Exploring Historic Black Codes: Combating Prejudice with Social Studies Teaching

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

As much as our way of life and the status quo changes throughout history there are things that remain the same. Interestingly enough, a lot of the issues and topics that are hotly debated in the political realm in the twenty-first century were hotly contested in previous centuries. For example, issues surrounding immigration were debated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are still a thorny issue today in politics. Another major topic that continues to stem many challenges and debate in our society is the topic of racism, discrimination and racial stereotypes. We can look at history to help us understand some of the racial challenges that are still present today. This article will explore historic laws that were designed to limit the freedom of African Americans. The article primarily offers a historical analysis of the notion of of Black codes. Understanding these laws can help us understand how to combat racial prejudice in modern times. Furthermore, social studies teachers can utilize these resources to build anti-racist curriculum and other lesson plans surrounding diversity and inclusion. Please feel free to respond to the discussion questions at the end of this article.

Much of this work has been gathered from an article entitled Black Codes by Dr. David Childs published in Multicultural Education (2013)
Editor Carlos E. Cortes

Historical Analysis of Black Codes
Black Codes were laws passed by former confederate states after the Civil War during reconstruction –which lasted from 1865-1876– that curbed the freedom and civil liberties of newly freed slaves. Black codes in effect were an effort to regulate the migration of African Americans and maintain control of their labor. The laws varied in their degree of strictness and limitations from state to state. Black codes were a perpetuation of antebellum slave codes, but differed in that they granted freedmen limited civil rights, such as the ability to marry, own personal property and sue in court.

Early Black Codes during Slavery
Slavery was adopted due to the shortage of workers in the new British North American colonies. A number of factors contributed to the shortage of labor in the American colonies during the mid to late seventeenth century. One of the primary reasons for the labor shortage was due to the expansion of industry, which drove colonists to seek ways to keep up production, wanting to match the demand without driving up the cost of labor. White settler’s dissatisfaction with Indian labor, rising death rates due to rampant disease, low birth rates and the lack of white men and women willing to continue being indentured servants also contributed to the great need for labor. Chattel slavery was born in this economic environment, which would ultimately give slave masters complete control of slaves.

Slave codes were laws passed in the antebellum south that were designed to perpetuate the system of chattel slavery, permanently locking African Americans into a lifetime of bondage. The slave codes in effect made slavery legal in the colonies through a series of laws that stripped all human rights from African Americans. The codes dehumanized blacks making them socially lower than whites and effectively keeping them and their offspring slaves for life. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries slave codes prohibited activities such as interracial relationships, greatly restricted slave’s ability to travel outside of the plantation, making manumission (the act of slave masters freeing their slaves) virtually impossible.

In the early part of the seventeenth century, slavery in the colonies was not based on race. In fact, blacks worked right alongside white indentured servants and were of the same social status. By the late 1600’s laws were systematically implemented in the English colonies that began to greatly restrict the actions and behavior of blacks, which led to the racialization of slavery in the US. While the codification of slave laws were largely similar in each colony in that their aim was to relegate blacks to second class citizenship, there were significant differences in the slave codes of each colony. The colony of Virginia was noted for having particularly harsh laws against African Americans. A 1669 law stated that if a slave resisted his master and was killed while being punished the master would not be charged for the crime. The assumption was that the slave master did not have malicious intentions because no one would willfully destroy their own property.

Between the 1830’s to the start the Civil War in the 1860’s some northern states (non-slave holding) began to implement strict black codes, greatly limiting black mobility. An Illinois black code of 1853 banned all Negros from migrating into the state. In addition, Illinois had also passed so-called anti-miscegenation laws. These laws prohibited blacks from marrying white citizens, reminiscent of old slave codes prohibiting black/white relations. Indiana and Michigan also had Black Codes prohibiting interracial marriages. These northern states bordered southern states and were influenced by laws of the south; the southern regions of these states identified more with southern values than northern ones. All of the southern states had some form of anti-miscegenation laws and thus influenced their neighbors accordingly. After the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment white southerners wanted to develop a system to keep blacks in their place and thus black codes were implemented. The laws were implemented to control blacks and ensure they did not obtain equal status with whites.

