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Black Codes Restrict Newly Won Freedom

In the fall of 1865, white southerners, most of them ex-Confederates and planters, won large majorities in local and state elections throughout the South. They quickly passed a series of restrictive laws, or Black Codes, which varied only slightly from state to state. These laws were designed to control and limit the political, social, and economic opportunities of African Americans, forcing them to work under conditions not very different than slavery. The punishment for violating the Codes was years of unpaid hard labor. In response, freedmen demanded that the federal government do more to protect their rights; outraged white northerners urged their Congressmen to intervene as well.


Any person who is able to work is not allowed to wander or stroll about leisurely. Such people will be deemed vagrants and be arrested. Anyone can arrest a vagrant. Landowners or other people with a source of income are not subject to vagrancy laws. (Georgia) 

Labor & Contracts 

No person of color can be an artisan, mechanic or shop-keeper, or pursue any other trade or business besides farming, manual labor or domestic service (South Carolina) 

Police and sheriffs must find and arrest any laborer or domestic servant who quits his or her job before the contract has expired; the police or sheriff must return the laborer or servant to his or her employer. Any person is allowed to fetch and return laborers and servants who quit their jobs, but only police and sheriffs are compelled to (Mississippi) 

When a person of color working on a farm or plantation deliberately disobeys orders, is impudent or disrespectful to his employer, refuses to do the work assigned, or leaves the premises, he can be arrested. (Florida)

If a judge declares that a parent cannot support his or her children, then the children can be bound out as apprentices until they are 21 (for boys) and 16 (for girls) (Alabama) 

The former slave owner gets first preference when their former slave children are bound out as apprentices (Georgia and North Carolina) 

It is illegal for any person to hire or to offer a better contract to any black person contracted in domestic service or manual labor to another (Mississippi) 

Testifying Against Whites

No person of color can testify against a white person in court, unless the white person agrees to it (North Carolina) 

Serving in State Militias 

No person of color can serve in the state militia; it is illegal for black people to own firearms, swords or other military weapons (South Carolina) 

Crime and Punishment 

Each county will elect two jail keepers, one to be in charge of poor whites and one to be in charge of poor blacks (North Carolina) 

If any white person sees a black person commit a misdemeanor or felony crime, the white person has the authority to arrest the black person. If a white person commits a crime, then the witness must first get a warrant for his arrest from a judge before the criminal can be arrested (South Carolina) 

It is legal to prevent the escape of a black person who has committed a crime at night by any means necessary, even if the black person is killed (South Carolina) 

Any black man who is convicted of rape or attempted rape of a white woman will be given the death penalty (North Carolina) 

Interracial Marriage 

It is a felony crime for any person of color to marry a white person; white people may not marry freedmen or other people of color. Any person who commits this crime will be sentenced to life in prison (Mississippi)


Only white men can serve on juries, hold office, and vote in any state, county, or municipal election (Texas)

No colored persons have the right to vote, hold office or sit on juries in this state (Tennessee)

Source | Adapted from “The American Black Codes, 1865-1866,” George Washington University Library,
Creator | Various
Item Type | Laws/Court Cases
Cite This document | Various, “Black Codes Restrict Newly Won Freedom,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 16, 2024,

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