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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Black Codes

by William C. Harris, 2006

See Also: Slave Codes

Soon after the Civil War, southern states governed by Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67) adopted racially discriminatory laws, called "black codes," to maintain close control over the newly freed slaves, thereby retaining as much of the elements of slavery as possible. North Carolina's black code was arguably not as stringent as those of states with larger black populations, but that would have made little practical difference to the state's newly emancipated black citizens, who were refused most privileges of citizenship. Approved in 1866 after a vigorous debate in the General Assembly, the North Carolina code-actually a series of laws-denied blacks the right to vote, serve on juries, and testify against whites in court; provided for the apprenticing of young blacks to their former owners; established capital punishment for blacks convicted of raping white women; attempted to restrict their movement into and out of the state; and prohibited them from owning or carrying firearms or other weapons unless they obtained a license one year before the purchase. The black code also prohibited interracial marriages, and it applied the same criminal and civil laws, including those relating to the ownership of property, to the former slaves as to whites. The code was enforced by loosely organized (and generally unrestrained) county militias.

Strong northern and black opposition to the southern black codes contributed to the termination of Presidential Reconstruction in 1867 and the imposition of Congressional, or Military, Reconstruction in the former Confederate states, including North Carolina. The new political order nullified the black codes and attempted to institute civil and political equality for African Americans, but it did little to address the underlying social and economic inequities. After Reconstruction ended in 1877, southern white politicians returned to practices that disfranchised blacks and perpetuated their status as second-class citizens. In fact, many Jim Crow laws of the early twentieth century found their origins in the black codes.

References:

Roberta Sue Alexander, North Carolina Faces the Freedmen: Race Relations during Presidential Reconstruction, 1865-1867 (1985).

Jane Dailey and others, Jumpin' Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (2000).

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988).

 

Comments

Comment: 

What is a type of stat of how many African Americans were affected by black codes??

Comment: 

I am interested in specifics of the prohibition of property ownership--and presumably therefore of the purchase of property--by newly freed Blacks, and the presumably concomitant prohibition of the sale of property to Blacks by Whites. It would be helpful to get some elaboration on this statement: "The black code ... applied the same criminal and civil laws, including those relating to the ownership of property, to the former slaves as to whites."
Also, any references to other sources would be appreciated.

Thanks for putting all this information together and making it publicly available.

Comment: 

Hi Christine!

Thank you for your question! I am forwarding your comment to our library's Reference Team so we can look into your question further. A member of our staff should be reaching out to you via e-mail soon!

Taylor Thompson, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

Hi! Could I get this information as well? I am a student-researcher at a North Carolina university, and a project I am proposing would benefit from this information.

Comment: 

Hello, 

Here is the response sent to Christine: 

Information comes from a published resource and I'm not sure what the author was saying. But I do not believe there was a prohibition on African Americans owning property and I do not believe the statement was saying that whites could not sell property to African Americans. What I think it may be saying is that civil and criminal laws were the same for African Americans as they were for whites, but the obviously were not applied the same. 

I do know that during reconstruction, there were formerly enslaved people who owned property and there were many formerly enslaved people involved in the politics of the state as members of the General Assembly in the house and possibly the senate. 

You may want to look through the session laws to see the laws for yourself at http://ncgovdocs.org/sessionlawlist.html. Every law had their own "black codes" and some were the same or similar across states, but I think the best way to learn about the codes for NC is to check the session laws. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

why did southerners adopt black codes? in simple format plz

Comment: 

Thanks for the information!

Comment: 

As a researcher, I thank you for your contribution to African American history.

Comment: 

Thank you so much Eleanor!

Elizabeth Hayden

Government and Heritage Library

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