Black Codes, Slave Patrols and Policing Today
There is a continuity between the black codes that were in place in various forms since the first white people arrived on the North American continent, the slave patrols that were put in place from the founding of the nation and existed up until emancipation and policing in the US today.
The information below chronicles this continuity. While the end of slavery was a turning point in this sequence, it led simply to other ways of effectuating the oppression and white supremacy. Black code laws were passed in 1865 and 1866 by Southern states, in order to restrict African Americans’ freedom, and to require them to work for low wages.
In 1866, one year after the 13th Amendment was ratified (the amendment that ended slavery), Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina began to lease out convicts for labor (peonage). This made the business of arresting Blacks very lucrative, which is why hundreds of White men were hired by these states as police officers. Their primary responsibility was to search out and arrest Blacks who were in violation of Black Codes. Once arrested, these men, women and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco, sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines, or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them; prison labor.
Different States had different Black codes but most were designed to restricted black people’s right to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land, and move freely through public spaces. A central element of the Black Codes were vagrancy laws. States criminalized men who were out of work, or who were not working at a job whites recognized. Failure to pay a certain tax, or to comply with other laws, could also be construed as vagrancy.
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:
- 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?
- Why do you think legislators wanted to keep free people of color from socializing or marrying with enslaved people?
- 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?
- For which offenses did these codes specify that a slave or a free person could be executed or killed?
- When were slaves allowed a trial by jury? Who were the jury members? Would this system enable a slave to receive a fair trial?
- Why do you think lawmakers forbade slaves and free persons of color from gambling or playing cards together?
- 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 excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes 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. …
Other Black Codes to note:
In Louisiana, it was illegal for a Black man to preach to Black congregations without special permission in writing from the president of the police. If caught, he could be arrested and fined. If he could not pay the fines, which were unbelievably high, he would be forced to work for an individual, or go to jail or prison where he would work until his debt was paid off.
If a Black person did not have a job, he or she could be arrested and imprisoned on the charge of vagrancy or loitering.
In South Carolina, if the parent of a Black child was considered vagrant, the judicial system allowed the police and/or other government agencies to “apprentice” the child to an “employer”. Males could be held until the age of 21, and females could be held until they were 18. Their owner had the legal right to inflict punishment on the child for disobedience, and to recapture them if they ran away.
How You Start is How You Finish? The Slave Patrol and Jim Crow Origins of Policing
by Connie Hassett-Walker | January 11, 2021
Excerpt from the American Bar Association publication article…
How did we get here? There are two narratives of how U.S. policing developed. Both are true.
The more commonly known history—the one most college students will hear about in an Introduction to Criminal Justice course—is that American policing can trace its roots back to English policing. It’s true that centralized municipal police departments in America began to form in the early nineteenth century (Potter, 2013), beginning in Boston and subsequently established in New York City; Albany, New York; Chicago; Philadelphia; Newark, New Jersey; and Baltimore. As written by Professor Gary Potter (2013) of Eastern Kentucky University, by the late nineteenth century, all major American cities had a police force. This is the history that doesn’t make us feel bad.
While this narrative is correct, it only tells part of the story (Turner et al., 2006). Policing in southern slave-holding states followed a different trajectory—one that has roots in slave patrols of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and police enforcement of Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. As per Professor Michael Robinson (2017) of the University of Georgia, the first deaths in America of Black men at the hands of law enforcement “can be traced back as early as 1619 when the first slave ship, a Dutch Man-of-War vessel landed in Point Comfort, Virginia.”
The Racist Roots of American Policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops
by Connie Hassett-Walker | June 2, 2020.
Excerpt from the article…
There are two historical narratives about the origins of American law enforcement.
Policing in southern slave-holding states had roots in slave patrols, squadrons made up of white volunteers empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. They located and returned enslaved people who had escaped, crushed uprisings led by enslaved people and punished enslaved workers found or believed to have violated plantation rules.
The first slave patrols arose in South Carolina in the early 1700s. As University of Georgia social work professor Michael A. Robinson has written, by the time John Adams became the second U.S. president, every state that had not yet abolished slavery had them.
Members of slave patrols could forcefully enter anyone’s home, regardless of their race or ethnicity, based on suspicions that they were sheltering people who had escaped bondage.
The Slave Patrols of the Past are Now the US Police
by Charlotte Zobeir Ali | Aug 27, 2020
Excerpt from the article…
The origins of policing in the USA can be traced back to a period when there was a need to control Native Americans and slaves.
New England settlers appointed various constables to police Native Americans as they were deemed a threat.
Slave patrols were created to control the slave population. Their brutality and cruelty brought fear to every black person who came in contact with them.
Fast forward 2020, the previous adjectives can be applied to describe the modern US police. The murder of George Floyd is a testament to this appalling behaviour.
In this article, I will list the duties of patrollers which will help readers see the similarities with the modern-day police.
Before doing so, it is important to review the history of policing in the USA.
The Culture of Policing Is Broken.
Brutality and dehumanization are deeply embedded in many departments
by David Brooks | Aug 27, 2020
Excerpt from the article…
It’s one of the most remarkable poll results of the current moment. From May 29 to June 2, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked voters whether they were more troubled by the actions of the police and the death of George Floyd, or by protests that had turned violent. By a more than two-to-one margin, they said they were more troubled by the actions of the police.
The killings of the past few years and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has arisen in response to them, have given all Americans an education in the systematic mistreatment of black people by police forces across the country. Videos of police brutality are washing across everyone’s phones: videos of cops running over young women with police horses, pushing down old white men for no reason, rushing into crowds of peaceful demonstrators, and raining blows on young people and reporters. Videos that show the deadness in the eyes of an officer as he kicks a young woman in the face, a woman who is just sitting there peacefully on the street.
But the evidence suggests that the bulk of the problem is on a different level, neither individual or systemic. The problem lies in the organizational cultures of some police forces. In the forces with an us-versus-the-world siege mentality. In the ones with the we-strap-on-the-armor-and-fight culture, the ones who depersonalize the human beings out on the street. All cruelty begins with dehumanization—not seeing the face of the other, not seeing the whole humanity of the other. A cultural regime of dehumanization has been constructed in many police departments. In that fertile ground, racial biases can spread and become entrenched. But the regime can be deconstructed.