Restriction on Free Blacks
Black codes had a negative impact on everything from the daily life of African Americans to even court cases and legal proceedings. African Americans could not testify in court in cases that involved those of their own race. In addition, they could not vote or participate in any legal proceedings. Further they could not own a home or property or even rent a place of residency. Beyond that, any type of speech or conversation by blacks that was deemed a threat to white society or individuals was considered to be criminal behavior. Anyone found guilty of actions considered to be seditious had to pay a hefty fine. In addition, blacks could not buy firearms and they were penalized if they violated curfew. The Black Codes became more and more restrictive for African Americans in an effort to perpetuate a white supremacist society that kept blacks in their place. The primary effect this had on blacks during reconstruction is that it infringed on their ability to be full American citizens, and their human-ness; the Black Codes were dehumanizing. The laws enacted represented a continuation of slave codes that relegated blacks to non-human status during antebellum times.

The degree of harshness of the codes was contingent on the state in which one lived. Mississippi was notorious for its harsh treatment of African Americans. Annually blacks had to sign a legally binding labor contract. The contract stated that if they were ever to run away and not complete their assignment they were forced to forgo their pay for the entire year. At any time the servants –as they were sometime referred to– were expected to be prepared to show identification that displayed their place of residence and authorization to work. If they were caught trying to escape labor and flee the region they could be promptly arrested and returned back to their master –as employers were often called.– There were persons employed to be on the lookout for fugitive laborers. These so-called Negro catchers were paid handsomely for their important responsibility of keeping blacks in their place. In addition, anyone caught trying to convince a black servant to flee employment or trying to assist a run-away with food or drink could be imprisoned or assessed a fine.

Black male children in Mississippi were required to be apprentices until they were twenty-one years old. African American girls were apprenticed until they were eighteen. The master could punish slave children in the same way their parents could, including the administration of corporal punishment. Due to southern white fear of black deviance, great pains were taken in Mississippi to keep African Americans from loitering or aimlessly wandering about towns and cities. Therefore, the law permitted vagrancy; and freedmen caught doing so were charged a heavy fine. They generally could not pay the fine so they were forced to work until the debt was settled.

South Carolina had equally cruel Black Codes. For example, slaves who missed work due to illness were charged for the food, medical care and other resources consumed during the hiatus. The cost was deducted from their wages. Black South Carolinians had to work from sun -up to sun down and domestic servants had to be on call twenty four hours a day. The Slave Code in South Carolina even mandated that African Americans display a kind disposition and exert gentle speech toward their masters.                

Many of the activities blacks were permitted to do benefitted white society and disadvantaged African Americans. For example, blacks were allowed to enter into contracts but this was primarily done to lock them into labor contracts that were unfair and paid low wages. Like Mississippi, Slave codes existed throughout the south that penalized blacks for trying to terminate their employment. In some states African Americans could face imprisonment if they fled their job. In a system that seemed to perpetuate slavery even after emancipation, it seemed that Black Codes were designed to mimic social relations between blacks and white during antebellum times, re-creating the slave/slave master relationship.

The northern public was largely critical of Black Codes, as they recognized the laws as an attempt by the south to maintain the southern status quo, and keep blacks within the position of bondsmen. The 1866 elections proved a major blow for Black Codes. The Republicans gained large majorities during the election. As a result they implemented Marshall Law in the south. New elections were held and free blacks were allowed to vote along with poor whites, and the new government repealed all Black Codes. In 1868 The 14th Amendment was adopted which granted blacks equal protection and ensured that southerners could not resurrect Black Codes. However, similar laws would be implemented in the south during the twentieth century known as Jim Crow laws, a manifestation of earlier Black Codes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally brought an end to over two hundred years of laws that denied equal citizenship to African Americans.

