How racism in the US became institutionalized after slavery ended

Although I was generally aware of the terrible history of racism against blacks in the US, I have to admit that I was horrified at the degree to which they were systematically institutionalized after slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment passed in 1865 in the wake of the Civil War. The states in the South quickly set about putting into law many of the awful conditions that slaves had suffered under and had looked forward to being released from. In his book Reconstruction; America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988, 2014), historian Eric Foner describes what happened.

Mississippi and South Carolina enacted the first and most severe Black Codes toward the end of 1865. Mississippi required all blacks to possess each January, written evidence of employment for the coming year. Laborers leaving their jobs before the contract expired would forfeit wages already earned, and, as under slavery, be subject to arrest by any white citizen. A person offering work to a laborer already under contract risked imprisonment or a fine of$500. To limit the freedmen’s economic opportunities, they were forbidden to rent land in urban areas. Vagrancy-a crime whose definition included the idle, disorderly, and those who “misspend what they earn”-could be punished by fines or involuntary plantation labor; other criminal offenses included “insulting” gestures or language, “malicious mischief,” and preaching the Gospel without a license. In case anything had been overlooked, the legislature declared all penal codes defining crimes by slaves and free blacks “in full force” unless specifically altered by law.

South Carolina’s Code was in some respects even more discriminatory, although it contained provisions, such as prohibiting the expulsion of aged freedmen from plantations, designed to reinvigorate paternalism and clothe it with the force of law. It did not forbid blacks to rent land, but barred them from following any occupation other than farmer or servant except by paying an annual tax ranging from $10 to $100 (a severe blow to the free black community of Charleston and to former slave artisans). The law required blacks to sign annual contracts and included elaborate provisions regulating relations between “servants” and their “masters,” including labor from sunup to sundown and a ban on leaving the plantation, or entertaining guests upon it, without permission of the employer. A vagrancy law applied to unemployed blacks, “persons who lead idle or disorderly lives,” and even traveling circuses, fortune tellers, and thespians.

The uproar caused in the North by these laws led other Southern states to modify the language, if not the underlying purpose, of early legislation regarding the freedmen. Virtually all the former Confederate states enacted sweeping vagrancy and labor contract laws, supplemented by “antienticement” measures punishing anyone offering higher wages to an employee already under contract. Virginia attempted to outlaw collective action for higher pay by including within the definition of vagrancy those who refused to work for “the usual and common wages given to other laborers.” Florida’s code, drawn up by a commission whose report praised slavery as a “benign” institution deficient only in its inadequate regulation of black sexual behavior, made disobedience, impudence, and even “disrespect” to the employer a crime. Blacks who broke labor contracts could be whipped, placed in the pillory, and sold for up to one year’s labor, while whites who violated contracts faced only the threat of civil suits. Louisiana and Texas, seeking to counteract the withdrawal of black women from field labor, mandated that contracts “shall embrace the labor of all the members of the family able to work.” Louisiana also provided that all disputes between the employer and his laborers “shall be settled … by the former.” Unlike the Mississippi and South Carolina codes, many subsequent laws made no reference to race, to avoid the appearance of discrimination and comply with the federal Civil Rights Act 1866. But it was well understood, as Alabama planter and Democratic politico John W. DuBois later remarked, that “the vagrant contemplated was the plantation negro.”

Although all of these measures inspired protest from blacks, the most bitter complaints centered on apprenticeship laws, which seized upon the consequences of slavery-the separation of families and the freedmen’s poverty-as an excuse for providing planters with the unpaid labor of black minors. Generally, these laws allowed judges to bind to white employers black orphans and those whose parents were deemed unable to port them. The former owner usually had first preference, the consent of the parents was not required, and the law permitted “moderate corporal chastisement.” Although apprenticeship had a venerable history in Europe and America, these arrangements bore little resemblance to the traditional notion of training youths in a skilled trade. Indeed, in some areas, courts bound out individuals for uncompensated labor who could hardly be considered minors; one tenth of the apprentices in one North Carolina county exceeded the age of sixteen, including an “orphan” working at a turpentine mill and supporting his wife and child. To blacks, such apprenticeships represented nothing less than a continuation of slavery. In Maryland and North Carolina, courts bound out thousands to ·white “guardians” without the consent, sometimes without the knowledge, of their parents. Blacks deluged the Freedmen’s Bureau with demands for help in releasing their own children or those of deceased relatives. “Surely the law does not Call for Children to be bond out,” wrote one freedman, “when their peopel is Abel to Keep them.” “I think very hard of the former oners,” declared another, “for Trying to keep My blood when I kno that Slavery is dead.” As late as the end of 1867, Bureau agents and local justices of the peace were still releasing black children from court-ordered apprenticeships.

The statutes regulating labor and apprenticeship, in the words of Northern reporter Sidney Andrews, “acknowledge the overthrow of the special servitude of man to man, but seek . . . to establish the general servitude of man to the commonwealth.” The same was true of new criminal laws designed to enforce the property rights of landowners against the claims of their former slaves. Under slavery the boundary between public and private authority had been indefinite; crimes like theft, looked upon as labor troubles, were generally settled by planters themselves. “I ain’t never heard nothin’ ’bout no jails in slavery time,” a Georgia freedman later remarked. “What dey done den was ‘most beat de life out of de niggers to make ’em behave.” Abolition obviously required a restructuring of enforcement machinery. As George A. Trenholm, a prominent South Carolina merchant, explained soon after the end of the Civil War: “Hitherto these depredations were either overlooked, or the culprit punished lightly and restored to favor. Now it must necessarily be different. Theft is no longer an offense against his master. . but a crime against the State.” (p.199-202)

In addition the Ku Klux Klan added violence to the mix by terrorizing and murdering blacks, targeting especially those who acquired some education or property or sought elected office or who had any kind of public profile or did not adopt a servile manner in the presence of white people. In other wrds, any black whom they deemed to be ‘uppity’.

It must have been a crushing blow for those who had celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1963 that called for the abolition of slavery, and the passing in 1865 of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery everywhere, to discover that many of the abhorrent conditions of slavery were being reintroduced under the guise of law. It is not hard to understand how this long-standard institutionalized racism, coupled with the relentless denigration of black people as not deserving of the same rights and courtesies as whites, could have a long-lasting psychological impact upon black people now, even though they were born long after slavery and Jim Crow formally ended.


  1. says

    Foner’s book has provided most of the background for my current novel project and he is my go-to scholar for the period.

    The man is flat-out brilliant.

  2. rhebel says

    I’m in my fifties and a lifelong educator--why did I never learn this? Why did my (now in college) children never? (I know the answer)

  3. friedfish2718 says

    Incomplete title: “How racism in the US became institutionalized after slavery ended”
    Complete title: “How racism in the US became institutionalized BY DEMOCRATS after slavery ended”
    REPUBLICANS fought and died for abolition of slavery.
    REPUBLICANS fought to abrogate Jim Crow law which were established by DEMOCRATS
    REPUBLICANS lead the passage of Civil Right laws (remember Einsenhower (republican) and the Little Rock incident?).
    DEMOCRATS -- not REPUBLICANS -- founded the KKK and had the KKK participating in their primaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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