Corporate Slavery & the Black Codes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of weeks ago I posted a part of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text about the Infamous Black Codes which appeared in the South following the Civil War. These codes were oppressive and for all practical purposes sought to return newly freed African Americans to a a state of slavery by another name. These codes were followed by policies which did just that. States leased or sold African American men who had been arrested under the codes to corporations, planters and other businesses, entities which without oversight denied these men, including juveniles every right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. The condition lasted until World War Two, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered his Attorney General to end these practices. 

Personally, every time I read the accounts of White Supremacists who ignore, deny or defend the practices of slave owners before the war, the argument that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and that the era of Jim Crow was not that bad and even helpful to blacks, I get more motivated to expose their lies. The fact is that the Black Codes enacted by Southern States and the rulings of the Supreme Court and the legislation of Congress during and after Reconstruction I get more motivated. This is a new sub-section of the section on the Black Codes in my text. I hope that it if nothing else, helps you look to the facts and not to buy the myths posited by current neo-Confederates and whitewashing of the past by state school boards and the publishers of our textbooks.


Padre Steve+


Re-enslaved Blacks building a railroad near Asheville North Carolina 

Another lesser-discussed aspect of the Black Codes was their use to return African Americans who had been convicted under the “vagrancy” statutes to a new type of slavery in all but name. The state governments then leased the prisoners to various corporations; railroads, mines and plantations, even former Confederate General and founder of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest received his share of prisoners to work his land.

The practice became a lucrative source of revenue, for not only did the states collect the fees from the companies, but did not have to spend tax dollars to incarcerate, feed or otherwise care for the prisoners. Mortality rates were very high among the prisoners in private custody and the regulations, which stipulated that prisoners would be adequately fed, housed and treated, were not enforced.

By 1877 “every former Confederate state except Virginia had adopted the practice of leasing black prisoners into commercial hands. There were variations among the states, but all shared the same basic formula. Nearly all the penal functions of government were turned over to the companies purchasing convicts. In return for what they paid each state, the companies received absolute control of the prisoners… Company guards were empowered to chain prisoners, shoot those attempting to flee, torture any who wouldn’t submit, and whip the disobedient – naked or clothed – almost without limit. Over eight decades, almost never were there penalties to any acquirer of these slaves for their mistreatment or deeds.” [1]


The profitability of these ventures brought Northern investors, including the owners and shareholders of U.S. Steel into the scheme allowing financial houses and Northern corporations to grow their wealth, as they had during the pre-war days off the backs of slaves. However, the practice was also detrimental to poor Southern Whites who could not compete fairly in the labor market. In 1891 miners of the “Tennessee Coal Company were asked to sign an “iron-clad contract”: pledging no strikes, agreeing to get paid in scrip, and giving up the right to check the weight of the coal they mined (they were paid by weight). They refused to sign and were evicted from their houses. Convicts were brought in to replace them.” [2] The company’s response brought about an insurrection by the miners who took control of the mine and the area around it and freed 500 of the convict-slaves. The leaders were primarily Union Army veterans and members of the Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s organization. The company backed down, but others learned the lesson and began to employ heavily armed Pinkerton agents as well as the state militias to deal with the growing labor movement, not only in the South but also in the North.


Non-convict black laborers as well as poor white “sharecroppers” on the large plantations were forced back into servitude of another manner, where legislatures gave “precedence to a landlord’s claim to his share of the crop over that of the laborer for wages or a merchant for supplies, thus shifting the risk of farming from employer to employee.” Likewise, “a series of court decisions defined the sharecropper not as a partner in agriculture or a renter with a property right in the growing crop, but as a wage laborer possessing “only a right to go on the land to plant, work, and gather the crop.” [3]

The practice did not end until Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered his Attorney General Francis Biddle to order Federal prosecutors who had for decades looked the other way begin prosecuting individuals and companies involved in this form of slavery. Biddle was the first U.S. Attorney General to admit the fact that “African Americans were not free and to assertively enforce the statutes written to protect them.” [4] Biddle, who later sat as a justice at the Nuremberg trials of major Nazi War Criminals commented during the war “One response of this country to the challenge to the ideals of democracy made by the new ideologies of Fascism and Communism has been a deepened realization of the values of a government based on a belief in the dignity and the rights of man.” [5] Biddle charged the newly formed Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to shift its focus from organized crime to cases of discrimination and racial abuse. Biddle repudiated the rational that allowed for the practice and wrote that the “law is fixed and established to protect the weak-minded the poor, the miserable” and that the contracts of the states that allowed the practices were “null and void.” [6] It was the beginning of another twenty-year process in which African Americans and their allies in the Civil Rights Movement worked to bring about what Lincoln referred to as “a new birth of freedom.”


[1] Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery By another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II Anchor Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2008 p.56

[2] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States p.275

[3] Ibid. Foner A Short History of Reconstruction p.250

[4] Ibid. Blackmon Slavery By another Name pp.378-379

[5] Ibid. Blackmon Slavery By another Name p.378

[6] Ibid. Blackmon Slavery By another Name p.379



Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

6 responses to “Corporate Slavery & the Black Codes

  1. James

    i love articles like this, please keep them coming. When it is there a book by you?

    • padresteve

      Hopefully in the next year or two I will have my work published. I think right now I have the main part of 3-4 books in process. Glad that you like the article, thank you

  2. Bill McReynolds

    Wow Padre. These well-researched and thoughtful articles on the history and actual facts of those days past has completely gob-smacked me, man! As a man from the south who can also legitimately claim to be the ‘Son of a Confederate Veteran’, I was never told anything about this history. And, as a child educated in the Texas and Louisiana primary school system, NONE of the textbooks or curriculum ever touched on this kind of detail or accuracy. It was all a white wash, unspoken history and outright lies! Thanks for speaking up, and defying the culture that has permitted – and at times – even endorsed this awful system of injustice and de-facto slavery.

  3. Pingback: Shades of Confederate Gray | Padre Steve's World...Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate

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