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free blacks slave whites

In the United States, the term black codes usually refers to statutes designed to regulate and define the status of free blacks. Black codes were found in some antebellum northern states, all the antebellum slave states, and, immediately after the Civil War, in most of the former slave states. In some antebellum slave states, black codes were incorporated into the laws regulating slaves, which were known as slave codes . Louisiana inherited the French Code Noir , which regulated both slaves and free blacks. After the Civil War, most of the former slave states adopted new black codes, which were designed, as much as possible, to re-establish slavery. The purpose of these codes differed significantly from antebellum codes, however. The antebellum codes discouraged or even prohibited African Americans from moving to particular states, and they provided disincentives for blacks to remain in the states where the codes existed. They were, in other words, designed to oppress blacks and to either diminish or eliminate the small free black population in the South and in the few Northern states that passed such laws. In contrast, the South’s postwar black codes were designed to rigidly structure the lives of former slaves and prevent them from leaving the South.

The reasons for this difference are economic. Ante-bellum Southern lawmakers believed that free blacks undermined the stability of their society and threatened the institution of slavery. There were about a quarter of a million free blacks in the antebellum South, and most whites believed that they were not necessary to the economy. Thomas Jefferson expressed the common view of antebellum southern whites when he told a correspondent that free blacks were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves” and that they were “pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.” After the war, however, Southern whites needed the labor of millions of recently emancipated African Americans, and the postwar black codes were therefore designed to prevent free blacks in the South from moving elsewhere or having any economic independence.

The postwar black codes disappeared after the adoption of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. However, after Reconstruction all of the former slave states as well as West Virginia and, after it gained state-hood, Oklahoma, would adopt elaborate systems of segregation, which had some of the elements of the older black codes, but were different in significant ways.


In 1860 there were nearly four million slaves and just over 250,000 free blacks in the South. Southern whites considered free blacks to be a dangerous class that threatened social stability, for they believed that free blacks, by their very presence, fostered discontent among those blacks who remained enslaved. Whites also believed free blacks were likely to start rebellions. Thus, the purpose of Southern black codes (as opposed to slave codes) was to suppress free blacks, prevent them from moving into the state, and make them so uncomfortable that they would leave.

Almost every slave state made it illegal for a free black to move into the state, and all of the slave states with ocean ports passed laws requiring the incarceration of any free black sailor who entered the state while serving on a ship. South Carolina set the standard for such laws in 1822 by requiring that ship captains bring their black sailors to the local jail, where they would be held for a fee until the ship was ready to set sail. If the fees were not paid, the black sailor would be auctioned off for temporary service and then expelled from the state. Similar rules applied to emancipated slaves. By 1860 most of the eleven states that formed the Confederacy prohibited the emancipation of slaves within their jurisdiction. Thus, if a master wanted to free his slaves he had to remove them from the state, either before emancipating them or immediately afterwards.

Southern states also prohibited free blacks from engaging in professions that might enable them to foster or aid slave revolts. Thus free blacks could not be pharmacists, gunsmiths, printers or publishers, or operate taverns or places of entertainment. Mississippi made it a crime for blacks to even work for printing offices. Georgia prohibited free blacks from being masons or mechanics, or from contracting to build or repair houses. Most of the slave states prohibited free blacks from learning to read or write. They could also be severely punished for owning antislavery literature. Under a Mississippi law of 1830, whites who circulated “seditious pamphlets,” which would have included antislavery pamphlets, could be jailed, but free blacks were to be executed for the same offense. In 1842, Virginia made it a felony for free blacks to receive abolitionist material in the mail.

Free blacks faced other criminal penalties that free whites did not face. Alabama made attempted rape a capital offense for free blacks but not for whites. A number of states followed Virginia’s rule of whipping free blacks for minor offenses, rather than giving them jail terms or fining them as they would with whites. A Georgia law prohibited anyone from selling goods to slaves who did not have written permission from their masters to purchase such goods. Whites might be fined for this, but free blacks who sold goods to slaves would be whipped. While most states prohibited private gambling, the crime carried a greater punishment if a white gambled with a free black.

Such rules were not limited to the Deep South. In the 1840s, Missouri prohibited free blacks from entering the state, made it a crime to “keep or teach any school for the instruction of Negroes or mulattoes in reading or writing,” and prohibited free blacks from holding religious services without a law enforcement or judicial officer being present. In 1859, Arkansas passed a law “to remove the free Negroes and mulattoes from the state.” However, secession and the Civil War prevented the implementation of this law.

Black Consciousness - ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT, CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT [next] [back] Black Civil War Soldiers

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over 5 years ago

civil rights act and 14th amendment were in the twentieth century.our justice system will never be a respected institution because of crimes against humanity committed in its past.blacks attaining positions such as president does not diminish,the effect of brutality and displacement bestowed on blacks by slavery.there are still unspoken black codes being carried out around our nation.the perpetrators of these crimes want slavery to be the whispered secrete of the nation that shouldn't be spoken of.our nation will always be perceived as an aggressor and tyrant of the world ,the worst crime ever committed on american soil is addressed and compensated.

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almost 7 years ago

Southern slave codes

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about 6 years ago

pointless information if your reading this you are gay