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This Day in Labor History: November 25, 1865

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On November 25, 1865, Mississippi created the first of the Black Codes. Designed to recreate slavery in all but name, this signified the white South’s massive resistance to the freeing of their labor force and the lengths to which it would go to tie workers to a place under white control.

The impact of slavery’s end is hard to overestimate. But the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves immediately and the ratification of the 13th Amendment did not take place until well after the war’s end. The federal government was woefully unprepared, both in manpower and ideas, for ensuring that the rights of ex-slaves were respected after the war. Sure, slavery might be effectively dead as of April 14, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but was the U.S. military there to enforce freedom on the plantations? Largely, no. The immediate months after the war were filled with violence as whites killed newly freed people in the countryside, especially as they began to flee for cities like Memphis and New Orleans. For cotton planters, this black flight was a real threat. They prospered on owning black labor. If they couldn’t own that labor, planters at least needed to keep it on the land to pick the cotton that might allow them to rebuild their economic base.

The Black Codes thus intended to trap black labor in place. The plantation elite’s top goal immediately upon emancipation was to corral black labor, whose core goal was to avoid the plantation labor system, preferably replacing it with small farms they owned. The Black Codes intended to prevent this. Building upon the slave codes regulating black behavior, and especially black movement, before the war, the Black Codes was the South’s statement to the North that the end of the war did not mean the end of white supremacy. Blacks would have to show a written contract of employment at the start of each year, ensuring they were laboring for a white employer. At the core of the Mississippi code and copied around the South was the vagrancy provision. “Vagrancy” was a term long used in the United States to crack down on workers not doing what employers or the police wanted them to do. In this case, it meant not working for a white person.

Mississippi did not allow blacks to rent land for themselves. Rather, all blacks in rural areas must labor for a white under 1-year contracts. They did not have the option to quit working for that white person. If a black person in the countryside was found not working for a white person, the state would contract that worker out to a private landowner and receive a portion of their wages. If a black person could not pay high taxes levied on them by the state, they would be charged the vagrancy and the same process would result. As during slavery, any white person could legally arrest any black person. A Fugitive Slave Act-like provision was included that made it illegal to assist a black person from leaving their landowner with real punishments for whites who did so. That provision also stated that blacks caught running away would lose their wages for the year. Children whose parents could not take care of them, as defined by the whites of Mississippi, would be bonded to their former owners. Other forms of black behavior were also criminalized, such as preaching without a license or “insulting” language toward whites. Interracial marriage, it goes without saying, was banned as well.

In other words, Mississippi reinstituted slavery.

Other southern states quickly built on Mississippi’s black codes. South Carolina barred blacks from any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they played a very steep annual tax that sought to pauperize the large free black community in Charleston. Virginia included in its vagrancy law anyone who refused to work for the “usual and common wages given to other laborers” in order to eliminate whites competing for black labor. Florida’s Black Code allowed whites to whip those who broke their labor contract and then be sold for a year. Texas and Louisiana mandated that women and children who could work be working in the fields.

The response in the North to these laws was largely one of outrage. After all, what had they just fought this war over? While at the beginning of the war, northern whites could legitimately argue the war was about restoring the union and not slavery, no one could make that argument by the end of the war, for so it was so clearly about both. When word of this got out, the North, unclear what path toward Reconstruction it would take and still reeling from the death of Abraham Lincoln six months earlier and the ascendance of his successor, Andrew Johnson, was finally moved to take more decisive action against increasingly recalcitrant ex-Confederates.

Quickly after its passage, General O.O. Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, declared the Black Code invalid. Congress met just a few weeks later for the first time since the end of the war. At this Congress, the South also sent ex-Confederate leaders such as former vice-president Alexander Stephens to represent them. Taken together, this led to the rise of Congressional Reconstruction and the war between Congress and Johnson. As the Southern elite did during the 15 years before the Civil War, its aggressive overreach created northern white backlash that then led to a significant commitment to black rights. That might not have lasted very long, but it did ensure that as unfair as postwar labor relations would become, they would look nothing like slavery. Congressional Reconstruction would void the black codes and put off the violent suppression of southern black labor for several years, opening at least the possibility of a future that provided the freed slaves dignity, although it was not to be.

