The Harmfulness of Black Codes in the State of Alabama

This post is part of our forum on “The Books, Archives, and Monuments That Shaped Me.

Convict Leasing image from page 138 of “The Southern states of North America” (Flickr)

When the Civil War between the North and South began in 1861 over the issue of slavery, Alabama became a rebel state known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and home to the First White House of the Confederate States of America. However, when Alabama’s first constitution was created in 1819, this state was already known for its legislation that restricted African Americans’ mobility and freedoms. In 1852, Alabama’s General Assembly introduced its first set of Black Codes to the public under the guise of penal codes. These laws regarding voting, holding public office, property ownership, and marital rights not only dictated the liberties free African Americans could access, but also took away what little autonomy they had left by instilling fears of imprisonment and deferred freedom. Additionally, these ordinances reflected the harsh realities that African Americans lived by in a society where (police) patrols had governance in towns and the right to inflict pain on enslaved persons who allegedly broke the law. In April 1865, the war ended in a Union victory and the Thirteenth Amendment later abolished slavery. When President Andrew Johnson took office following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, he appointed Southern provisional legislatures to rebel states that would rewrite state constitutions that would abide by the demands of the Union, but also placate white Southerners. The General Assembly proposed new legislation that December during the Alabama Convention to reenter the Union with approval from the U.S. Congress. As historian Joshua R. Shiver explained, Alabama was required to “remove any mention of secession and recognize the abolition of slavery” from its 1861 State Constitution, but in doing so, they also covertly maintained old laws and incorporated new acts and amendments to disenfranchise and racially oppress African Americans when it passed the state’s Legislative Acts of 1865-1866.

During the Reconstruction era, white supremacy reigned in Alabama when state legislators sidestepped federal intervention to aid African Americans in achieving citizenship and civil rights by legalizing Black freedom, but offered white people more social and economic stability. In 1865, Alabama’s General Assembly acknowledged the 13th Amendment, stating that “involuntary servitude, except for crime, is abolished, and ought not to be re-established, and that the negro race among us should be treated with justice, humanity and good faith.” Additionally, Alabama’s State Archives reveal that freedmen had some liberties like the right to sue someone in court and own property, but the right to vote was not one of them. In Act 163, Section 6 and Act 232, Sec. 2 referring to the towns of Tuscumbia and Tuskegee respectively, only a “white male inhabitant of 21 years of age” who resided in the city for one year and “paid his city taxes for the year preceding the election” could vote and subsequently hold public office in Alabama.

The Alabama Constitution of 1865 also outlined the limitations of African Americans’ freedom after the Civil War. This type of legislation paved the way for convict leasing. The forced servitude clause in the 13th Amendment created a loophole for Alabama to arrest, imprison, and put to work African Americans who landed into the prison system, which highlights how Black Codes solved the state’s desire for free Black labor after slavery. The slavery to convict leasing pipeline impacted all aspects of African American life. In regard to Black Codes on vagrancy, legislation like No. 137 Sec. 4 in the Alabama Legislature of 1865-1866 stated that the intendant and council of a town could adopt suitable ordinances and regulations to “prevent and punish vagrancy” by placing the “vagrant and idle” into “useful employment” as a form of “suitable security, punishment, or restraint.” If residents failed to possess a business license or pay their taxes, town patrols were permitted to arrest citizens and laws like No. 232 Sec. 8. even instructed town officials in Tuskegee to punish individuals with: “fines not exceeding fifty dollars for each offense, or by imprisonment not exceeding thirty days, or by work upon the public streets not exceeding forty days.” In fact, the overall goal of Alabama’s Black Codes was to implement so many restrictions against African Americans in the Deep South to legally keep them and their descendants disenfranchised and disadvantaged for generations. Nevertheless, these conditions pushed African Americans to fight for equality and strive for freedom for years to come.

At the start of Reconstruction, white supremacists in Alabama were aware of the power African Americans could attain if Black people were granted first-class citizenship through legislation. Therefore, racist state legislators used their legal power immediately after the Civil War to bar African Americans from true freedom. After the passage of the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which legally promised “all persons born in the United States are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States,” and effectively granting African Americans the same rights and benefits that white citizens enjoyed. Alabama’s General Assembly passed Reconstruction Acts in 1867 as well as other legislation in line with the Fourteenth Amendment that granted African American men the right to vote. However, during Alabama’s Jim Crow Era and beyond, white supremacists erected Confederate monuments like the Confederate Soldier Memorial in Huntsville, the statue of Admiral Raphael Semmes in Mobile, and the Macon County Confederate Memorial in Tuskegee, while African Americans continued to struggle for acceptance in America. Alabama’s Black Codes definitely reflect a time of uncertainty and a restrictive racial system that subjected African Americans to less than human standards. However, that era of white supremacy didn’t curtail the protests, advancements, and contributions of African Americans’ like Fred Gray, Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin to our society. Moreover, even though the legacy of the Black Codes is racial tension and misunderstanding between Black and white people, this history offers us insight in how we can begin to dismantle the racially hierarchical systems we have in our society today.

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Daphne Calhoun

Daphne Calhoun is a History PhD student focused on African American Studies at Morgan State University. Her research focuses on the Reconstruction Era and life after the Civil War. She earned her Master of Liberal Arts from Auburn University of Montgomery and a Bachelor of Science from Tuskegee University.

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