The Black Codes: The Period Between Slavery and Jim Crow

At the end of the Civil War, there were between 3–4 million slaves in America. They were freed in stages. The Emancipation Proclamation, announced January 1, 1863, in the middle of the war; freed only those slaves in states that seceded from the Union. That action immediately freed between 25,000 to 75,000 slaves in territory already held by the Union. Slaves in Confederate-held territory were still slaves, they had to escape to Union-held territory to gain their freedom.

For all practical purposes, the war ended April 9. 1865 when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. States had to sign individual surrender documents with the last of those signed May 26, 1965. About 250,000 slaves in Texas had technically been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation but until the end of the war, there was no one to enforce it so they stayed slaves except for those who escaped. They gained their actual freedom on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers notified them the war was over. The delay was part of an agreement to allow the slaves to harvest the cotton crops before telling them they were free. Juneteenth is now officially recognized as a holiday or special observance in 46 of 50 states.

The 13th Amendment was the document that officially freed slaves nationwide. It was passed by the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution for ratification. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated and Vice-President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee became President. Johnson had remained loyal to the Union although he held staunchly segregationist views. He replaced Lincoln’s first Vice-President on the ticket for Lincoln’s unexpectedly shortened second term as a concession to those with Southern sympathies. Ratification of the 13th Amendment required a certain number of states to individually agree which occurred December 6, 1865. As part of each Southern state’s agreement to be readmitted to the Union. They had to agree to the terms of the 13th Amendment and it was this on a state by state basis that actually freed most of the slaves in territory not held by the Union. So what happens to 3–4 million people without property or jobs?

You rarely hear about the hundreds of thousands of slaves that starved to death. In historian Jim Downs’s book, “Sick From Freedom,” he concludes that a quarter-million slaves either slaved or suffered serious illness from lack of food.

Many of the slaves stayed on their existing plantations and agreed to work for wages. The sharecroppers were offered unfair agreements under which most actually owed their former masters at the end of the year and were forced by indebtedness to remain, free in name only. Others were sent to “contraband camps” near Union bases. The nation mostly looked the other way as former slaves faced starvation and disease. Many expected slaves to simply die out including one white religious leader whose name has been lost in time.

“Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever from the midst of us.”

In many areas of the South, the newly freed slaves outnumbered white people. Having received the right to vote, run for office, own property, and more. The Reconstruction Period saw great advances for some freed slaves while others were faring far worse. They were only able to make those gains because of the continued presence of federal troops. One of the reactions was the formation of terrorist organizations including the Ku Klux Klan who sought to keep blacks from voting and to address any form of insult they felt the need for action. Tuskeegee Institute estimates the Klan killed over 1,500 people (including 300 white) between 1865–1867. The other reaction was individual states imposing “Black Codes” with the encouragement of President Andrew Johnson who saw this an issue of “states’ rights” and not the business of the federal government.

The Black Codes were simply an effort to reimplement slavery as best they could under the law. Mississippi and South Carolina issued the first Black Codes. In Mississippi, former slaves were required to show proof of employment each January. If they left their employment before the end of the year. They would forfeit their wages and were subject to arrest. In South Carolina, if blacks worked in any other occupation besides farmer or servant, they were subject to an annual tax. Failure to pay would lead to forced servitude on a plantation. Blacks were unable to own guns and knives.

Preventing blacks from voting was one of the major themes of the Black Codes. Laws were passed requiring ownership of property. Poll taxes and unpassable literacy tests were en vogue. Other measures including scaring voters away or just killing them,

The 13th Amendment eliminated slavery except for those convicted of crimes. The Black Codes encouraged America’s first efforts at mass incarceration with the result being hundreds of thousands of blacks being forced into slavery under the guise of law and order. Vagrancy violations were punished by forced work, orphans were sent to plantations against their will. Parents had to demonstrate their ability to support their children or they could be removed, ultimately sent to a plantation. Legalized slavery by another name.

Republicans reasserted some control and passed a Civil Rights Act (over Johnson’s veto) and the14th and 15th Amendments which granted some measure of equality. Any rights gained were only sustained by the continued existence of federal troops which were hated by the Southerners hindered by their presence. After a contested Presidential Election in 1876, Southerners agreed to let Republicans win the election (Rutherford B. Hayes) that was almost certainly won by Democrats, in return for the removal of those federal troops. To complete their end of the bargain. Hayes gave us, “Posse Comitatus” which ensured those federal troops could never return. That gave way to a wave of terror, caused the end of Reconstruction, and the introduction of Jim Crow laws which replaced the Black Codes.

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One could make the case that ending slavery was conducted like the end of segregated schools, “with all deliberate speed.” Slavery was replaced by the Black Codes which was replaced by Jim Crow. Many of those laws have been replicated in more subtle forms including the ability to suppress votes of “urban” voters whether by redistricting or outright suppression. Modern-day mass incarceration and the lack of will to restore voting rights is another means to the same end. Knowing America’s history is one way to recognize patterns and fight the reimplementation.

Author: enigmainblackcom

William Spivey is a regular contributor to the Inner-City News where he writes about politics and popular culture. He also blogs as “Enigma in Black” where he explores poetry, religion, politics and all manner of things socially relevant. He is also a contributing Blogger at Together We Stand He is the founder of the Facebook pages Average Citizen Forum, Enigma in Black, and “Strong Beginnings,” the title of his soon to be released Political Fiction/Romance novel. William was the winner of a University-wide Essay Contest while at Fisk University titled, “The Value of a Liberal Arts Education. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Fisk and resides in Orlando, FL. His goal is to make his voice heard and make a difference.

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