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Black Codes

Southern states enacted black codes after the Civil War to prevent African Americans from achieving political and economic autonomy.


  • When slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, southern states created black codes, laws which aimed to keep white supremacy in place.
  • Black codes attempted to economically disable freed slaves, forcing African Americans to continue to work on plantations and to remain subject to racial hierarchy within the southern society.
  • Black codes gave rise to a new wave of radical Republicanism in Congress, and the eventual move towards enshrining racial equality into the Constitution. However, black codes also set precedent for Jim Crow laws.

Black codes

As the Civil War came to a close, southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as black codes. While the laws varied in both content and severity from state to state—some laws actually granted freed people the right to marry or testify in court— these codes were designed to maintain the social and economic structure of racial slavery in the absence of the “peculiar institution.” The laws codified white supremacy by restricting the civic participation of freed people; the codes deprived them of the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to own or carry weapons, and, in some cases, even the right to rent or lease land.
Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system. Adhering to new “apprenticeship” laws determined within the black codes, judges bound many young African American orphans to white plantation owners who would then force them to work. Adult freedmen were forced to sign contracts with their employers—who were oftentimes their previous owners. These contracts prevented African Americans from working for more than one employer, and therefore, from positively influencing the very low wages or poor working conditions they received.
Any former slaves that attempted to violate or evade these contracts were fined, beaten, or arrested for vagrancy. Upon arrest, many “free” African Americans were made to work for no wages, essentially being reduced to the very definition of a slave. Although slavery had been outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment, it effectively continued in many southern states.
African American men in striped jumpsuits.
African American men working in postbellum Tennessee under unfair labor conditions. Image courtesy of World Digital Library.

The rise of radical Republicanism

These draconian state laws helped spur the congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction into action. Its members felt that ending slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment did not go far enough. Northern outrage over the black codes helped to undermine support for Johnson’s policies, and by late 1866 control over Reconstruction had shifted to the radical wing of the Republican Party in Congress.
At that point, Congress extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau to combat the growing prevalence of black codes and in April 1866 passed the first Civil Rights Act, which established the citizenship of African Americans. This contradicted the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which declared that black people could never be citizens. President Johnson, who continued to insist that restoration of the United States had already been accomplished, vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act. However, Congress overrode his veto. Congress would soon thereafter pass the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which aimed to protect African Americans from substandard treatment and enshrine their equal citizenship in the Constitution.
Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Civil War Amendments and the fact black codes were formally outlawed, their sentiment endured and morphed into a new ruling racial order. Support for Reconstruction policies waned after the early 1870s, undermined by the violence of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, freed people had seen little improvement in their economic and social status. This set the foundation for the racially discriminatory Jim Crow segregation policies that impoverished generations of African Americans.

What do you think?

How did black codes maintain a social order similar to slavery?
Did the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Civil War Amendments adequately address racial inequality after the Civil War? Why or why not?

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky tree style avatar for user inkyelixir
    If the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, how come those men in the picture were in chains?
    (12 votes)
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    • leaf red style avatar for user Thomas Hunt
      If you click the link under the photo it brings you to a page with this description:

      "This early-20th-century photograph shows the harsh working conditions for African-American prisoners caught up in the convict labor system of the state of Florida, which had a notorious reputation for its severe penal labor system. Throughout the American South, African-Americans were far more likely than whites to be incarcerated for minor crimes, and imprisonment and forced labor were tools used by local and state governments to enforce Jim Crow racial restrictions. Agreements between correctional institutions and private corporations such as lumber companies and turpentine manufacturers enabled companies to use convict labor to greatly reduce labor costs in a state that already had very low labor costs. Companies that benefited from the system gave tacit and direct support for the social and legal barriers aimed against the black citizens. Some of these relationships were official, such as within the convict lease system. Others were unofficial, as when African-Americans were arrested for minor or artificial offenses and then rented out to landowners, construction companies, or lumber companies in exchange for kickbacks in what constituted a modern form of peonage."
      (15 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Baylee Jager
    How did the public react to the laws called the “black codes” during the reconstruction era?
    (4 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Gabe Crain
    What is the difference between black codes and Jim Crow?
    (7 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Anagha Tiwari
      The Black Codes were enacted in states before the 14th and 15th Amendment took place, while the Jim Crow laws were enacted after. While both these rules/regulations economically and socially disabled African Americans (and maintained white supremacy), the Black Codes were the set of rules that eventually led to and influenced the birth of Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws were much more permanent and "legal" than the Black Codes, as they were formed after the Supreme Court justified that "separate but equal" institutions still respected African American rights/equality.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user luandapanda
    Did the Civil Rights Act delegalise the Black Codes? Or was it the 14th and 15th amendments?
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Chris Centanaro
    if slavery had ended, why were African Americans treated unfairly?
    (4 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Miss Beatlemaniac
      Just because slavery was abolished didn't mean that people suddenly treated African Americans fairly (or wanted to). Many still felt that the newly freed people shouldn't have the same rights as white Americans. Essentially, politicians (mostly southerners) got away with calling them "free" due to the abolition of slavery but established Black Codes, which subtly yet effectively stripped them of a large amount of this freedom.
      (5 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user josh johnson
    It took another 100 years for Blacks to find a level of equality, but at that time having the Black leaders and educated move out of their communities left their communities void of leadership, i.e. ghettos formed easily. Why when the brightest and best move affected the black community so hard? And could you compare this upward mobility to the blacks leaving the south going north, leaving few leaders in the south to fight hatred?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user luandapanda
    How were the Jim Crow laws allowed to happen? Because the 14th and 15th amendments go against segregation and not letting people vote. And weren't the South part of the US at this point?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nathaniel  Sapp
    What was one consequence of the implementation of Black Codes across the South immediately following the Civil War?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user famousguy786
      There were many consequences.
      The gains newly-freed slaves made were reversed in many places.
      They were denied fair wages, the right to own firearms, the right to vote and much more.
      These Codes caused Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ismael dolores
    Why were black Americans still working for white people after the civil war and after the 13th amendment?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user temjoh1677
    How did the black codes effect the African Americans and their freedom?
    (0 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user trek
      The black codes prevented many former slaves from voting, owning land, and being able to find employment without signing contracts that were pretty much re-enslaving them. People were not able to be truly free under the black code laws.
      (11 votes)