The institution of chattel slavery in the United States was primarily a system of labor and containment. One of the legal strategies that Euro-American enslavers devised to control the time, energy, and mobility of enslaved people of African descent was slave codes. Enslavers began to codify these restrictions into laws in the 17th century. One of the most (in)famous of these laws, partus sequitur ventrem, or “that is which brought forth follows the womb,” defined slavery as a heritable condition from the mother. Other codes, such as prohibitions against interracial marriage, followed. As chattel slavery became more entrenched into American society and economy in the 19th century, slave codes evolved as well. Southern legislatures required that an enslaved person carry a pass that authorized travel away from the plantation. Enslaved people could not own guns, could not learn to read or sing, beat drums, or gather in groups without their enslaver’s permission. Any violations of these codes meant swift and brutal punishment to transgressors. Despite these dehumanizing decrees, enslaved people resisted their bondage in overt and subtle ways. Even free blacks in the Northern states, however, did not escape these legal entrapments. Laws called “black codes” contained similar restrictions to the slave codes that existed in the Southern states. Some “free” regions, such as Ohio and Michigan, temporarily forbade free people of color from settling in their territories. With the end of the Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, African Americans may have been nominally free, but state governments and local authorities in the Southern states invented ways to keep a de facto slavery system in place with the passage of black codes. Mississippi passed the first of these regulations in 1865. Vagrancy laws comprised a major component of black codes. Any unemployed African American was considered “idle” and could be charged with the “crime” of vagrancy and sentenced to a fine, jail, physical punishment, and/or forced labor. Other codes outlawed African American ownership of guns, serving on juries, and interracial relationships. In addition, Southern courts used black codes to enforce apprentice contracts that separated children from their parents. In historical scholarship, very few full-length monographs exclusively tackle the subjects of slave codes and black codes. Rather, coverage of these subjects is tied in with discussions of the experiences of enslaved life and resistance and black lives, labor, and activism during the Reconstruction period.
To understand how black codes and slave codes operated and affected the lives of enslaved people, it is necessary to have an understanding of the system of chattel slavery in the United States and of the Reconstruction era. Kolchin 1993 and Stevenson 2015 provide in-depth overviews of the institution of chattel slavery in the United States, including the restrictions put in place to control and manage enslaved people. Morris 1996 provides a comprehensive analysis of the development of slave laws in the US South. Schwarz 1998 focuses specifically on slave codes in colonial and antebellum Virginia. Genovese 1976 demonstrates how enslaved people resisted the social control of enslavers, while Hadden 2001 describes a pivotal way that enslavers maintained the institution: slave patrols. The literature on Reconstruction touches on how the Southern states established black codes and “slavery by another name.” Litwack 1979, Du Bois 2017, and Foner 1988 cover the Reconstruction era and provide the reader the historical foundation to understand how the black codes came into existence.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Routledge Press, 2017.
Originally published in 1935, Black Reconstruction brilliantly overturns the Dunning School interpretation of the Reconstruction era, which glorified the “Lost Cause” ideology of the Civil War and deemed Reconstruction a political, social, and economic failure. Instead, Du Bois highlights black political activism and agency and argues that Reconstruction was a time of expanded democracy. One of the first monographs to examine the black codes and their impact on postbellum black life.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper Collins, 1988.
This magisterial work provides a sweeping overview of the Reconstruction period, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation and ending with the Compromise of 1877. Foner, like Du Bois, emphasizes how African Americans made social, political, and economic advances during Reconstruction despite white Southern backlash. An essential book for understanding the milieu in which white Southern legislators created the black codes.
Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.
Applying a Marxist interpretation to the study of slavery, Genovese argues that the system of slavery was based on the idea of paternalism: a system of reciprocal duties, obligations, and responsibilities between the enslaved and enslaver. This work uses plantation records, slave narratives, and court cases to demonstrate that the enslaved carried out subtle forms of resistance to combat the restriction of slave codes.
Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
This work is the only full-length monograph on the origins of slave patrols and how they functioned in the US South. Hadden details how these police units maintained order and enforced slave codes on plantations in Virginia and North and South Carolina.
Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery: 1619–1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Kolchin provides a comprehensive look at the development of US slavery from the 17th century through the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Covers a variety of topics, including enslaved family life, proslavery ideology, and abolitionist rhetoric. Chapter 4, “Antebellum Slavery: Organization, Control, and Paternalism,” addresses how slaveholders attempted to police enslaved life through slave codes.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.
Pulitzer Prize–winning monograph that painstakingly traces African American life after emancipation using newspaper accounts, WPA slave narratives, government documents, plantation records, and personal correspondence of freedpeople. Discusses the creation of the black codes and how these restrictions affected the social, political, and economic agendas of freedpeople.
Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
This monograph is the first comprehensive work on the history of Southern slave laws in the United States. This sweeping overview analyzes property laws that affected enslaved people (mortgages, wills, contract law) and examines how state and local courts handled matters such as the physical abuse of enslaved people, crimes committed by slaves, civil liability of slaveholders, and the judicial process in civil and criminal cases against the enslaved.
Schwarz, Phillip J. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865. Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 1998.
Schwarz examines over four thousand trial records to determine how white lawmakers in Virginia reacted to enslaved people who committed crimes. Schwarz argues that slave laws and criminal punishments in Virginia reflected a common belief of the time period: any real or perceived infraction of the law by an enslaved person threatened the political and social order of society. Excellent book for contextualization on how chattel slavery and slave codes developed in Virginia.
Stevenson, Brenda E. What Is Slavery? Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015.
Concise and thorough overview of the institution of chattel slavery and how it shaped the lives of people of African descent in the United States. Chapters 3 and 4 (“African People in the Colonial World of North America” and “Slavery and Anti-slavery in Antebellum America”) provide a detailed look at how slave codes evolved during the colonial and antebellum slavery periods.
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