Understanding

Black Codes

Following Nat Turner’s rebellion, and fearing the rise of the abolition movement in the North, slaveholders throughout the South strengthened laws governing slaves and free people of color, known as “black codes.” The black codes governed enslaved people as well as four categories of free people:

  • “Free negroes,” or free-born African Americans.
  • “Former slaves,” enslaved people who had been liberated.
  • “Mulattoes,” people of mixed (both black and white) ancestry.
  • “Free persons of color,” which included all the other categories but could also be extended to Native Americans.

By lumping together free and enslaved people of color into one legal category, whites divided the population along racial lines, not along the legal categories of free and unfree.

Maintaining White Control

In reading the legal code, you can clearly see the anxiety of southern whites over the possibility of slave insurrection and abolition.

These codes sought to limit the ability of enslaved people to read, write, mingle together in groups, preach, assemble, own weapons, earn money, and hold property, and they also limited slave owners’ ability to free their slaves.

Questions to Consider Regarding Black Codes:

  1. Why do you think whites wanted to limit the abilities of African Americans to meet in groups? To learn how to read? To travel within the state?
  2. Why do you think legislators wanted to keep free people of color from socializing or marrying with enslaved people?
  3. Why would lawmakers want emancipated slaves to leave the state? How might this law discourage slaves from trying to obtain their freedom through the courts?
  4. For which offenses did these codes specify that a slave or a free person could be executed or killed?
  5. When were slaves allowed a trial by jury? Who were the jury members? Would this system enable a slave to receive a fair trial?
  6. Why do you think lawmakers forbade slaves and free persons of color from gambling or playing cards together?
  7. What limitations were placed on masters who wished to free their slaves? Why do you think they made the process of freeing slaves so difficult?

Above is from commentary and sidebar notes by L. Maren Wood And David Walbert on
An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color (Revised code, 1855). Below are excerpts from the resulting North Carolina law as of 1855:

Restrictions on slaves

  • No slave shall go armed with gun, sword, club or other weapon, or shall keep any such weapon, or shall hunt or range with a gun in the woods, upon any pretence whatsoever; …
  • No slave shall be permitted on any pretence whatever, to raise any horses, cattle, hogs or sheep,…
  • If any slave shall teach or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted1, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes 2 on his or her bare back. …
  • It shall not be lawful under any pretence for any slave, or free person of colour to preach or exhort in public or in any manner to officiate as a preacher or teacher in any prayer meeting, …
  • Any emancipation, granted to any slave or slaves, as herein directed, shall be upon the express condition that he, she or they will leave the State within ninety days from the granting thereof, and never will return within the State afterwards. …
  • If any free negro, or mulatto, shall come into this State as aforesaid, he or she may be arrested upon a warrant from any justice of the peace, and carried before any justice of the peace of the county in which he or she may be arrested; …
  • All free mulattoes descended from negro ancestors, to the fourth generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person, shall come within the provisions of this act. …
  • It shall not be lawful for any free negro or free person of colour to intermarry or cohabit and live together as man and wife with any slave; …
  • Any person of colour convicted, by due course of law, of an assault with intent to commit a rape upon the body of a white female, shall suffer death without benefit of clergy. …

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