Following the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, slavery was officially ended throughout the United States, including in the eleven former Confederate States. Almost immediately governments in these states began a process to reestablish white supremacy in the law. The result was the propagation of so-called “Black Codes” in 1865-1866.
The first Black Codes were enacted in Mississippi following the election of a new state legislature in 1865. Mississippi’s Codes, passed by the state legislature, recognized certain rights for former slaves. However, accompanying restrictions led to severe limitations on the rights of freedmen, while also ensuring that former slaves would continue to be exploited for cheap labor in the state. The primary issues addressed in the codes were civil rights, apprenticeships, vagrancy, and criminal law.
Concerning civil rights, the Mississippi Black Codes allowed freedmen to access the legal system, marry, own property, and contract employment. However, in the courts, Blacks were limited from serving as witnesses in civil cases solely between white litigants. Further, marriage between different races was punishable for both whites and non-whites by life imprisonment. Finally, limits were placed on former slaves’ ability to own property outside of the cities, and therefore, to move from the cities and engage in their own farming or land ownership.
Additionally, freedmen were severely limited in their ability to leave employment and seek out new, better paying employment opportunities. The Mississippi legislature also set criminal and financial penalties against any person who enticed or tried to entice a freedman away from an employment contract. Such limitations made it extremely difficult to seek out better paying jobs or change employment, thereby effectively eliminating true social mobility or autonomy.
Further, under new apprenticeship laws, county law enforcement and civil officials were required to report all free minors of Black or mixed race, who were orphans, or whose parents were unable to provide financial care for them, to the courts. The courts could then order the minors to work as apprentices for individuals whom the courts deemed suitable and competent; however, a minor’s former master had preference. In effect, this provision guaranteed that former owners had preference to ensure that the children of their former slaves would continue to labor for the master.
Similarly, in the vagrancy provisions of the Black Codes, the Mississippi legislature stated that any freedman who was unemployed within two weeks of the new year in 1866, was a vagrant. A vagrant needed to pay a fine, and if the vagrant was unable to pay the fine within five days, then the vagrant would be forced into jail and ultimately into unpaid labor.
Finally, criminal provisions restricted the types of property Blacks could own, as well as the types of property that could be purchased by or sold to Blacks. Again, criminal penalties and jail time would often result in a freedman being hired out.
In response, Congress passed the 14th and 15th Amendments, in 1868 and 1870 respectively. These amendments guaranteed freedmen equal protection under the law and the right to vote. In light of these new guarantees, the Black Codes were no longer operable. However, many of the same restrictions and limitations were again put in place through the propagation of Jim Crow laws throughout the South.