Copyright notice

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.

Printer-friendly page

Slave Codes

by Alan K. Lamm, 2006

The increasing number of black slaves in colonial America created suspicion and fear among the general population and led to a backlash of white reaction known as slave codes. Virginia was the first of the 13 colonies to adopt such regulations, using earlier Caribbean slave codes as models. Other colonies quickly followed suit, patterning their codes after the Virginia laws.

Broadside about a fugitive slaveSlave codes varied slightly from colony to colony, but most made bondage a lifelong condition and ensured that all descendants of slaves would be slaves as well. Other codes prohibited them from voting, owning property, testifying in court against whites, gathering in large numbers, traveling without permission, or marrying whites. Slave codes also gave white masters nearly total control over the lives of slaves, permitting owners to use such corporal punishments as whipping, branding, maiming, and torture. Although white masters could not legally murder their slaves, some did and were never prosecuted. Colonial North Carolina, still tied to South Carolina until 1729, had few slaves in the late seventeenth century, but by 1710 there were around 900. The colony's growing number of blacks led to the creation of a slave code by 1715.

After the Revolutionary War, most states, especially those in the South, developed new slave codes. After the 1830s these laws became increasingly stringent, due to the tensions produced by the Nat Turner Rebellion in Southampton County, Va., and the rise of the abolitionist movement in the North. The new regulations clearly defined slaves as property, rather than as people, and outlawed teaching them to read and write. Slaves could not leave the plantation without their master's permission, strike a white person even in self-defense, buy or sell goods or hire themselves out, or visit the homes of whites or free blacks.

Enforcement of slave codes varied. In times of peace, masters gave slaves more freedom; but in times of unrest, they rigorously enforced the slave codes both through the courts and by establishing slave patrols. Composed of white men who took turns covering a particular area of their county, slave patrols watched for runaways or assisted owners in enforcing the slave codes on their plantations.

Slave codes ended with the Civil War but were replaced by other discriminatory laws known as "black codes" during Reconstruction (1865-77). The black codes were attempts to control the newly freed African Americans by barring them from engaging in certain occupations, performing jury duty, owning firearms, voting, and other pursuits. At first, the U.S. Congress opposed black codes by enacting legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. But by the time of the so-called Compromise of 1877, civil rights for blacks had eroded, as Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and northerners lost interest in the issue. The slave codes essentially lived on in Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination until successfully challenged in the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.


Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (1993).

Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina (2002).

John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (6th ed., 1988).

Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974).

Image Credit:

"Broadside about a fugitive slave." Image courtesy of the Libraries of Northern Illionois University. Available from (accessed May 4, 2012).




i need to compare and contrast code noir and slave codes !!!!!


Hi, I'm working on a project for class and I have a question, When were slave codes first introduced? Like what year and month?



In the article above, end of second paragraph says 1715 for North Carolina. 

Hope that helps and good luck with the project. 

Erin Bradford,  Government and Heritage Library


Im doing a important project on Analyzing the impacts of the slave codes and Jim Crow laws on slaves, former slaves, and free blacks. and i can't find much information.


Wow! Thank you for such a great question/comment! That is a difficult topic on which to find information! Here are some "starter" sites that may point you to other resources: 

Good luck!


Kelly Eubank, Government and Heritage Library


I am working on a project for school and I need to know if slaves were allowed to testify in court in the North or South, both or neither


I'm doing a project on slave codes and here are some questions I was asked:
How did free blacks respond to the slave codes?
What did abolitionists do in response to the slave codes?
When and how did the codes change?
When and how were slave codes eliminated?
Please help me find these answers.


I also have a question for a project: What was the impact of these slave codes on the communities and culture in the southern colonies?


Hi, I am doing a project and I had some questions.
How did free blacks respond to the slave codes?
What did abolitionists do in response to the slave codes?
When and how did the codes change?
When and how were slave codes eliminated?
Thank you for your time!


Hi Kayla,

Thank you for sharing your project and questions. I have forwarded your questions to reference services at the NC Government & Heritage Library. A reference librarian will contact you shortly to help with this question using the email you provided.

Additionally, there is some information in the article above. You may also be interested in the PBS page and video related to the slave codes:

Here is also a page from the Library of Congress that has some information about the slave code for the District of Columbia:

Best of luck with your project!

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

Add a comment

PLEASE NOTE: NCpedia provides the comments feature as a way for viewers to engage with the resources. Comments are not published until reviewed by NCpedia editors at the State Library of NC, and the editors reserve the right to not publish any comment submitted that is considered inappropriate for this resource. NCpedia will not publish personal contact information in comments, questions, or responses. If you would like a reply by email, note that some email servers, such as public school accounts, are blocked from accepting messages from outside email servers or domains. If you prefer not to leave an email address, check back at your NCpedia comment for a reply. Please allow one business day for replies from NCpedia. Complete guidelines are available at