The History of Slave Patrols, Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws

Last updated April 29, 2021.

This is the second Teaching Idea in a series designed to help students think critically about the long and troubling history between law enforcement and Black Americans. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with nuanced sources that represent a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.

Overview

Contemporary issues surrounding policing, the criminal justice system, and racial injustice have deep historical roots, and examining even a piece of this history can help students more fully understand how historical legacies shape current events. Many scholars locate the origins of racism in policing—and other forms of bias in the criminal justice system—in the treatment of enslaved people before the Civil War. According to the Equal Justice Initiative article Presumption of Guilt:

To this day, we have not adequately confronted the legacy of racial injustice and instead have let it evolve into the widespread presumption that people of color are suspicious, dangerous, and criminal—that young Black men are to be feared, monitored, and even hunted.1

This Teaching Idea provides students with a brief overview of the history of policing in the early United States and then examines how laws—and the biased enforcement of those laws—were used to control the lives of Black Americans in the South following the Civil War.

Historical Context: Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws

After the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, the same Southerners who led the Confederacy initially controlled Southern State legislatures, where they sought new ways to maintain control over Black people’s lives and labor. By the fall of 1865, most Southern state legislatures passed a series of laws known as Black Codes, which severely restricted the freedom of Black people living in the South. According to historian Khalil Muhammad:

The black codes, for all intents and purposes, criminalized every form of African American freedom and mobility, political power, economic power, except the one thing [they] didn't criminalize was the right to work for a white man on a white man's terms.2

These laws required all Black people, whether free or enslaved before the Civil War, to sign annual labor contracts with white employers. If they did not, or if they did not fulfill the terms of these contracts, they would be deemed vagrants and fined or imprisoned. While Black Codes were negated by the 1866 Civil Rights Act and 14th Amendment during Reconstruction, similar laws targeting Black Americans were enacted as the Reconstruction period ended. New vagrancy laws once again criminalized unemployment, and other statutes allowed for harsh punishments for even the most minor crimes. These laws were enforced in racially biased ways, as the police and judicial system targeted Black Americans.

Note: The example in this Teaching Idea focuses on the South after the Civil War, but it is important to note that laws in the North have also been designed to create and maintain racial boundaries. Police have been involved in the use of violence against Black Americans to create and enforce racial segregation in both the North and the South, for example, during the period of racial violence that erupted across the United States following World War I.


Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. Learn About the Origins of Policing in the United States

    This activity uses an excerpt of the Throughline podcast episode American Police (8:35-15:40) to introduce students to the history of slave patrols and the origins of policing in the United States.

    You may want to print the section of the transcript that corresponds to this excerpt for your students, so they can read and annotate as they listen. The section begins with the phrase: “Policing has been part of this country for a long time...” and ends with the phrase “...around the notion of protecting the white community from the enslaved [B]lack population.”

    Note: This excerpt includes a description of violence used against enslaved people beginning at 12:45.

    Play the podcast American Police from 8:35 to 15:40. Pause the podcast periodically to check for students’ understanding.

    Once you have finished listening, ask your students:

    • What did you hear in this excerpt that echoes the problems of policing and racial justice today?
    • What differences between this history and today are there?

    Then, ask your students to read the final paragraph of the excerpt and answer the questions below, using evidence from the paragraph. You can also use additional Close Reading Protocols to aid your students’ understanding of the text.

    MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. Yeah. So it was - I mean, we - if we think about a profoundly unequal society, the United States was born as one of the most inegalitarian societies in the world. And the notion of inequality was not an abstraction for colonials and most certainly even in the new nation period after the Constitution was ratified despite its lofty language about all men being created equal. So the fact of chattel slavery by the time of the founding of the United States had already for 200 years served as a form of social insurance against the insurrection and dissent and potential political rebellion of the majority of landless white men who didn't have slaves and lived precarious lives so that they would serve in this capacity alongside major plantation owners was a kind of way to build community around the notion of protecting the white community from the enslaved black population.

    Ask your students:

    • What does Professor Muhammad mean, when he says that the United States was “a profoundly unequal society” when it was formed?
    • What does the term “social insurance” mean? How was slavery a form of “social insurance?”
    • How did white people who were not enslavers “build community” with white people who were enslavers?

