(1865–1866). Among the most significant—and obvious—consequences of the Civil War were the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union army had established some rudimentary labor guidelines for former slaves, the status of former slaves and their civil and economic rights were left largely undetermined at the war’s end. In 1865, with little direction forthcoming from Washington and with the South in economic and social chaos, the states of the former Confederacy drew up “Black Codes” to clarify the standing of African Americans.
In South Carolina the provisional governor Benjamin F. Perry realized that the greatest problem facing the state was economic distress, since abolition had destroyed the traditional slave-labor-based agricultural system. Perry commissioned Armistead Burt and David Wardlaw to draw up state regulations designed to define the status of former slaves and stabilize the labor problem. The two lawyers, assisted by Edmund Rhett, presented the state’s Black Codes to the legislature in October 1865, and they were adopted in December.
The three main laws—with their extensive articles—that comprised South Carolina’s Black Codes addressed three general areas: new rights following abolition, new restrictions following abolition, and more specific decrees directed toward the labor issue. The first law recognized the abolition of slavery and defined “black,” since the distinction between whites and African Americans needed to be clearly and carefully drawn. African Americans were now allowed to own property (unless restricted under a different article), enter into contracts, sue in court, and attend school. The code also legalized African American marriages, accepted as de facto in the Old South but technically extralegal.
The second law set forth restrictions that actually curtailed rights enjoyed by free blacks before the Civil War. Included were prohibitions on the sale of goods without an employer’s or magistrate’s consent, prohibitions on the possession of firearms (a small fowling piece was allowed), and details of the developing legal situation. African Americans could not appear as witnesses in criminal cases, could not serve on juries, and could only swear out complaints against white persons before white magistrates. Whites, however, had the authority to arrest a “person of color” suspected of a misdemeanor.
The third section of the Black Codes concentrated on the labor question. It imposed a “sunrise to sunset” workday for those in agriculture, along with a strict set of regulations regarding movement, breaks, dining periods, and even conversation. The law not only assumed agriculture as the livelihood of most African Americans but also coerced it; African Americans could choose to be only field hands or hired servants, and any other occupation required a license from a judge. As with other southern states, South Carolina also imposed harsh penalties for vagrants, those who had no permanent abode or no formal employment contract. These persons could be imprisoned, forced to perform public labor, or auctioned to needy employers. With white judges, expensive licenses, and criminal vagrancy, the Black Codes assured a stable and sizable supply of experienced black farm laborers.
As with other southern states, South Carolina misread the political climate and underestimated the North’s dedication to transforming the South. Whether viewed as practical solutions or racist abuses, the Black Codes were certainly political mistakes. For many southern whites, the Black Codes represented a reasonable compromise between slavery and free labor. Considering the drastic changes and shocks that southern society had already suffered, some thought it best to move ahead slowly. But Republicans in the North saw it differently. A few “radicals” noted that missing from the Black Codes was any discussion of political rights. More generally, Republicans in and out of government were offended by what the codes did include, which amounted to an attempt to re-create, within the confines of an altered national Constitution, as much of the antebellum South as possible.
After four years of war, Republicans in Congress were not ready to accept a social, economic, and political return to the antebellum years. With the convening of Congress in December 1865, Republicans set out first to overturn the Black Codes; then to sweep away President Andrew Johnson, the South’s last defender; and finally to establish a new social, economic, and political order in the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and the Fourteenth Amendment all nullified the Black Codes and created a foundation for a New South. Ironically, large parts of these devices would prove as fleeting as the Black Codes, and within a generation northern indifference and racism would allow southern white conservatism once again to redefine the place of African Americans in America.
Carter, Dan T. When the War Was Over: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865–1867. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Wilson, Theodore Brantner. The Black Codes of the South. University: University of Alabama Press, 1965.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.