voting which made election of likeminded representatives unviable and the curtailments placed upon freedom of mobility ensured an antebellum status quo in the south for decades – finally erupting with the 1960s civil rights movement.
[i] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASblackcodes.htm Black Codes
[ii] http://afroamhistory.about.com/library/blmississippi_blackcodes.htm Mississippi Black Codes