The Black Codes

Key Facts & Summary:

  • In 1865 Lincoln shocked many by announcing that the south could implement measures that ensured limited suffrage for black people.
  • Southern states passed a series of laws called the Black Codes, between 1865 and 1866, that undermined the freedom and civil rights of African Americans.


In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln pronounced the Emancipation Proclamation, meaning that all slaves, the majority of whom were in the southern states, were freemen. In the year following the Proclamation, after the battle at Lincoln, advised the Confederate states to stop their revolt and reaffirm the allegiance to the Union.

The continued rebellion of the south meant that the north did not have any political incentive to tolerate slavery in the South, and therefore the Proclamation was issued. Further, the proclamation meant former slaves could join the side of the Union army.

In 1865, as the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln shocked many by announcing that the south could implement measures that ensured limited suffrage for black people. He was assassinated days later, along with President Andrew Johnson, over the reconstruction.

President Johnson was loyal to the Union, as well as a firm supporter of state rights and a limited federal government that did not assert too much control upon states. During his tenure, Confederate states were required to maintain the abolition of slavery, according to the Thirteenth Amendment, pay off their war debts and swear allegiance to the Union.


After the Civil War, about 4 million slaves were freed, with the question of their status as equal citizens still not accepted in the South. The southern states, therefore, passed a series of laws called the Black Codes between 1865 and 1866 that effectively undermined the freedom of African Americans. The Black Codes differed from state to state and some affirmed the rights of blacks to marry and testify in court. In other states, the laws legislated white supremacy and restricted the civic participation of the African Americans, including denying them the right to vote, to serve on juries, the right to own or lease land and the right to own and carry weapons.

Mississippi and South Carolina were the first southern states to enact the black codes. The Mississippi law required blacks to have “written evidence of employment for the coming year each January.” Termination of an employment contract before the end of the contract meant “forfeiting earlier wages and imminent arrest.”  The South Carolina law required slaves to hold only farming or servant jobs unless they paid an annual tax of $10 to $100. Free blacks in Charleston and former slaves were affected by the law, with some being forced back to plantation labour.

The economy of the south was dependent on slavery and the Black Codes were meant to maintain the status quo during the antebellum economic period. The black codes meant that many African American orphans were dedicated to white plantation owners who compelled them to work.

Former slaves were compelled to sign annual labour contracts with employers who were former slaves, committing them to one employer at the exclusion of all others and with low wages.

Impact of the Black Codes

The black codes caused widespread resistance among blacks in the south and the northern states argued that the laws undermined the principles of free labour. Two pieces of legislation were instrumental in ensuring that there was respect for the rights of blacks in the south. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1866 passed after Congress overrode President Johnson’s veto and the second was the Reconstruction Act of 1867, that required southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment which granted equal protection of the Constitutional rights of former slaves. In addition to the preceding, the southern states were required to grant the universal male suffrage before they were allowed back to the Union.

The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of ‘colour, race or previous condition of servitude. The Constitutional Amendments and the Reconstruction Acts resulted in the successful election of blacks in Georgia and Louisiana.  However, blacks still had to face the challenges presented by the Ku Klux Klan and other discriminatory laws and attitudes that undermined their civic responsibilities and livelihoods.