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

Last updated October 2, 2020.

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, while not stereotyping or criminalizing all police officers. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with 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 biased 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.

Note to Teacher: Historical Context: Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws

After the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, white people in power in the South 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 repealed during Reconstruction (in 1866), 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

    Ask students to read the first seven paragraphs of Time Magazine’s article How the U.S. Got Its Police Force, stopping at the end of the paragraph that begins: “In the South, however, the economics that drove the creation of police forces . . .”

    Then, ask your students:

    • What is the purpose of having a police force?
    • How did early policing in the United States enforce racial boundaries?

    Share the following passage from historian Khalil Muhammad, excerpted from the Throughline podcast episode American Police:

    Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the way slave patrols functioned is that they were explicit in their design to empower the entire white population, not just with police power but with the duty to police the comings and goings and movements of black people . . .

    [The slave patrol system] seems to have really effectively mobilized . . . not just land-owning whites who own[ed] slaves but people who didn't themselves own slaves. It gave them, both the men and presumably also the . . . white women in these societies, a sense of superiority almost over this whole class of people that they were now in charge of patrolling.3

    Discuss with students:

    • What information in this passage surprises you? What information troubles you? What questions does it raise for you?
    • How did policing the daily lives of Black people who were enslaved give white people a “sense of superiority”? Why would white people who were not enslavers also share this sense of superiority?

    Remote Learning Note: Students can read the two texts 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.

  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:

    • By the fall of 1865, after the end of the Civil War, 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 repealed in 1866 during the Reconstruction era.
    • As Reconstruction ended, new laws targeting Black Americans were enacted. 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 legislators chose to criminalize those behaviors?
    • What impact do you think these restrictions had on the lives of Black Americans?

    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.4

    Ask students:

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

    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: Policing, Public Safety, and Bias

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