Home / Bottom Line / Story 1 o​f 11-part Series on ​Race in America – Pa​st and Present​

Story 1 o​f 11-part Series on ​Race in America – Pa​st and Present​

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Douglas A. Blackmon is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” He teaches at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and is a contributing editor at the Washington Post. This article, the first of an 11-part series on race, is sponsored by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and was originally published by the Washington Monthly Magazine

In the first years after the Civil War, even as former slaves optimistically swarmed into new schools and lined up at courthouses at every whisper of a hope of economic independence, the Southern states began enacting an array of interlocking laws that would make all African-Americans criminals, regardless of their conduct, and thereby making it legal to force them into chain gangs, labor camps, and other forms of involuntarily servitude. By the end of 1865, every Southern state except Arkansas and Tennessee had passed laws outlawing vagrancy and defining it so vaguely that virtually any freed slave not under the protection of a White man could be arrested for the crime. An 1865 Mississippi statute required Black workers to enter into labor contracts with White farmers by January 1 of every year or risk arrest. Four other states legislated that African Americans could not legally be hired for work without a discharge paper from their previous employer-effectively preventing them from leaving the plantation of the White man they worked for.

After the return of nearly complete White political control in 1877, the passage of those laws accelerated. Some, particularly those that explicitly said they applied only to African-Americans, were struck down in court appeals or through federal interventions, but new statutes embracing the same strictures on Black life quickly replaced them. Most of the new laws were written as if they applied to everyone, but in reality they were overwhelmingly enforced only against African- Americans.

In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida passed laws making it a crime for a Black man to change employers without permission. It was a crime for a Black man to speak loudly in the company of a White woman, a crime to have a gun in his pocket, and a crime to sell the proceeds of his farm to anyone other than the man he rented land from. It was a crime to walk beside a railroad line, a crime to fail to yield a sidewalk to White people, a crime to sit among Whites on a train, and it was most certainly a crime to engage in sexual relations with-or, God forbid, to show true love and affection for-a White girl.

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