Black Codes

By: Carl H. Moneyhon

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: September 30, 2020

Black Codes were the laws passed by Southern state legislatures to define the legal place of Blacks in society after the Civil War. In Texas the Eleventh Legislature produced these codes in 1866. The intent of the legislation was to reaffirm the inferior position that slaves and free Blacks had held in antebellum Texas and to regulate Black labor. The codes reflected the unwillingness of White Texans to accept Blacks as equals and also their fears that freedmen would not work unless coerced. Thus the codes continued legal discrimination between Whites and Blacks. The legislature, when it amended the 1856 penal code, emphasized the continuing line between Whites and Blacks by defining all individuals with one-eighth or more African blood as persons of color, subject to special provisions in the law.

A variety of sources provided the pattern of the new codes. Antebellum southern laws that regulated free Blacks and the laws of northern states designed to do the same furnished the model for regulation of Black civil rights, while directives of the Freedmen's Bureau and the legislation of other Southern states supplied examples of statutes that attempted to control Black labor.

An "Act to define and declare the rights of persons lately known as Slaves, and Free Persons of Color" (1866) functioned as the keystone of the state's civil rights legislation. This law gave Blacks, in common, basic property rights. They could make and enforce contracts; sue and be sued; make wills; and lease, hold, or dispose of real and personal property. The state further guaranteed Blacks the rights of personal security and liberty and prohibited discrimination against them in criminal law. This act, however, specifically left in effect a variety of earlier legal restrictions. Blacks were not allowed to vote or hold office, they could not serve on juries, and they could testify only in cases involving other Blacks. They could not marry Whites.

These restrictions were supplemented by other legislation. The state required railroads to provide separate accommodations for Blacks, thus establishing the precedent for segregation in public facilities. An education law specifically excluded Blacks from sharing in the public school fund. The state's homestead law prohibited the distribution of public land to Blacks.

Laws designed to reestablish control over Black workers were more complex, since the legislature faced the problem of securing this goal without restoring slavery. The result was a set of interrelated statutes that gave local authorities and landowners the ability to coerce free labor with the threat of forced labor. Although many of these laws made no specific mention of race, they were primarily aimed at and enforced against Blacks. The first law passed to accomplish the legislature's goal was the apprentice law. This act made possible the apprenticing of minors, either with parental consent or through the order of the county court. They required masters to provide food, clothing, medical attention, humane treatment, and education for some trade or occupation, which could include farm labor. In turn, a master had the use of the apprentice's labor and the power to inflict corporal punishment to ensure work. The law allowed masters to pursue runaways and levied heavy fines against persons who interfered with apprentice obligations. Exclusive jurisdiction over enforcement of this law rested with the county court.

The contract law also strengthened the position of local economic interests. Under it, all labor agreements that involved work for more than one month had to be in writing and filed with the county court. Workers were given a lien on half a crop to ensure the payment of wages. Employers, however, were given strong guarantees for the delivery of labor, particularly in the power to deduct wages for such contract violations as disobedience, waste of time, theft or destruction of property, or absence from home without permission. Local control over contract issues was certain, for authority over these matters was given to a court consisting of a local justice of the peace and two landowners.

A vagrancy law allowed local courts to arrest people whom they defined as idle, fine them, and contract their labor if they could not pay the fine. Under this law minor vagrants could be apprenticed. Local courts received the power to put such convicts to work at any type of labor until the fine was paid. Local authorities received even more power by a law that authorized them to put to work at any employment persons sentenced to county jails for any misdemeanor or petty offence. The vagrancy law and the convict-labor law provided the key means of intimidating freedmen into either apprentice or contract labor.

The Black Codes never fully accomplished their goals. On January 3, 1867, Gen. Joseph B. Kiddoo of the Freedmen's Bureau declared the contract law biased against freedmen and prevented its enforcement. This made the other labor codes useless. Restrictions on civil rights crumbled with the beginning of congressional Reconstruction in March 1867 and the registration of Blacks as voters. Only segregation survived, despite attacks upon the practice throughout Reconstruction. The most immediate effect of the codes thus had been not to accomplish any of their intended results, but to hasten the end of presidential Reconstruction and lead to new federal intervention under the direction of Congress.

John P. Carrier, A Political History of Texas during Reconstruction, 1865–1874 (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1971). Charles W. Ramsdell, Reconstruction in Texas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970). James Smallwood, Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans during Reconstruction (London: Kennikat, 1981). Theodore B. Wilson, The Black Codes of the South (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1965).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Courts and Judiciary
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Carl H. Moneyhon, “Black Codes,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

November 1, 1994
September 30, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: