The Black Codes

IMG_1879

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My wife is having a minor procedure today so I am publishing this article from my Civil War and Gettysburg text. It is not new, but has been updated some. Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

White Southerners including the newly pardoned Confederates enacted black codes that “codified explicit second-class citizenship for freedpeople.” [1] The legislature of Mississippi refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and did not do so until 1995. One Southerner noted that “Johnson “held up before us the hope of a ‘white man’s government,’ and this led us to set aside negro suffrage…. It was natural that we should yield to our old prejudices.” [2] Former Confederates, including Alexander Stephens the former Vice President of the Confederacy were elected to high office, Stephens to the United States Senate and the aggrieved Republicans in Congress in turn refused to admit the former Confederates. Many Union veterans were incensed by Johnson’s actions, one New York artilleryman noted “I would not pardon the rebels, especially the leaders, until they should kneel in the dust of humiliation and show their deeds that they sincerely repent.” [3] He was not alone, many Northern Veterans who formed the integrated Grand Army of the Republic veterans maintained a patent disregard, if not hatred of what the old South stood for and felt that their efforts in the war had been betrayed by the government.

Johnson’s restoration of property to the former white owners drove tens of thousands of blacks off lands that they had been farming, or left them as laborers for their former slave masters. Johnson countermanded General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s Field Order 15 to “divide abandoned and confiscated lands on the Sea Islands and in a portion of the Low Country coast south of Charleston into forty-acre plots for each black family.” [4] As such many freed blacks were now at the mercy of their former white owners for any hope of economic sustenance.

Johnson worked stridently, and often successfully to frustrate the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau headed by Major General Oliver Howard to help freed blacks to become landowners and to protect their legal rights. In immediate post-war South states organized all white police forces and state militias composed primarily of Confederate veterans, many still wearing their gray or butternut uniforms. In such a climate blacks had few rights, and officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau lamented the situation. In Georgia one officer wrote that no jury would “convict a white man for killing a freedman,” or “fail to hang” a black man who killed a white in self-defense. Blacks commented another agent, “would be just as well off with no law at all or no Government,” as with the legal system established in the South under Andrew Johnson. “If you call this Freedom,” wrote one black veteran, “what do you call slavery?” [5]

The struggle between Johnson and Congress intensified when the President vetoed the Civil Rights Bill. Congress responded by overriding his veto. Eventually the battle between Johnson and Congress climaxed when Johnson was impeached when he tried to remove Secretary of War Stanton from office. Johnson barely survived the impeachment proceedings and was acquitted by one vote in the Senate in 1868.

The various black codes enacted throughout the South were draconian measures to codify and institutionalize racism and White Supremacy:

“passed labor laws that bound blacks to employers almost as tightly as slavery once bound them to their masters. Other codes established patterns of racial segregation that had been impossible under slavery, barred African Americans from serving on juries or offering testimony in court against whites, made “vagrancy,” “insulting gestures,” and “mischief” offenses by blacks punishable by fines or imprisonment, forbade black-white intermarriage, ad banned ownership by blacks of “fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie-knife.” [6]

Mississippi’s Black Codes were the first of these and among the sections dealt with a change in vagrancy laws, specifically aimed at emancipated blacks and those whites who might associate with them:

“That all freedmen, free Negroes, and mulattoes in this state over the age of eighteen years found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together in the day or night time, and all white persons so assembling with freedmen, free Negroes, or mulattoes on terms of equality, or living in adultery with a freedwoman, free Negro, or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants; and on conviction thereof shall be fined…and imprisoned….”  [7]

The black codes were condoned and supported by President Johnson. While the black codes recognized the bare minimal elements of black freedom, their provisions confirmed the observations of one journalist who wrote “the whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the negro means the same thing as freedom for them. They readily admit that the Government has made him free, but appear to believe that the have the right to exercise the old control.” [8] As state after state followed the lead of Mississippi, which was the first state to enact black codes Northern anger grew and some newspapers took the lead in condemn the black codes. “We tell the white men of Mississippi,” exploded the Chicago Tribune on December 1, “ that the men of the North will convert the state of Mississippi into a frog pond before they allow any such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.”  [9]

Within weeks of the end of the war, violence against blacks began to break out in different parts of the South and it continued to spread as Johnson and the new Congress battled each other in regard to Reconstruction policy:

“In Memphis, Tennessee, in May of 1866, whites on a rampage of murder killed forty-six Negroes, most of them veterans of the Union army, as well as two white sympathizers. Five Negro women were raped. Ninety homes, twelve schools and four churches were burned. In New Orleans in the summer of 1866, another riot against blacks killed thirty-five Negroes and three whites.” [10]

The hatred of blacks and the violence against them was not limited to adults, children joined in as well. In Natchez Mississippi an incident that showed how deep the antipathy towards blacks was when on a Sunday afternoon, “an elderly freedman protested to a small white boy raiding his turnip patch. The boy shot him dead, and that was that. In Vicksburg the Herald complained that the town’s children were hitting innocent bystanders when using their “nigger shooters.” [11]

Colonel Samuel Thomas, the director of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Mississippi noted the attitudes that he saw in many whites toward the newly emancipated African Americans. He wrote that white public sentiment had not progressed and that whites had not “come to the attitude in which it can conceive of the negro having any rights at all. Men, who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors, without feeling a single twinge of honor….And however much they confess that the President’s proclamation broke up the relation of the individual slave to their owners, the still have the ingrained feeling that the black people at large belong to whites at large.” [12] Sadly, the attitude reported by Colonel Thomas not only remained but also grew more violent with each passing month.

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.

7100338_orig

14-1_Page_43_Image_0001

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.” [13]

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.” [14] 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.” [15]

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.” [16] 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.” [17] 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.” [18] 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.”

Notes

[1] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 177

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.491

[3] Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War Liveright Publishing Corporation a Division of W.W. Norton and Company Inc. New York and London 2014 p.119

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.411

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.96

[6] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.491

[7] ____________ Mississippi’s Black Code, November 24-29, 1865 in the Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” Loewen, James W. and Sebesta, Edward H. Editors, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson 2010 Amazon Kindle edition location 4505 of 8647

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free pp.93-94

[9] Lord, Walter The Past that Would Not Die Harper Collins Publishers, New York 1965 p.12

[10] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.55

[11] Ibid. Lord The Past that Would Not Die p.8

[12] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.92

[13] 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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under civil rights, History, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s