By Anthony Masundire
African-Americans in the United States have had to endure some very dark time periods over the course of the last three-four hundred years. Cast as inferior because of the mere color of their skin, African Americans have been subject to overt discriminatory practices, laws, policies as well as outright unjust and unfair living conditions, if you can even call them that. Among the various laws that sought to keep humans of African ancestry at the bottom of the social structure were the regulations known as Black Codes, enacted during the 18th century. Mississippi and South Carolina were among the first states to put into practice Black Codes.
Essentially, In the United States, Black Codes were laws passed by the southern states in the years 1865 and 1866, immediately after the Civil War. These particular laws were created in order to restrict African Americans’ freedom, and of compelling them to work in a difficult labor economy, which yielded low wages or debt. Black Codes were part of a larger pattern of southern whites trying to suppress the new freedom of emancipated African American slaves, the freedmen.
Years prior to the establishment of Black Codes, the union had recorded a victory in the civil war. For a long period of time, America had thrived on and because of the slavery system. The country had become the largest exporter of cotton in the world, and African-Americans were at the forefront. So when slavery ended after the civil war, tensions were high among the populations. Whites feared retaliation from blacks for the past 300 years of suffering that they had put them through. This is where Black Codes came into play. They dictated everyday aspects of the newly freed African American, designed to restrict freed blacks’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force, of course now that slavery had been abolished.
After emancipation, blacks had to find jobs or risk being put in jail. For a long time, this work was largely comprised of agricultural labor. After the civil war, in order to get their footing, a large majority of blacks became sharecroppers and participated in cottage tenancy. There were industries that opened up after the war, and these included railroad, construction and domestic work. One might say, though, that there was a “catch 22” associated with non-agricultural jobs. Corruption was high, and workers would often get cheated out of money they should have been paid. (Pittman Lecture)
Interestingly enough, the codes did grant certain freedoms to African Americans, including the right to buy and own property, get married and testify in court. However, as previously mentioned, their primary purpose was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity. Blacks were required to have written evidence of employment and unemployment as deemed a crime. If they could not show some kind of proof, they were subject to arrest (“Black Codes”). Following arrest, some were forced to plantation labor, white land owners benefitting from free labor yet again, just like slavery.
In response to post civil war amendments, white supremacists still wanted to keep the previous status quo in place. Plantation owners in the south showed firm commitment to ensuring their supremacy in the post war years. Reconstruction policies began to crumble after the early 1870’s, and integration of blacks into mainstream society became hindered by the violence of white supremacist groups and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (Pittman Lecture). As we learned during the course, the church, where blacks thought they had a safe space, were burned down by white extremists. Ministers were assaulted in order to send a message to the rest of the black community.
An important note to make regarding black codes, is the fact that they were different depending on which state you were in. Some states had much harsher codes than others, some not so much, but they all had the same goal in mind. Common elements of all black codes around the country were that free men could not assemble without the presence of a white person, they still weren’t allowed to read or write and public facilities were segregated. A black code in the state of Louisiana read “any Negro found drunk, within the said parish shall pay a fine of five dollars, or in default thereof work five days on the public road, or suffer corporal punishment as hereinafter provided”. In South Carolina, an example of that states’ black codes was “No person of color shall migrate into and reside in this state, unless, within twenty days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond with two freeholders as sureties.” In the state of Mississippi, carrying arms was prohibited, as seen in this code, “no Negro who is not in the military service shall be allowed to carry fire-arms, or any kind of weapons, within the parish, without the special written permission of his employers, approved and endorsed by the nearest and most convenient chief of patrol.” (Black Code Examples)
White people were also included in the black codes as well. This was done primarily to ensure that blacks had no way of gaining any type of significance within society. “If any white person shall sell, lend, or give to any freedman, free negro, or mulatto any fire-arms, dirk or bowie knife, or ammunition, or any spirituous or intoxicating liquors, such person or persons so offending, upon conviction thereof in the county court of his or her county, shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars, and may be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days”. As we can see from the above code, anyone who sympathized with blacks would be punished for their actions, so what this did is that it scared people from trying to help African Americans. (Pittman Lecture).
I was drawn to this particular topic because as a young black male living in present day America, these laws would have applied to me, had I lived during this time period. There are lessons to be learned from history, and I do think this country has come a long way from where it used to be, in relation to race and trying to live by the phrase “all men are created equal”. The journey is definitely not over yet, but it is good to see progress, and there remains hope for the future.
“Black Codes.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Black Code and Jim Crow Law Examples – Black Codes and Jim Crow.” Black Code and Jim Crow Law Examples – Black Codes and Jim Crow. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
“Black Codes.” FOA. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa, Ms. “Emancipation & Reconstruction.” Lecture. University of Washington, Seattle. 3 Nov. 2015. Lecture.