    Remote Learning Note: Play the podcast clip during a synchronous session or ask students to listen to it asynchronously as homework before a synchronous session. Then, ask students to read the final paragraph and answer the text-based questions in small groups in virtual break out rooms.

  2. Examine Black Codes, Vagrancy Laws, and the Criminalization of Black Life After the Civil War

    If your students are unfamiliar with the history of Black Codes and the Reconstruction era, you may want to start by sharing a few bullet-points with historical context. For example:

    • The Civil War ended in April 1865, and by the fall of that year most Southern state legislatures passed a series of laws known as Black Codes, which severely restricted the freedom of Black people living in the South.
    • Black Codes were negated by the Civil Rights Act, passed by Congress in 1866, and 14th Amendment, ratified by the states in 1868, during the Reconstruction era.
    • As Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s, new laws targeting Black Americans were enacted in many states. For example, vagrancy laws once again criminalized unemployment and other statutes allowed for harsh punishments for even the most minor crimes.

    Play the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name from 13:38 to 18:25. (This video is available to stream on Facing History’s website.)

    Ask students:

    • What are some examples of the behaviors that were criminalized as Reconstruction ended? Why do you think state legislators chose to criminalize those behaviors?
    • What impact do you think these restrictions had on the lives of Black Americans?
    • In what ways do you see the legacy of this historical criminalization of Black Americans in the United States today? What differences do you notice?

    Then, ask your students to read the following passage from the article Presumption of Guilt, published by the Equal Justice Initiative:

    The myth of racial hierarchy—the belief that Black people are inferior—was created to justify the enslavement of Black people. Enslavement could not be sustained as legitimate without a false narrative about Black people being less human or worthy of freedom that would make it justifiable.

    That racist belief survived the formal abolition of slavery and evolved to include the belief that Black people are dangerous criminals. This was reinforced during the decades of racial terror lynchings that followed enslavement when white people defended the torture and spectacle murder of Black people as necessary to protect their property, families, and way of life from Black “criminals.”

    Criminalizing Black people was the basis for convict leasing, a system created to provide cheap labor after slavery was abolished. Southern lawmakers passed “Black Codes” so that African Americans could be arrested for “crimes” like loitering and forced to work in white-owned businesses and plantations throughout the South.

    States passed laws to segregate Black people, banning them from sharing public accommodations, barring them from interracial relationships, and humiliating them by restricting them to marginalized spaces.

    To this day, we have not adequately confronted the legacy of racial injustice and instead have let it evolve into the widespread presumption that people of color are suspicious, dangerous, and criminal—that young Black men are to be feared, monitored, and even hunted.

    New language has emerged for the non-crimes that have replaced the Black Codes—driving while Black, napping while Black, jogging while Black. All reflect incidents in which African Americans were mistreated, assaulted, or arrested for conduct that would be ignored if they were white.3

    Ask students:

    • How did Black Codes, vagrancy laws, and other racially discriminatory laws contribute to the false perception that Black Americans were criminals?
    • What aspects of this history are similar to present issues around policing and the criminalization of Black Americans? What aspects are different?
    • How could the false association between Black Americans and crime influence how police officers and other members of society interact with Black people today?

    Remote Learning Note: Students can watch the video and read the text individually and asynchronously using the Slides for this activity. Then, students can discuss the questions during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in an online discussion forum.

Additional Resources:

  1. Mississippi Black Codes (1865), Facing History and Ourselves
    This reading contains excerpts from Black Code laws, which you can share and analyze with your students. The reading is one of the many resources used in our unit The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy, which you can use to teach your students about this important era in American democracy.
  2. American Police, Throughline
    This podcast episode uses an interview with historian Khalil Muhammad to explore the history of policing in the United States, both in the South and the North.
  3. The Invention of the Police, The New Yorker
    This article written by historian Jill Lepore explores the origins of policing, tracing the history from thirteenth-century England to the present-day United States.
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body', The Guardian
    This excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me raises important questions about the legacy of slavery and the treatment of Black bodies and lives today.

View the next Teaching Idea in this series: Exploring Contemporary Experiences of Policing and Racial Injustice

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