Even as former slaves fought to assert their independence and gain economic autonomy during the earliest years of Reconstruction, white landowners acted to control the labor force through a system similar to the one that had existed during slavery.
In South Carolina, a law prohibited blacks from holding any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid an annual tax of $10 to $100. This provision hit free blacks already living in Charleston and former slave artisans especially hard. In both states, blacks were given heavy penalties for vagrancy, including forced plantation labor in some cases.
Limits on Black Freedom
Under Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, nearly all the southern states would enact their own black codes in 1865 and 1866. While the codes granted certain freedoms to African Americans—including the right to buy and own property, marry, make contracts and testify in court (only in cases involving people of their own race)—their primary purpose was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity.
Some states limited the type of property that blacks could own, while virtually all the former Confederate states passed strict vagrancy and labor contract laws, as well as so-called “anti-enticement” measures designed to punish anyone who offered higher wages to a black laborer already under contract.
Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating and forced labor, and apprenticeship laws forced many minors (either orphans or those whose parents were deemed unable to support them by a judge) into unpaid labor for white planters.
Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, the black codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces—often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War—across the South.
Impact of the Black Codes
The restrictive nature of the codes and widespread black resistance to their enforcement enraged many in the North, who argued that the codes violated the fundamental principles of free labor ideology.
After passing the Civil Rights Act (over Johnson’s veto), Republicans in Congress effectively took control of Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment—which granted “equal protection” of the Constitution to former slaves—and enact universal male suffrage before they could rejoin the Union.
The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” During this period of Radical Reconstruction (1867-1877), blacks won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress.
As indicated by the passage of the black codes, however, white southerners showed a steadfast commitment to ensuring their supremacy and the survival of plantation agriculture in the postwar years. Support for Reconstruction policies waned after the early 1870s, undermined by the violence of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1877, when the last federal soldiers left the South and Reconstruction drew to a close, blacks had seen little improvement in their economic and social status, and the vigorous efforts of white supremacist forces throughout the region had undone the political gains they had made. Discrimination would continue in America with the rise of Jim Crow laws, but would inspire the Civil Rights Movement to come.