Black Codes


Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War that imposed strict regulations on the behavior and activities of African Americans. These codes often restricted the rights and freedoms of African Americans, including their ability to vote, own property, and enter into contracts.

President Andrew Johnson, Photograph, LOC

The Black Codes were passed during Presidential Reconstruction, which was overseen by President Andrew Johnson. Image Source: Library of Congress.

What were the Black Codes of 1865–1866?

Black Codes were laws enacted by the legislatures of former Confederate States in 1865 and 1866, in response to the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The laws were intended to restrict the rights and freedoms of slaves who were freed in the wake of the Civil War. Although the Black Codes were short-lived, they were an example of Southern resistance to emancipation and its aftermath in the years following the Civil War. These laws played a significant role in ending Presidential Reconstruction and increasing federal involvement during Congressional Reconstruction, which was designed by Radical Republicans who wanted to punish the South for the Civil War.

Thaddeus Stevens, Radical Republican, LOC
Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was one of the most important leaders of the Radical Republicans. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Black Codes Facts

  • Mississippi was the first state to enact Black Codes.
  • Black Codes enacted by Mississippi and South Carolina are considered to be the most restricted laws.
  • Black Codes were eventually succeeded by Jim Crow Laws.
  • Fear played a role in the enactment of Black Codes after rumors spread through the South that the government was going to give freed slave families “40 acres and a mule” for Christmas in 1865.

Local Black Codes

The outcome of the Civil War did nothing to change the economy of the South, which was heavily reliant on agriculture. In fact, some officers in the Union Army suggested former slaves should return to plantations as Sharecroppers, working with labor contracts. The belief was that contracts would protect them from mistreatment by former slaveowners. 

However, the situation did not go as planned. In the summer of 1865, Southern plantation owners started forming associations that intended to prevent blacks from competing for jobs. The attempt to retain white authority targeted former slaves through laws that criminalized vagrancy, restricted them to specific jobs, and prohibited them from owning properly.

Mississippi — the First State to Issue Black Codes

Eventually, similar regulations were implemented at the state level. Mississippi took the lead in November 1865 by enacting the first Black Code. 

Mississippi’s code mandated:

  • Every African-American worker must have a written employment agreement within the initial ten days of January, covering the entire year. Workers who violated this contract forfeited their wages and could face arrest.
  • Employers trying to hire a black worker already under contract also faced penalties. 
  • African Americans were restricted to working specific jobs within the agriculture industry, essentially ensuring plantation owners had an available workforce.
  • African Americans were prohibited from leasing land in urban areas. 

To ensure their employment, the Mississippi Black Code introduced criminal penalties for vagrancy. Additionally, insulting gestures or language were deemed criminal offenses.

Mississippi Black Codes also prohibited former slaves from:

  • Assembling in groups at any time of the day or night.
  • Preaching without a license from the county.
  • Speaking freely. Seditious speech was prohibited.
  • Disturbing the peace.
  • Keeping or carrying weapons without a license from the county.

Black Codes in the South

Numerous Southern states followed Mississippi’s example and introduced their own Black Codes. 

South Carolina imposed taxes ranging from $10 to $100 on African Americans engaged in non-farming or non-servant businesses. Beyond mandatory yearly labor contracts, a worker couldn’t depart from the plantation without the employer’s consent. 

In Louisiana, a worker failing to adhere to their labor contract could face arrest and be compelled to work on public projects without pay until they agreed to return to their contracted employer.

Black Codes Based on Prejudice and Fear

The Black Codes were often created by judges, lawyers, and law professors, many of whom had not supported secession. 

However, they held to an ideology that assumed African Americans would not engage in labor and were inclined toward self-indulgence. They also believed African Americans were incapable of developing skills and literacy. 

White Southerners held the belief that African Americans required safeguarding from these perceived tendencies. Fearing potential uprisings, white Southerners also sought the protection through Black Codes.

Limited Rights for Former Slaves

Southern leaders and politicians were aware that the nation was watching how they treated the newly freed slaves within their restructured political and legal frameworks. As a result, the Black Codes did provide certain rights to former slaves. 

These rights included:

  • The ability to enter into contracts.
  • The right to engage in legal actions as plaintiffs, or defendants. However, separate courts were usually established.
  • The right to marry other African Americans.
  • The right to engage in the purchase, ownership, and transfer of property. 

However, these limited rights were still at the mercy of white plantation owners and politicians. Ultimately, the provisions fell short of convincing Northern leaders — particularly the Radical Republicans — that Southerners had changed their treatment of former slaves.

Radical Republicans

The Radical Republicans, who were adamant over equality for the former slaves, were outraged by the Black Codes. 

Despite the goals of the Radical Republicans, the reality was that many Northerners held the same beliefs as Southerners in regard to the limitations of African Americans. However, many Northerners also believed they should have equal access to the legal system, fair enforcement of criminal laws, and the right to compete in the open market.

The restrictions levied on African Americans by the Black Codes were also upsetting to Moderate Republicans. It was clear that white Southerners had not changed their ways as Northerners had hoped. As a result, the Moderates joined the Radicals in December 1865 in refusing to seat delegations elected to represent the former Confederate states.

Radical Republicans Respond to the Black Codes

In early 1866, Congress extended the Freedmen’s Bureau and granted it additional powers, including the supervision of labor contracts.

During the 1866 elections, Radical Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. Following the elections, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was intended to validate the citizenship of former slaves and provide them with specific, federally guaranteed civil rights.

Radical Reconstruction Removes the Black Codes

Starting in 1867, Congress, led by the Radical Republicans, worked to unravel the Black Codes and systematically force the Southern States to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Ultimately, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which placed the South under military jurisdiction and worked to enforce equality in the region. The Black Codes were forcefully repealed through legislative measures or by federal authorities overseeing the Reconstruction governments, and by 1867, virtually none of them remained in effect.

Black Codes Significance

The Black Codes are important to United States history for the role they played in restricting the rights of freed slaves during the Reconstruction Era. In many ways, the Black Codes were based on the old Slave Codes of the Colonial Era and they preceded the Jim Crow Laws of the 19th and 20th centuries that enforced racial segregation

Black Codes APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Black Codes, the Civil War, and Reconstruction for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Black Codes Definition APUSH

The Black Codes are defined as a series of discriminatory laws enacted in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction Era, primarily in 1865 and 1866. These laws were designed to restrict the civil rights and freedoms of newly freed African Americans, effectively creating a system of legal segregation and white supremacy. Black Codes imposed harsh labor contracts on African American workers, limited their mobility, and denied them access to many public facilities. They were a precursor to the Jim Crow laws that would persist for decades, reinforcing racial segregation and inequality in the South.

Black Codes Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the Daily Bellringer discusses the Black Codes, along with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Sharecropping.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Black Codes
  • Date 1865–1866
  • Author
  • Keywords Black Codes, Black Codes APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 6, 2023