In the end, it was sharecropping that would define the postwar southern agricultural labor force, not bonded black labor. There are a number of reasons for these complex arrangements that would still strongly exploit African-American labor, but it still provided ex-slaves more control over their lives than desired by the white plantation elite, who would largely be unable to recreate their economic dominance after the war.

As with all things Reconstruction, the work of Eric Foner is a great place to start, and some of this post is borrowed from his books.

This is the 125th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Thom

    I would say, “in other words, Mississippi went as far as it could toward reinstituting slavery without actually doing so.”

    I want to second the endorsement of Foner’s work.

    You are right that the Black Codes draw on the slave codes. But they also have some resemblance to post-emancipation legislation for the control of formerly enslaved or enserfed workers in other societies, including the Cape Colony (South Africa).

  • Ronan

    “In the end, it was sharecropping that would define the postwar southern agricultural labor force, not bonded black labor. There are a number of reasons for these complex arrangements that would still strongly exploit African-American labor, but it still provided ex-slaves more control over their lives than desired by the white plantation elite”

    That’s something Ive wondered, perhaps a little stupidly; the extent to which sharecropping was a substantial improvement over bonded labour, whether slavery or the black codes. I mean, I know it was obviously a vast improvement,but how did the relationship between black and white Americans change over this time ? My impression of sharecropping is it still means being locked into a relationship with the landowner that’s exploitative and with very little space for self sufficiency or real independnce. And that black lifes were still controlled socially through violence.
    I get aswell that my understanding of Southern society at this time is probably a little caricatured and simplistic, so did social relations between black and white improve significantly over Jim Crow ? You sometimes hear older, conservative black Americans express nostalgia for the Old south (the idea that as a community they were more self reliant etc) , which makes me think that there’s a lot of complexity here that im missing. Ok,that’s alot of questions seemingly going nowhere, so Ill leave it there.

    The final little bit Ill ask is, you also sometimes hear southern whites from sharecropping backgrounds argue that life wasnt that much worse for blacks compared to poor whites. I know that is clearly idiotic on a number of levels, but purely as an economic matter, was the position of the poor white rural sharecropper much better than black ? Whatws the relationship like between poor whites and blacks, to any considerable extent did they ever really acceptthat they were both locked into similar exploitative relationships with the elite, and try and fight against that ? (i dont expect anyone to answer all of this, Im really just spitballing Qs)

    • Ronan

      apologees for typos etc I actually spent the five minute edit time correcting them, and still didnt manage to get them all

    • Brett

      I think legal mobility is the main difference there. Black people under the sharecropping system at least legally had the option of leaving for better pastures elsewhere (in practice, southern whites would try extralegal actions to try and keep them from leaving in the Great Migration). Black people under the Black Codes didn’t have that option – they could be arrested for vagrancy and effectively enslaved, and arrested if they broke their 1-year contracts.

  • Woodrowfan

    actually, the Emancipation Proclamation freed thousands of slaves that were in Union-held territories, including those on the sea islands off of South Carolina.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/the-grove-of-gladness/?_r=0

    Here is a map showing the areas affected by the Proclamation.

    http://cwmemory.com/2013/01/01/where-slaves-were-immediately-freed-by-the-emancipation-proclamation/

  • Has anyone read Nick Lemann’s book Redemption on the white revolt vs Reconstruction in Mississippi?

    Naturally, my public library in Miss. doesn’t carry it.

    • Bruce Vail

      Not me, but “The Bloody Shirt” by Stephen Budiansky is an interesting treatment of the same theme. Very powerful is the story told of Albert Morgan, a northerner who tried to farm in Mississippi using free black labor. They ran him out of the state under threat of death.

    • Mark Field

      Yes. Definitely worth reading.

  • so-in-so

    So in 1865 the ex-confederates refused to understand they had lost the war.

    In 2008 and 2012 their descendants refused to understand they’d lost an election.

    • Lee Rudolph

      And they were aided and abetted by Copperheads in their refusals, time after time.

      • Bruce Vail

        Modern Copperheads? Like who?

        • Lee Rudolph

          Well, I’m being hyperbolic, rhetorical, and just damned ignorant. Shorn of the first two, my statement would be that it in 2008 and 2012 it wasn’t just the “descendants” of the “ex-confederates” who “refused to understand they’d lost an election” (quotation marks indicate direct quotation; they’re not scare-quotes)—it was also their enablers in the North (many of whom likely have fewer ex-confederate slave-owning ancestors than most African-Americans, north and south, do). Some of those enablers have been Democrats, even.

  • so-in-so

    Tea Party?

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    Conditions for white sharecroppers may have been incrementally better for white sharecroppers, but not substantially.
    I had viewed sharecropping as tantamount to slavery-by-another-name.
    However, some things I have read about post Civil War labor has led me to believe that it was superior to wage labor, at least under post-war conditions. The freedmen preferred it to wage labor as a poor substitute to owning their own land. They did have more control over the fruits of their labor, even if they did have to pay much of it in rents.
    It is not an historical document, but I suspect that the relationship of white and black sharecroppers referenced in Men of Honor was pretty standard, with one being played off the other with the result of lowering the standards for both.

    • Ronan

      I assume this was meant to be in response to my above ?(if not it still gets to a lot of the questions. thanks)
      The idea of ‘elite manipulation’ of racial differences to lower standards for both seems logical to me, and also something Ive heard said before. But wasnt a lot of this racism also ‘bottom up’ aswell? For example my , limited, impression of the relationship between white and black during Jim Crow – as a genarlity – was that local, very small town politics and relationships drove some of the worst violence/discrimination. That real racial animosity – ideological not just economic – drove the reactions of poor whites as well as the elite ?
      One more Q – do you think this is related to the United States inability to develop social democractic institutions equivalent to those in, similarly developed, western european countries ? Ive heard two main arguments in this area ; that it was racial differences, and seperately – though relatedly – ethnic divisions from imigration that prevented the US from developing the same sort of working class solidarity that existed in Europe. What would you think about that line of argument ?

      • The Dark Avenger

        As someone who grew up and lives in a now-bigger small town, I can tell you with reference to politics that there is what I called voter-serfdom, where people whose families have lived here a long time will vote for the landowners who run for office for generation after generation. There are also other tactics, like how the position of county supervisor in Kern County, CA, was set to be so low for the amount of work required that it was only open to farmers or ranchers or others who had the resources to be able to serve without it affecting them financially.

        • The Dark Avenger

          For position, read salary.

          Carry on.

        • Ronan

          Im reading this book at the min (available online in pdf) ‘reproducing racism’ by Daria Roithmayr , where she argues (afaik, though im not far into it) that the main cause of racial inequality in the US is the small, personal actions taken by individual whites (say, recomending a friend for a job, investing in your childs education, giving them a downpayement on a house etc)

          She puts it ahead of what she identifies as the three main counterarguments (1) maladaptive cultural practices developed in the ghetto (2) structural factors, migration of well paying but lower skilled jobs overseas (3) persistent racism in the forms of hiring discrimiantion, negative stereotypes etc.
          Im not sure if it’s going to be fully convincing (or that it’s completly novel) but it’s interesting so far (she says a lot of this advantage was locked in at the end of the late 19th early 20th century and basically nothing can be done about it without siginificant govt intervention)

          I guess this doesnt really have anything to do with anything, but the book’s worth reading if for nothing else than the figures she gives on racial inequality in the intro.

          • The Dark Avenger

            When we had a to rent a house in Denton, TX, in 1973 it was through informal means, as the owner didn’t advertise because then they would’ve had to rent it to the nigras, as my TX relatives used to call African-Americans.

            They usually ferret out rental agencies thst discriminate informally by sending out applicants who have the same financial stability, etc, but are of different ethnic groups. And of course, the settlement made by Donald Sterling in regard to his history of discriminating against minorities in his rental properties was the largest of its’ kind, and it was only a few years ago.

