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Slave Codes

by Alan K. Lamm, 2006

The increasing number of black slaves in colonial America created suspicion and fear among the general population and led to a backlash of white reaction known as slave codes. Virginia was the first of the 13 colonies to adopt such regulations, using earlier Caribbean slave codes as models. Other colonies quickly followed suit, patterning their codes after the Virginia laws.

Broadside about a fugitive slaveSlave codes varied slightly from colony to colony, but most made bondage a lifelong condition and ensured that all descendants of slaves would be slaves as well. Other codes prohibited them from voting, owning property, testifying in court against whites, gathering in large numbers, traveling without permission, or marrying whites. Slave codes also gave white masters nearly total control over the lives of slaves, permitting owners to use such corporal punishments as whipping, branding, maiming, and torture. Although white masters could not legally murder their slaves, some did and were never prosecuted. Colonial North Carolina, still tied to South Carolina until 1729, had few slaves in the late seventeenth century, but by 1710 there were around 900. The colony's growing number of blacks led to the creation of a slave code by 1715.

After the Revolutionary War, most states, especially those in the South, developed new slave codes. After the 1830s these laws became increasingly stringent, due to the tensions produced by the Nat Turner Rebellion in Southampton County, Va., and the rise of the abolitionist movement in the North. The new regulations clearly defined slaves as property, rather than as people, and outlawed teaching them to read and write. Slaves could not leave the plantation without their master's permission, strike a white person even in self-defense, buy or sell goods or hire themselves out, or visit the homes of whites or free blacks.

Enforcement of slave codes varied. In times of peace, masters gave slaves more freedom; but in times of unrest, they rigorously enforced the slave codes both through the courts and by establishing slave patrols. Composed of white men who took turns covering a particular area of their county, slave patrols watched for runaways or assisted owners in enforcing the slave codes on their plantations.

Slave codes ended with the Civil War but were replaced by other discriminatory laws known as "black codes" during Reconstruction (1865-77). The black codes were attempts to control the newly freed African Americans by barring them from engaging in certain occupations, performing jury duty, owning firearms, voting, and other pursuits. At first, the U.S. Congress opposed black codes by enacting legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. But by the time of the so-called Compromise of 1877, civil rights for blacks had eroded, as Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, and northerners lost interest in the issue. The slave codes essentially lived on in Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination until successfully challenged in the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.

References:

Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (1993).

Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina (2002).

John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (6th ed., 1988).

Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974).

Image Credit:

"Broadside about a fugitive slave." Image courtesy of the Libraries of Northern Illionois University. Available from http://www.lib.niu.edu/1996/iht329602.html (accessed May 4, 2012).

Authors: 

Comments

Comment: 

Hi. I'm doing a project and I was just wondering if slaves or blacks could testify against someone in court that wasn't white.

Thanks

Comment: 

Hello,  

It does appear so. Here are some very early laws and then the source where this comes from. 

1777 law, Chapter 115, Section 42 and 1821 law, Chapter 1123:

Against whom slaves and other persons of colour may be witnesses.

 52. All negroes, Indians, mulattoes, and all persons of mixed blood, descended from negro and Indian ancestors, to the fourth generation inclusive (though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person) whether bond or free, shall be deemed and taken to be incapable in law to be witnesses in any case whatsoever, except against each other. In all pleas of the State where the defendant may be a negro, Indian or mulatto, or person of mixed blood, descended from negro, or Indian ancestors, to the fourth generation inclusive (though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person) whether such defendant be bond or free, the evidence of a negro or negroes, Indian or Indians, mulatto or mulattoes, and of all persons of mixed blood, descended from negro and Indian ancestors to the fourth generation, inclusive (though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person) whether the person or persons whose evidence is offered, be bond or free, shall be admissible and the witness competent, subject, nevertheless, to be excluded upon any other grounds of incompetency which may exist.

This comes from the website at UNC-Chapel Hill: https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/slavesfree/slavesfree.html

For further research, you can see laws of the state at these sites for the time periods given: 

1715-1776 https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/volumes/volume_23

1777- current https://ncgovdocs.org/sessionlawslist.html 

Hope this helps and please feel free to contact our library if you need more assistance at slnc.reference@ncdcr.gov

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

I am also working on a paper for school, it is known as an IA that will be sent off internationally to be graded by unbiased judges. My primary focus is determining how slave rebellions impacted the slave codes. Any information upon this topic would significantly help.

Comment: 

Hi Twlyght,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and taking the time to share your question. I will send your comment to our Reference Team at slnc.reference@ncdcr.gov so they can help you further. 

Best wishes,

Elizabeth Hayden, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

Hello, .
I'm a professor of English teaching an upper division/graduate course on race and violence in 19C American Literature . I'm looking for links to primary sources concerning slave codes, especially laws in the codes themselves or statutes in particular statutes authorizing or condoning lethal violence against enslaved or free people of color. Any advice or links to such material?

Thanks very much,
john

Comment: 

Hello,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and asking your question.

I am forwarding your query to our Reference services who can assist you: http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/contact.html

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

I need an exact answer on how the free black responded to the slave codes.

Comment: 

Hello, 

There is no number for reaction. If you are looking for exact numbers of free blacks during the time of slavery, here is a chart I made in 2008 with that information. https://www.ncpedia.org/sites/default/files/census_stats_1790-1860.pdf But while the slaves had the slave code, the free blacks had codes on the limited what they can do as well. Taking away the right to vote, to own guns, higher taxes ,etc. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

i need to compare and contrast code noir and slave codes !!!!!

Comment: 

Hi, I'm working on a project for class and I have a question, When were slave codes first introduced? Like what year and month?

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