In understanding the great lengths white society underwent to restrict African American freedom, we can understand how deeply ingrained racism is in the fabric of American society today. For example, contemporary practices of organizations that prevent African Americans and people of color from publically assembling (Loitering laws), getting loans, purchasing houses, renting apartments, getting into colleges or getting certain jobs often have their roots in black codes and Jim Crow laws. Understanding these laws can help us understand how to combat racial prejudice in modern times. Social studies teachers can utilize these resources to create a curriculum that makes connections to racism today. This will help students combat racial prejudice in their own society. Below we have listed an objective and the state standards that this material can align with. There are also some sample lesson plans that address the topic of black codes and teaching against racial prejudice.

Teaching Objective:
Students will learn important aspects of the history of slave codes and the impact they have on society today.      

Academic Standards Addressed in the teaching this content
Ohio State Standards
Eighth Grade,
Theme: U.S. Studies from 1492 to 1877: Exploration through Reconstruction
Strand: Civil War and Reconstruction

High School
American History Theme
Topic: Historical Thinking Skills
Topic: Industrialization and Progressivism (1877-1920).
Content Statement: 3. Historians analyze cause, effect, sequence and correlation in historical events, including multiple causation and long- and short-term causal relations.

Kentucky State Standards
Eighth Grade, High School

Cultures and Societies
2.16 Students observe, analyze, and interpret human behaviors, social groupings, and institutions to better understand people and the relationships among individuals and among groups.
2.17 Students interact effectively and work cooperatively with the many diverse ethnic and cultural groups of our nation and world.

Historical Perspective History
2.20 Students understand, analyze, and interpret historical events, conditions, trends, and issues to develop historical perspective.

Grade 8 Enduring Knowledge – Understandings Students will understand that history is an account of human activities that is interpretive in nature, and a variety of tools (e.g., primary and secondary sources, data, artifacts) are needed to analyze and understand historical events. U.S. History can be analyzed by examining significant eras (Exploration as it relates to the settlement of America, The Great Convergence, Colonization and Settlement, Revolution and the New Nation, Expansion and Reform, Civil War) to develop chronological understanding and recognize cause-and effect relationships and multiple causation.

Lesson Plan and Teaching Resources Archives
The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition
Teaching Tolerance- Lesson Plans
Teaching Tolerance- Learning Plans
How to Teach About African American History
How To Teach Black History
Lesson Plan- Our Diverse Classroom
Make Schindler’s List a part of your classroom experience
5 great activities to teach kids about multiculturalism in the classroom
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute
Black History Month Lessons & Resources, Grades 9-12
Black History Month Lessons & Resources

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
Teaching American History- Black Codes Documents

Further Readings
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877. New York: Harper Collins, 1988.
Franklin, John Hope, Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage, 1980.
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford Press, 1988.
Wilson, Theodore B. The Black Codes of the South. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1965.                     

Discussion Questions:
1. What aspects of Black codes and other information in the article stand out to you? Why?
2. How have black codes and racial prejudice influenced our society today?
3. What are creative and meaningful ways teachers can address controversial topics such as racial stereotypes in their classrooms?
4. What are practical ways one can incorporate the material into their teaching?


  1. I did not know that these laws that were passed were called the black code, that is a term I have never heard before. One of the codes that surprised me was if a slave had to miss work due to illnes that their food could be taken away. 

  2. What interested me were how the slave codes did not offer punishment for white people crimes on african americans but rather with the legality of their relationship that could potentially put them in a place to have ownership of property, money,weapons,etc. I also found it interesting how the transformation of black codes often led to the “slave/slave master relationship” which further perpetuated white supremacy instead of democracy.

  3. Slavery is always a hard topic to discuss. When learning about slavery as a child, I do not recall the Black Codes ever being mentioned. Learning about the Black Codes definitely made my jaw drop. I will never truly be able to understand racism as I am someone who believes that the color of someone’s skin does not define who they are. That being said, I will never be able to understand how people of color were put through these cruel times and weren’t granted the same treatment. Also, the Black Codes varied for some states. Some states differences on the Black Codes actually made me angry. Such as South Carolina, deducting costs from their wages when they were ill. The Black Codes as a whole make me angry, but ones like that definitely add more frustration. As I am sure MANY people agree with me, none of this should never have happened, but we can only learn from it.

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