The term “Black Codes” refers to bodies of laws passed by southern legislatures during the era of Presidential Reconstruction (1865–66) that sought to delineate the social, economic, and political rights of the former slaves. While some of these statutes offered African Americans rights formerly denied to them under slavery, the bulk of these laws were designed to severely restrict black freedom. Accordingly, the Black Codes appeared to many Northerners as an effort at best to reaffirm white supremacy and at worst to reinstitute a system of race relations that would closely resemble slavery.
In mid-1865, President Andrew Johnson detailed his stipulations for readmitting the former Confederate states to the Union. He called on Southerners to form state legislatures and for those bodies to quickly move to repudiate Confederate-era debt, reject secession, and outlaw slavery. By the fall of 1865, southern legislators had begun to take up the thorniest of these issues: the legal status of the former slaves. The Mississippi and South Carolina legislatures were the first to address this issue. Ostensibly written to smooth the transition from slavery to freedom, Black Codes of these states were particularly harsh in character. In an effort to assure that the freedmen would remain under the control of their former masters, Mississippi mandated that all African Americans have written documentation of employment at the beginning of each year or face arrest. Freedmen could also be punished for owning firearms or for offering “insulting gestures, language or acts.” South Carolina produced a code that offered similar restrictions. It forced African American artisans and mechanics to pay a steep license fee to practice their craft and banned other freedmen from taking up such trades. In effect, it forced the vast majority of former slaves to remain in their roles as agricultural laborers. South Carolina’s code also assessed harsh punishments for petty crimes, including fines up to $1,000, incarceration up to ten years, and corporal punishment for stealing a hog. After the leadership of the Freedman’s Bureau and many prominent Republicans reacted unfavorably to these first two codes, the other southern states passed Black Codes in 1866 that, comparatively speaking, were much less punitive and overtly racist in character. Regardless, the Freedman’s Bureau and the U.S. Army would move in early 1866 to nullify the aspects of the Black Codes that treated black Southerners differently from white Southerners.
In effect, then, the Black Codes had little lasting impact on African American life in the South. Yet the discriminatory character of these laws convinced many Republicans in Congress that the white South was not ready for self-government and that President Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction was doing little to modify the worst aspects of southern society and in effect, was probably perpetuating them. As a result, congressional Republicans moved in 1866 to draw up the legislative blueprints for Radical Reconstruction, a program that saw the federal government undertake an unprecedented effort to transform the character of American life on the state and local level.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); and Theodore Brantner Wilson, The Black Codes of the South (Montgomery: University of Alabama Press, 1965).