After Slavery: Educator Resources

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8. South Carolina's 'Black Code'

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Three: Land and Labor in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, he moved quickly to restore order to the South by placing power back in the hands that had traditionally held it. After appointing provisional governors for North Carolina by the end of May 1865, and South Carolina by June of that same year, Johnson allowed reconstituted governments in these southern states to be dominated by former Confederates. When these new governments turned their attention to how to control their former slaves, the predictable results were known as the "Black Codes." These extracts from South Carolina's Black Code, passed in December 1865, illustrate just how difficult white landholders wanted to make it for freedpeople to work on their own behalf.

South Carolina's 'Black Code'

An Act to establish and regulate the Domestic Relations of Persons of Colour, and to amend the law in relation to Paupers and Vagrancy.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives, now met and sitting in General Assembly, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

Contracts for service:

XXXV. All persons of color who make contracts for service or labor, shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract, shall be known as masters.

XLIII. For any neglect of the duty to make a contract as herein directed, or the evasion of that duty by the repeated employment of the same persons for periods of less than one month, the party offending shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and be liable, on conviction, to pay a sum not exceeding fifty dollars, and not less than five dollars, for each person so employed. No written contract shall be required when the servant voluntarily receives no remuneration except food and clothing.

Regulations of labor on farms:

XLV. On farms or in out-door service, the hours of labor, except on Sunday, shall be from sun-rise to sun-set, with a reasonable interval for breakfast and dinner. Servants shall rise at the dawn in the morning, feed, water and care for the animals on the farm, do the usual and needful work about the premises, prepare their meals for the day, if required by the master, and begin the farm work or other work by sun-rise. The servant shall be careful of all the animals and property of his master, and especially of the animals and implements used by him, shall protect the same from injury by other persons, and shall be answerable for all property lost, destroyed or injured by his negligence, dishonesty or bad faith.

XLVI. All lost time, not caused by the act of the master, and all losses occasioned by neglect of his duties hereinbefore prescribed, may be deducted from the wages of the servant; and food, nursing and other necessaries for the servant, whilst he is absent from work on account of sickness or other cause, may also be deducted from his wages. Servants shall be quiet and orderly in their quarters, at their work, and on the premises; shall extinguish their lights and fires, and retire to rest at seasonable hours.

Work at night, and out-door work in inclement weather, shall not be exacted, unless in case of necessity. Servants shall not be kept at home on Sunday, unless to take care of the premises, or animals thereupon, or for work of daily necessity, or on unusual occasions; and in such cases, only so many shall be kept at home as are necessary for these purposes. Sunday work shall be done by the servants in turn, except in cases of sickness or other disability, when it may be assigned to them out of their regular turn. Absentees on Sunday shall return to their homes by sun-set.

XLVII. The master may give the servant a task at work about the business of the farm which shall be reasonable. If the servant complains of the task, the District Judge, or a Magistrate, shall have power to reduce or increase it. Failure to do the task shall be deemed evidence of indolence, but a single failure shall not be conclusive. When a servant is entering into a contract, he may be required to rate himself as a full hand, three-fourths, half, or one-fourth hand, and according to this rate, inserted in the contract, shall be the task, and of course the wages.

XLVIII. Visitors or other persons shall not be invited or allowed by the servant to come or remain upon the premises of the master without his express permission.

XLIX. Servants shall not be absent from the premises without the permission of the master.

Rights of master as between himself and his servant:

L. When the servant shall depart from the service of the master without good cause, he shall forfeit the wages due to him. The servant shall obey all lawful orders of the master or his agent, and shall be honest, truthful, sober, civil and diligent in his business. The master may moderately correct servants who have made contracts, and are under eighteen years of age. He shall not be liable to pay for any additional or extraordinary services or labor of his servant, the same being necessary, unless by his express agreement.

Causes of discharge of a servant:   

LI. The master may discharge his servant for willful disobedience of the lawful order of himself or his agent; habitual negligence or indolence in business; drunkenness, gross moral or legal misconduct; want of respect and civility to himself, his family, guests or agents; or for prolonged absence from the premises, or absence on two or more occasions without permission.

LII. For any acts or things herein declared to be causes for the discharge of a servant, or for any breach of contract or duty by him, instead of discharging the servant, the master may complain to the District Judge or one of the Magistrates, who shall have power, on being satisfied of the misconduct complained of, to inflict, or cause to be inflicted, on the servant, suitable corporal punishment, or impose upon him such pecuniary fine as may be though fit, and immediately to remand him to his work; which fine shall be deducted from his wages, if not otherwise paid.

LIII. If a master has made a valid contract with a servant, the district Judge or Magistrate may compel each servant to observe his contract, by ordering infliction of the punishment, or imposition of the fine hereinbefore authorized.

Mechanics, Artisans and Shop-Keepers:

LXXII. No person of color shall pursue or practice the art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic or shop-keeper, or any other trade, employment or business (besides that of husbandry, or that of a servant under a contract for service or labor,) on his own account and for his own benefit, or in partnership with a white person, or as agent or servant of any persons, until he shall have obtained a license therefore from the Judge of the District Court; which license shall be good for one year only.

This license the Judge may grant upon petition of the applicant, and upon being satisfied of his skill and fitness, and of his good moral character, and upon payment, by the applicant to the Clerk of the District Court, of one hundred dollars, if a shop-keeper or pedlar, to be paid annually, or ten dollars if a mechanic, artisan, or to engage in any other trade, also to be paid annually. Provided, however, That upon complaint being made and being proved to the District Judge of an abuse of such license, he shall revoke the same: And provided, also, That no person of color shall practice any mechanical art or trade unless he shows that he has served an apprenticeship in such trade or art, or is now practicing such trade or art.

Vagrancy and Idleness:

XCVI. All persons who have not some fixed and known place of abode, and some lawful and respectable employment; those who have not some visible and known means of a fair, hones and reputable livelihood; all common prostitutes; those who are found wandering from place to place, vending, bartering or peddling any articles or commodities, without a license from the District Judge, or other proper authority; all common gamblers; persons who lead idle or disorderly lives, or keep or frequent disorderly or disreputable houses or places; those who, not having sufficient means of support, are able to work and do not work; those who (whether or not they own lands, or are lessees or mechanics,) do not provide a reasonable and proper maintenance for themselves and families; those who are engaged in representing publicly or privately, for fee or reward, without license, any tragedy, interlude, comedy, farce, play, or other similar entertainment, exhibition of the circus, sleight-of-hand, waxworks, or the like; those who, for private gain, without license, give any concert or musical entertainment, of any description; fortune-tellers; sturdy beggars; common drunkards; those who hunt game of any description or fish on the land of others, or frequent the premises, contrary to the will of the occupants, shall be deemed vagrants, and be liable to the punishment hereinafter prescribed.

In the Senate House, the twenty-first day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-five.
W. D. Porter, President of Senate.
C. H. Simonton, Speaker House of Representatives.
Approved: James L. Orr

SourceActs of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina Passed at the Sessions of 1864-65 (Columbia: 1865), pp. 291-304.


Questions to Consider

  1. Why was it important to legislators to insist upon the terms "master" and "servant"?

  2. How much control does this statute give white "masters" over the social lives of their black "servants"?

  3. Who was likely to have the upper hand in legal disputes between employers and their employees?

  4. Why does the section on "vagrancy and idleness" make no reference to the race of the offender?

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