The Black Codes: What It Means When They Talk About Redeeming The South

It is commonly understood that slavery is illegal in the United States. If history is any guide to us, we can decide for ourselves if this is true. In fact, as patriots and citizens, we need to decide for ourselves if this is true. One of the lessons of history is, of course, that you should never trust someone else to tell you what is true; you must decide for yourself. We will try to decide the answer for ourselves by looking at the Mississippi Black Codes. This will be the first in a series that examines a primary source from history, hoping to gain a personal determination of the truth derived from history.

After the Civil War, the United States passed amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery (13th), made discrimination illegal (14th), and insured that African Americans would be citizens of the United States (15th).

These amendments are considered cornerstones of the Constitution. Their existence is commonly believed to make the Constitution a living document, insuring its relevance beyond the 19th Century and even unto today.


Redeeming the South

Soon after the passage of these amendments, however, the Southern leadership tried to redeem the Southern way of life. These “Redeemers” as they called themselves were in direct contrast to Reconstructionists, who sought to undue the tradition of white supremacy in the South by enforcing the above described amendments on the former Confederates.

One example of how the Southern states tried to resist changes to their traditions of white supremacy comes to us in the form of the Mississippi Black Codes.

The Black Codes created strict legal limitations for African Americans, here described as “negroes”. The law is blatant in its depiction of African Americans as suspect persons, and grants control over aspects of their lives that would seemingly appear discriminatory of their face.

These biased laws beg the question, “Were African Americans free from slavery after the Civil War?”

Were African Americans Free?

To answer this question it is essential that we be clear about the use of history, both in understanding the past, but also in understanding who were are as individuals. There will be some who will look at the Black Codes and see something unconnected to the present; a relic of the past. There are others who will see the Black Codes and reject any claim that African Americans were less than equal, because today there are wealthy and successful examples of African Americans in our society.

But these are only two possible readings of history. They each reveal more about the viewer of history than the value of history.

Vagrants and Pilferers, according to the law.

First Things Matter

Another important factor at play here is the element of first things. In history first things matter.

Fist thing after the Civil War, the Norther abolitionists tried to enshrine the principles of freedom and equality into the Constitution, hoping to insure that the evil of racial discrimination would not be allowed to continue into the future.

First thing after white Southerns returned to power in the South, they tried to enshrine white supremacy into the law on a local level, in the form of the Black Codes.

Here is one example of how they tried to make it possible to control African Americans on a local level, at least in Mississippi.

Vagrancy Law

Section 1. Be it enacted by the legislature of the state of Mississippi, that all rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practising unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common nightwalkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, in speech or behavior, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, or habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming houses, or tippling shops, shall be deemed and considered vagrants under the provisions of this act; and, on conviction thereof shall be fined not exceeding $100, with all accruing costs, and be imprisoned at the discretion of the court not exceeding ten days.

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167

Note in this first section of the law, that vagrants are described as anyone determined by local authorities to be “runaways”, or “persons who neglect their calling”.

This allowed for a broad determination of anyone on a local level, by local authorities, all of whom would be white men, to imprison anyone they wished by making a determination that they were runaways or someone doing something they should not be doing.

To the white men of the former Confederacy, the calling of all African Americans was to be a servant to the needs and fortunes of white men. Therefore this law allowed for repeated arrest, imprisonment and, yes, enslavement of African Americans. Even the 13th Amendment allows for slavery to exist if someone if found guilty of a crime.

Read “Why We Are All John Brown”

The Requirement to Work

The slaves had been the foundation of the economy in the South. Emancipation threatened this economic system. Control of the freedmen was essential not only to the social class of white men, but to the economic fortunes of the towns and municipalities.

The Black Codes continue…

Section 2. Be it further enacted, that all freedmen, free Negroes, and mulattoes in this state over the age of eighteen years found on the second Monday in January 1966, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together either in the day or nighttime, and all white persons so assembling with freedmen, free Negroes, or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free Negroes, or mulattoes on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freedwoman, free Negro, or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants; and, on conviction thereof, shall be fined in the sum of not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free Negro, or mulatto, 150, and a white man, $200, and imprisoned at the discretion of the court, the free Negro not exceeding ten days, and the white man not exceeding six months.

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167 [emphasis added]
“Criminals” hired out under the Black Codes.

Here is reads the freedmen are required to have lawful employment, or else face arrest and imprisonment. This requirement is not made of whites, of course, as the enforcement of their labor was not necessary to maintain the tradition Southern way of life.

In order to establish this as not discriminatory under the Constitution, the Black Codes are careful to define a lack of legal employment as vagrancy.

The fines levied against freedmen for not working would be required to become free once more. The amount, however, was so great that it’s repayment would be impossible. This insured that any African American could be enslaved legally, without the claim that race had anything to do with the terms of enslavement.

The fines had to be paid, of course, in a timely manner. The timeline for repayment was so short that it sealed the fate of any freedman .

Section 5. Be it further enacted, that all fines and forfeitures collected under the provisions of this act shall be paid into the county treasury for general county purposes; and in case any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto shall fail for five days after the imposition of any fine or forfeiture upon him or her for violation of any of the provisions of this act to pay the same, that it shall be, and is hereby made, the duty of the sheriff of the proper county to hire out said freedman, free Negro, or mulatto to any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine or forfeiture and all costs:

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167 [emphasis added]

There it is. The fine so large it could not be paid in five days would result in the forced labor of the freedman to a local business, usually a former plantation owner, for repayment.

This is the first installment of a series on the Black Codes from Historydojo. In the next installment we will example the Penal Codes under the law.


Author: Tyler Rust

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