Black History Series Part 4: The 13th Amendment’s Restriction on African American Freedom

Black Chain Gang

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The 13th Amendment Section 1
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

One of the turning points of the Civil War was when Abraham Lincoln in 1863 after much consternation and deliberation passed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The declaration did not “free the slaves” per say, as is commonly purported. In fact, it only freed the slaves of the states that were under rebellion during the Civil War. However, at the end of the Civil War a series of amendments were passed that aimed to give African Americans legal freedom, expand upon that freedom and grant equal protection under the law. That legislation consisted of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The 14th amendment granted Black people citizenship and the 15th amendment gave Black men voting rights. But the legislation that actually freed the slaves was the 13th amendment.

The 13th amendment stated that the only time American citizens could be enslaved was for punishment for a crime. This law had a particularly adverse effect on African Americans, as they were often wrongfully criminalized and incarcerated at a much higher rate. So in essence, they often remained slaves when they were incarcerated. Before the Civil War slave codes were implemented in the south to restrict the movement of slaves. These laws (for example) stopped slaves from gathering together in groups at churches, from bearing arms and from reading and writing. The idea was to perpetuate and maintain the system of slavery. After the war was over southerners passed Black Codes, which were laws that greatly restricted the lives of free Blacks. After slaves were free, southerners were upset and tried to put Black people back into a position that was as close to slavery as possible. The Black Codes would eventually evolve into Jim Crow laws, which was a system of laws that criminalized Blackness and insured they would be incarcerated and lose their freedom for the most minor of offenses. The primary thing Jim Crow laws did was enforce a system of legal segregation all throughout the south for many years. Its legacy still has a great impact on the US today.

Many scholars argue that the South’s idea of incarceration has its roots in slavery. In this way, Jim Crow laws directly targeted formers slaves after the Civil War ended. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan was formed by disgruntled ex-confederate soldiers who felt an obligation to curb and frustrate the new found freedoms of free blacks. Even though Jim Crow laws were abolished one can still note the devastating effects of these laws that unfairly targeted African Americans.

Michelle Alexander in her groundbreaking text entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness stated that more African Americans are imprisoned today – that is, in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than the entire slave population in 1850. This fact is directly tied to the 13th amendment and its provision to enslave those being punished for criminal activity. Alexander argues that mass incarceration disproportionately affects African Americans. For example, in 2010 in the state of Mississippi 57% of those incarcerated were African American. She goes on to say that mass incarceration in contemporary times serves the same purpose as it did in pre-Civil War slavery and the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws, and that is to maintain a racial caste system. According to Alexander a “racial caste” system is a racial group being locked into an inferior position by law and custom. In this way, Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems, she maintains that our current system of mass incarceration is also a caste system; what she calls the new Jim Crow. After slavery was abolished, racial discrimination through Black codes and Jim Crow laws prohibited many African Americans from living in public housing, gaining employment, from voting, and receiving a good education. This happens often with many African Americans today after they are released from prison. Many are charged for crimes they did not commit or given felonies for minor offenses. Furthermore, many of the men that are behind bars are forced to produce various products for slave wages as low as $.86 to $4.00/Daily. Some items that are surprisingly made by prisoners include jeans, lingerie, park benches, canoes and baseball caps. Below are resources that can help students continue to explore the notion of the new Jim Crow and Modern Day Slavery.


The Shape of Slavery
How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?
11 Products Made by Prisoners
Summary of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Black Codes: United States
Slavery By Another Name
The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community
The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking
Inmate Race
Luzerne “Kids for Cash” Scandal


  1. This article was a great read, and it expanded my knowledge of the 13th amendment and how racism is still in effect today. Like most people, I also didn’t know about the connection between the 13th amendment and incarceration for African-Americans. It amazes me that slavery was seemingly abolished long ago, yet it is quite recent in our country’s history.

  2. I have never connected the 13th amendment to why incarceration rates for African Americans is so much higher. Many other things factor into this statistic as well but it shows where and how it became a problem. However the 13th amendment was a giant leap for enslaved African Americans. It paved the way for amendment 14 and 15 which also contributed to the freedom of slaves.

  3. I hadn’t realized how current this issue still is. Keeping these innocent people enslaved for minor offenses. Are we resorting back to where it all started with the Jim Crow Laws? When will the madness end? Its not fair that people are just falling back to the old routine, we say we have come so far, but in reality I think that the people act the same as if nothing around them is changing. People need to wake up and get over those little things that bother them otherwise there’s going to never be any actual Progress.

  4. While I had recognized our modern systems of incarceration and its prejudices had to do with slavery, I unfortunately did not really know how. I had understood there were many more African Americans who were imprisoned compared to other racial groups and for such minor offenses and that this racism had to do with slavery and bigotry that existed back then, but I did not know it had existed to keep them enslaved. I think this is also a reflection on how biased some of our education systems are as such a significant matter of history hasn’t been taught to many of us. It’s crazy to think that the Jim Crow laws are, in a way, still in effect today with African Americans having a harder time gaining employment, getting good educations, etc. I’m thankful to this article for educating me on such an important but distressingly little-known topic.

    The provided links also furthered my understanding of the incarceration system such as the article by John Gramlich describing the devastating statistics of how many more black men are imprisoned than whites and how its continuing to rise, and how human silhouette targets are made my prisoners in the article written by Lucas Reilly.

  5. This article brings up a huge problem with our judicial system today. Many younger students have this idea that slavery ended and everyone was free immediately after the Civil War. This however was not the case. This article not only contains important history and discussion, but some great resources for introducing this topic to students

  6. I learned a lot from this article about the incarceration of African Americans and how our judicial system has played such a huge part in it. Bringing up how even if the Jim Crow laws were abolished, the effects they have left unfairly target African Americans to this day.

  7. This article really went into depth on the incarceration of African Americans. I can honestly say myself that I was taught a bit different about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves when in reality it was the 13th amendment. In this article, I also found it interesting when you discussed the fact that slavery was only necessary when one committed a crime but during that time, many African Americans were wrongfully convicted meaning they stayed slaves no matter what.

  8. This article was a nice read and helps to look at the 13th Amendment in a different perspective. However, I do not believe the title of the article and the information given are directed at the 13th Amendment as much as they are the Jim Crow Laws and how they came about. President Lincoln was trying to abolish slavery. I think we all do things looking for certain results and end up not doing as much good as we hoped. His heart was in the right place and he was trying to help. However, this is a perfect example of how everything we do impacts other people and why we should examine all sides before acting.

  9. I know that the percentage of African Americans incarcerated was higher than Caucasian, but I never fully comprehended why. I know the racial undertones and unfairness in the judicial system was problematic but I did not know the roots to this issue. I never considered the fact that slavery was so closely tied to these percentages. I am very surprised to learn that the slavery that was a contributing factor to the Civil War, was so representative in modern day systems through incarceration of citizens.

  10. This article was very interesting in that it made me think about why so many African Americans are in prisons today. I knew before that the percentage of African Americans in prison was disproportionate in comparison to the percentage of other races or ethnic groups. However, I had never before considered why this might be happening. It was especially interesting to me to think that the amendment that was supposed to have freed African Americans from slavery was also the same one that was trying to keep them in slavery.

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