The Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states in 1865 and 1866 in the United States after the American Civil War with the intent and the effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom, and of compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt. Black Codes were part of a larger pattern of Southern whites, who were trying to suppress the new freedom of emancipated African-American slaves, the freedmen. Black Codes were also enacted by Northern states such as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and New York prior to the Civil War to discourage free blacks from residing in those states and denying them equal rights, including the right to vote, the right to public education, and the right to equal treatment under the law.
Since the colonial period, colonies and states had passed laws that discriminated against free Blacks. In the South, these were generally included in “slave codes”; the goal was to reduce influence of free blacks (particularly after slave rebellions) because of their potential influence on slaves. Restrictions included prohibiting them from voting (although North Carolina allowed this before 1831), bearing arms, gathering in groups for worship and learning to read and write. A major purpose of these laws was to preserve slavery among other things.
In the first two years after the Civil War, white-dominated southern legislatures passed Black Codes modeled after the earlier slave codes. They were particularly concerned with controlling movement and labor, as slavery had given way to a free labor system. Although freedmen had been emancipated, their lives were greatly restricted by the Black Codes.
The term Black Codes was given by “negro leaders and the Republican organs”, according to historian John S. Reynolds. The defining feature of the Black Codes was broad vagrancy law, which allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for minor infractions and commit them to involuntary labor. This period was the start of the convict lease system, also described as “slavery by another name” by Douglas Blackmon in his 2008 book on this topic.