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.

When America Truly Lost Its Way: The Compromise of 1877

You can certainly make the case that America lost its way many times throughout its history and I won’t disagree. From the moment they broke their first pact with the Native Americans to their prospering from the work of slaves, the declaration of Manifest Destiny saying that God intended for it to have every piece of land from sea to sea with all the people in-between be damned. The shaping of its borders, not desirous of Mexico because it, “had too many Mexicans,” and Japanese Internment.

John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian legislative forefather of Lindsay Graham said, “ I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race — the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped — the Portuguese at least to some extent — and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.”

But there was a moment when America had a chance to do better… and chose not. The Civil War was ended and the slaves had been freed; some took a little longer to get the word (Texas) until the cotton crop was harvested that was a minor missed opportunity compared to The Compromise of 1877.

The freedmen were still being discriminated against. They couldn’t attend white schools but did have their own. Before the end of the Civil War; Black institutions of higher learning rose up beginning with The Institute of Higher Learning in Cheney, PA followed by Lincoln University and Wilberforce University. Not really colleges but a beginning. After the war, often with the aid of white religious societies, black colleges rose up including Fisk, Morehouse, and Howard. The freed slaves began to vote, and in the deepest part of the South began to send elected black representatives to Congress and sit in State Legislatures. Led by Mississippi and Florida, Reconstruction was flourishing to a degree and America seemed to be on a path which might one day resemble equality.

That didn’t mean the newfound prosperity of black folk (relative to slavery anything was prosperous) wasn’t upsetting to the Southern whites who’d seen their entire way of life upended. The only thing that allowed black people to vote, farm on their own lands, and worship in their own churches, was the unwanted presence of Federal Troops protecting the new status quo.

In 1876, a disputed Presidential Election left Republicans and Democrats trying to determine which Party would seat the next President. In what seems like a role reversal for those not up on their history, The Republicans, formed partly with the goal of abolishing slavery, appeared to have lost. Short just one Electoral Vote short of victory with two states votes in dispute and winners of the Popular Vote. It seemed a foregone conclusion they would ultimately prevail. The Democrats, strongest in the South and the Party the Klan called home; allowed the Republicans to claim victory on one condition. The removal of Federal Troops from the South.

This ushered in the era of Jim Crow and all the previous gains of black people were immediately wiped out. In 1878, that Republican President, Rutherford B. Hayes, signed into law the Posse Comitatus Act, ensuring Federal Troops could never again be used in that manner on U.S. soil, protecting black citizens. With its adoption of The Compromise of 1877, followed up by Posse Comitatus slamming the door. America consciously and irrevocably declared its lack of conscience and choice down the path of white supremacy. Democrats began a reign of terror which included voter suppression enforced by lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation (which was always part of the program) and more. Republicans, who still call themselves, “The Party of Lincoln,” looked the other way at best. Cheerfully enacting some of the same programs of voter suppression and gerrymandering which they continue to this day.

Perhaps America will find itself back on track one day? With the recent implementation of Muslim Bans, separation of families at the border, Census questions designed to hurt minorities, and an uptick in segregated schools. It doesn’t look like it will be soon.

The History of American (White) Exceptionalism: Chapter Eight

The period of Jim Crow was neither brief nor just a phase. It was how White Exceptionalism manifested itself between 1865 and 1964. Before that, it was called something else and afterwards new names have not yet stuck but it exists all the same. The Supreme Court has recently done what the Supreme Court has always done which is to weaken the rights of blacks and other minorities to preserve the power of white America despite its decreasing representation in the population.

Chapter Eight: The History of American (White) Exceptionalism

“As a southerner born after the epic events of the civil rights movement, I’ve always wondered how on earth people of good will could have conceivably lived with Jim Crow – with the daily degradations, the lynchings in plain sight, and, as the movement gathered force, with the fire hoses and the police dogs and the billy clubs”.  Jon Meacham

Jim Crow laws existed as a means to come as close to maintaining the status of blacks in America as slaves as could be done both legally, and outside the law. To be clear, Jim Crow has not been eliminated, it has merely adapted so as to be more palatable to the part of society that needs that system in place to maintain its own status. Michelle Alexander wrote a heavily acclaimed book, “The New Jim Crow” in which she describes how systemic are the policies destructive to black people.

The doors were initially opened when the Supreme Court found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was not Constitutional. The act forbade discrimination in hotels, trains, and other public places. When it was struck down, it guaranteed discrimination could and would take place and the law would say nothing. The efforts of the current Roberts court to water down Civil Rights is but another cycle of white protectionism that the Court has always moved toward “with all deliberate speed” despite occasional lapses where it did the right thing.

Jim Crow did not begin immediately after the end of the Civil War. The end of slavery begat the Black Codes which begat Jim Crow which begat the current system which includes redistricting designed to maintain white strongholds, gerrymandering, mass incarceration and voter suppression. Throughout history as one system was outlawed it was replaced by one that accomplished as much of the same as before as it could, just sounding better. The Black Codes were simply revisions of the Slave Codes. Establishing protections for the masters and defining the lack of rights of the slaves. The Black Codes prohibited free black people from voting, compelled them to work for low wages. Black people could not bear arms and were sometimes prohibited from pursuing an education. The true intent of the Black Codes was to duplicate slavery and limit the influence of black people, particularly in areas where they were in the majority. The forces that during the war supported black people were the very enforcers of the “new” codes that maintained the old status quo. The U.S. Army enforced the rules and the Freedman’s Bureau helped implement them. The white agenda was to get the Southern economy jump started and to maintain the cheap labor that gave them an advantage in the first place. The war was all about slavery and the inherent economic advantages enjoyed by the South but was never about freeing the slaves.

The Republican Congress reacted to the Black Codes with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, ratification of the 14th Amendment and a Second Freedmen’s Bureau Bill. While blacks were still subject to all manner of persecution. There were also gains. During Reconstruction, blacks were elected to Congress and Mississippi sent a Senator to Washington as well. There was the hope of steady progress until The Compromise of 1877 which led to Federal troops withdrawing from the South. Southern states immediately began implementing new laws, designed to protect white interests by limiting black ones.

You could easily be confused by references to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which was destroyed by the Supreme Court. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 which protected blacks from the violence of the KKK  became unenforceable when the troops left in 1877 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which was ruled partially unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. All you need to know is that for every law protecting the lives and rights of black people, the Supreme Court has been there to void them. This is as true today as in the period just after slavery. Another thing to know is that Jim Crow laws were not merely the immediate byproduct of the end of Reconstruction but were the laws that governed black people in the South until 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Civil Rights Act was in some ways an attempt to restore rights granted in previous Acts that the Supreme Court ultimately wiped away. It would not be unreasonable at all to state that historically, the Supreme Court has done more to preserve white privilege than any other institution in America.

The period of Jim Crow was neither brief nor just a phase. It was how White Exceptionalism manifested itself between 1865 and 1964. Before that, it was called something else and afterwards new names have not yet stuck but it exists all the same. The Supreme Court has recently done what the Supreme Court has always done which is to weaken the rights of blacks and other minorities to preserve the power of white America despite its decreasing representation in the population.

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