Black code in the United States, any of numerous laws enacted in the states of the former Confederacy after the American Civil War, in 1865 and 1866, designed to replace the social controls of slavery that had been removed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and to assure continuance of white supremacy.
The black codes had their roots in the slave codes that had formerly been in effect. The general philosophy supporting the institution of chattel slavery in America was based on the concept that slaves were property, not persons, and that the law must protect not only the property but also the property owner from the danger of violence. Slave rebellions were not unknown, and the possibility of uprisings was a constant source of anxiety in colonies and then states with large slave populations. (In Virginia during 1780-1864, 1,418 slaves were convicted of crimes; 91 of these convictions were for insurrection and 346 for murder.) Slaves also ran away. In the British possessions in the New World, the settlers were free to promulgate any regulations they saw fit to govern their labour supply. As early as the 17th century, a set of rules was in effect in Virginia and elsewhere; but the codes were constantly being altered to adapt to new needs, and they varied from one colony, and later one state, to another.
All the slave codes, however, had certain provisions in common. In all of them the colour line was firmly drawn, and any amount of Negro blood established the race of a person, whether slave or free, as Negro. The status of the offspring followed that of the mother, so that the child of a free father and a slave mother was a slave. Slaves had few legal rights: in court their testimony was inadmissible in any litigation involving whites; they could make no contract, nor could they own property; even if attacked, they could not strike a white person. There were numerous restrictions to enforce social control: slaves could not be away from their owner's premises without permission; they could not assemble unless a white person was present; they could not own firearms; they could not be taught to read or write, or transmit or possess "inflammatory" literature; they were not permitted to marry.
Obedience to the slave codes was exacted in a variety of ways. Such punishments as whipping, branding, and imprisonment were commonly used, but death (which meant destruction of property) was rarely called for except in such extreme cases as the rape or murder of a white person. White patrols kept the slaves under surveillance, especially at night. Slave codes were not always strictly enforced, but whenever any signs of unrest were detected the appropriate machinery of the state would be alerted and the laws more strictly enforced.
The black codes enacted immediately after the American Civil War, though varying from state to state, were all intended to secure a steady supply of cheap labour, and all continued to assume the inferiority of the freed slaves. There were vagrancy laws that declared a black to be vagrant if unemployed and without permanent residence; a person so defined could be arrested, fined, and bound out for a term of labour if unable to pay the fine. Apprentice laws provided for the "hiring out" of orphans and other young dependents to whites, who often turned out to be their former owners. Some states limited the type of property blacks could own, and in others blacks were excluded from certain businesses or from the skilled trades. Former slaves were forbidden to carry firearms or to testify in court, except in cases concerning other blacks. Legal marriage between blacks was provided for, but interracial marriage was prohibited.
It was Northern reaction to the black codes (as well as to the bloody antiblack riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866; see New Orleans Race Riot) that helped produce Radical Reconstruction (see Reconstruction) and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The Freedmen's Bureau was created in 1865 to help the former slaves. Reconstruction did away with the black codes, but, after Reconstruction was over, many of their provisions were reenacted in the Jim Crow laws, which were not finally done away with until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.