        • sanity clause

          There are also other tactics, like how the position of county supervisor in Kern County, CA, was set to be so low for the amount of work required that it was only open to farmers or ranchers or others who had the resources to be able to serve without it affecting them financially.

          Kinda like state legislatures across the South (and in much of the rest of the country too, but everywhere in the South).

          According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, here’s what Southern states pay their legislators:

          [part of this comment got eaten; I’ll add it back in below.]

          Only 14 states pay their legislators more than $40,000 per year. The list includes one red state (Alaska), one swing state (Ohio), and 12 blue states (California, Hawaii, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware).

          The only blue states that pay their legislators less than $20,000/year are Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Mexico.

          • sanity clause

            Here’s the eaten part – what Southern states pay their legislators:

            $10,000/year or less – Alabama, Mississippi, Texas

            $10K-$20K/year – Arkansas, Georgia, both Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia (depending on your definition of South)

            $20K-$23K/year – Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee

            $29,697/year – Florida.

            If you don’t pay a decent salary for being a state legislator, only people who are well off or have very flexible jobs can be state legislators. It’s a pretty neat trick to keep the local poobahs running their states.

            • PSP

              When I lived in Maine in the 80s, a large portion of the legislature was recent college grads with local ties. They would serve for a few years to get started in government. There was a core of old timers who reputedly actually ran the place.

              Then they passed term limits.

  • DrDick

    They also managed to extend de facto slavery through the prison farm and chain gang system well into the 20th century.

  • so-in-so

    Seeing last weeks thread on prison firefighters in California, I’ say “into the 21st century”.

  • Brett

    The fact that Alexander Stephens went to Congress as a free, living man, as opposed to dangling from a tree by the rope until dead as a traitor is sickening.

    The Reconstruction Era enforcement helped, but ultimately the only thing that would have decisively broken the power of the ex-confederates and planter class would have been to hang most of the fire eaters as traitors, and then break up all of the plantations in the South and distribute the land to black and white free farmers along “forty acres and a mule” ground. Maybe burn some of the planter mansions for good measure as a symbolic gesture.

  • Gregor Sansa

    The racially-based “vagrancy” as slavery thing happened in Guatemala in the 20s and 30s, and was only overturned by the 1944 revolution. The surprising thing is that it didn’t exist before then — basically, it arose as a response to the need for a slightly-more-mobile seasonal workforce, so that the old “just stay in your place” laws didn’t work anymore.

    • Brett

      “Vagrancy” laws are pretty ancient, going back to at least medieval times. The colonial era here in the US had them as well, along with other laws allowing the local authorities to forcibly assign you to a trade or punish you for not working (and take your children away and put them into “gainful employment”).

      I actually remember an economics textbook arguing that while these laws were unpleasant, they were “necessary” in a society so much closer to the subsistence level with little means to support others. I didn’t buy it.

      • The Dark Avenger

        That might’ve been the case in war-ravaged areas in Europe and England, but not in colonial America:

        The majority of people in the Middle Colonies worked on small farms and home-grown food was in good supply. The warm climate made it possible to grow crops throughout the year in the Southern colonies and was ideally suited for plantations and farming. Food in Colonial America was plentiful and included a lot of meat and vegetables.

        Probably the real cost would’ve been the clothing, children grow and outgrow their garments as a rapid pace. I suspect the thing about a trade was for the father to earn money to pay for his kid, and probably to keep said father from going Native American, which would’ve probably still possible when those laws were written.

    • DrDick

      “Vagrancy” and similar crimes was a major supplier of labor for the chain gangs and prison farms.

  • so-in-so

    Burning the mansion with the owner still in residence would have Really sent a message. Plus a stitch in time…

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  • j_kay

    I think that Foner missed how many Black Codes there were up North, with vast racist majority support all over the nation. Though the Northern ones-were probably mostly lighter. In short, Jim Crow was popular everywhere, because so was racism.

    And Douglass the ex-slave thought sharecropping was better, because rape wasn’t business, and there was more possibility of choosing your own employer.

    I read about racism both in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln bio and my Texas history. I haven’t read that book, but read about it along with with Douglass’ opinion on Coates’ blog, before the Atlantic killed his trustworthiness.

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