What Were the Black Codes? - History & Explanation

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished the institution of slavery. Unfortunately, the newly attained freedom for African Americans was curtailed by the Southern adoption of the Black Codes. Learn how former slave states continued to oppress African Americans through this unequal system.


Imagine achieving a life-long goal after years of struggle. Now imagine that someone or something intervenes and slowly begins to take away aspects of your accomplishment. You still have your achievement, but it is riddled with holes and uncertainties. This is how African Americans felt following their freedom from slavery when former slave states adopted and implemented the Black Codes.


Immediately succeeding the conclusion of the Civil War, many former Southern slave states instituted the Black Codes. At the time, white Southerners were not ready to associate with the newly freed black populace. Instead, whites were determined to allow certain permissible rights to former slaves while subjecting them to a system of control. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, the Black Codes were instituted to create a cheap labor force for Southern plantation owners.

Rebuilding Labor

If you are trying to maintain a business of production, the most important aspect is labor. Let's see how the South attempted to reconstruct their system of labor through the Black Codes.

When the codes were enacted in the fall of 1865, newly freed blacks were instantaneously relegated to a system that mirrored slavery. In an attempt to rebuild the suffering labor force in the South, many Southern legislatures labeled unemployed blacks as vagrants. By doing so, this allowed white Southerners to apprehend and fine unemployed blacks. In order to pay the fine, blacks were required to enter into a work contract on a plantation.

Continued oppression following the Civil War
Black Codes, Anti-Freedmen

Black children were also placed in a perilous situation due to the Black Codes. Southern judges were allowed to seize and lend out black children to plantation owners without the permission of their parents. This system allowed whites to continue to suppress blacks while acquiring cheap labor.

Additional Aspects of the Black Codes

Acquiring labor was a major aspect of the Black Codes; however, blacks were deemed to second class citizenship status in a number of additional ways. The codes disenfranchised blacks, reduced their ability to lease farms and prevented them from testifying against whites in the court of law. Moreover, blacks were forbidden from interracial marriages and prevented from acquiring employment outside of the plantation. Punishments ranged from severe whippings to imprisonment.

Southern efforts to destroy the Freedmens Bureau
Black Codes

The Federal Government Responds

You may be wondering how the South was able to implement this system of inequality without immediate federal intervention. Remember, the Civil War had just ended. The foremost goal of the federal government was rebuilding the Union. The South took advantage of this ulterior focus, but it would not last long.

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