The term Black Codes refers to a group of laws enacted by local and state governments in the South immediately after the Civil War, supposedly to spell out rights for the newly emancipated blacks. In reality these laws included restrictions designed to maintain white supremacy. For example, although Black Codes gave blacks the right to marry, to sue in a court of law, and to own property, the laws made it illegal for blacks to marry whites or to testify against a white person in court and banned blacks from meeting in groups.
Black Codes varied from state to state, but blacks were generally not allowed to carry a weapon, assemble in large numbers, or behave in ways that whites considered disrespectful or indicative of laziness. Black Codes specifically made it illegal for blacks to remain unemployed. In general, any blacks who were unemployed were subject to arrest, and if they could not pay their fine they would be forced to work for someone who could. This involuntary servitude would continue until they had labored long enough to compensate for the amount of the fine. Black children were also forced to work if their parents were not able to support them adequately; it was often the same whites who had once owned these children as slaves who then became their employers.
Black Codes also allowed white Southerners to keep the wages of blacks low. Any black worker who asked to be paid more than what whites considered a fair wage was deemed a “vagrant” and subjected to the same penalties as the unemployed. Vagrancy laws were vaguely worded. In the state of South Carolina, for example, a vagrant was defined as a black who led a “disorderly” life, and in Alabama a vagrant was a black who was “stubborn.” In Mississippi, blacks had to commit to jobs a year at a time, and if they quit before the year was up they would not get paid for any of the work they had already done. Moreover, if they quit they were subject to arrest, and once arrested they could be forced to work for their former employers.
Black Codes also were worded to keep blacks from working at anything other than the jobs they had held as slaves. In South Carolina, for example, if blacks wanted to work as anything other than a farm laborer or house servant they were taxed up to $100 per year. They also were not allowed to leave the plantation of their “master” without permission. In Texas, black women and children were required to work, and there was little else for them to do but farm and perform household tasks.
Under pressure from Northern politicians, some Southern states changed their Black Codes to make it sound as though these laws applied not only to blacks but to white vagrants. In practice, however, the racial discrimination that inspired the Black Codes continued until the U.S. Congress passed a series of bills in 1867–1868 that eliminated the South's freedom to treat its black citizens so poorly.
See also Reconstruction .
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2277700046