Echoes of Reconstruction: Opposing the South Carolina Black Codes in 1865

ECW welcomes back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

After the surrender of the Confederate armies between April and June 1865, President Andrew Johnson remarkably left state and local governments in the hands of many of the same white men who had led the South into rebellion against the United States. These men excluded Blacks, including Black Union veterans, from voting and the all-white post-war legislatures passed laws called the Black Codes that severely restricted the rights of the newly freed slaves.

These laws were courageously opposed by African Americans, many of whom had been slaves only months before. One state where black opposition manifested itself early was South Carolina.

Beginning on November 20, 1865, 52 black delegates met in Charleston’s Zion Church to organize opposition to pending legislation to create a Black Code for South Carolina that would return blacks to conditions near those of slavery. In fact, the proposed code referred to employers as “masters.” The delegates formulated an address to the people of South Carolina opposing the Black Code. It may be read here.

One of the most significant parts of the Address is contained in its opening two words: “FELLOW CITIZENS.” Of course, it is doubtful that white South Carolinians considered these, or any, Black men their “FELLOW CITIZENS.” It is interesting that the African American delegates took such a bold step. The Black delegates were staking out territory as a constituency within a republic rather than as a subject people.

The Black representatives said that whites were scapegoating African Americans for all of the problems of the South in 1865 without acknowledging that most came about as a result of the destruction caused by the war:

Without any rational cause or provocation on our part, of which we are conscious, as a people, we, by the action of your Convention and Legislature, have been virtually, and with few exceptions excluded from, first, the rights of citizenship, which you cheerfully accord to strangers, but deny to us who have been born and reared in your midst, who were faithful while your greatest trials were upon you, and have done nothing since to merit your disapprobation.

We are denied the right of giving our testimony in like manner with that of our white fellow-citizens, in the courts of the State, by which our persons and property are subject to every species of violence, insult and fraud without redress.

We are also by the present laws, not only denied the right of citizenship, the inestimable right of voting for those who rule over us in the land of our birth, but by the so-called Black Code we are deprived the rights of the meanest profligate in the country—the right to engage in any legitimate business free from any restraints, save those which govern all other citizens of this State.

You have by your Legislative actions placed barriers in the way of our educational and mechanical improvement; you have given us little or no encouragement to pursue agricultural pursuits, by refusing to sell to us lands, but organize societies to bring foreigners to your country, and thrust us out or reduce us to a serfdom, intolerable to men born amid the progress of American genius and national development.

Your public journals charge the freedmen with destroying the products of the country since they have been made free, when they know that the destruction of the products was brought about by the ravages of war of four years duration. How unjust, then, to charge upon the innocent and helpless, evils in which they had no hand, and which may be traced to where it properly belongs.

Here is the Radical appeal of the black convention, one which the delegates could never expect white South Carolinians to meet:

We simply desire that we shall be recognized as men; that we have no obstructions placed in our way; that the same laws which govern white men shall direct colored men; that we have the right of trial by a jury of our peers, that schools be opened or established for our children; that we be permitted to acquire homesteads for ourselves and children; that we be dealt with as others, in equity and justice.

You can find a pdf of the original publication of the proceedings of the convention here.

The delegates also issued a “Memorial” to Congress on Nov. 24 that identified the sources of freedom for the slaves:

The convention alerted the Congress to the ill intent of the South Carolina legislature.

The South Carolina Black Code was enacted shortly thereafter.

5 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Opposing the South Carolina Black Codes in 1865

  1. I am troubled by what seems to be reading history backward in this post. I was especially struck by this phrase: Here is the Radical appeal of the black convention, one which the delegates could never expect white South Carolinians to meet:
    Certainly the post reflects the postwar reality, especially the death of Reconstruction and subsequent, very successful efforts to force formerly enslaved people back into their previous circumstances.
    Why was it unthinkable in 1865 that South Carolinians might come to accept the reality of black freedom? Certainly 150+ years of acrimony and violence might have been mitigated.

    1. The Black Code was passed in December of 1865, so if I am “reading history backward” it is not from 2024, it is from December of 1865. The representatives who voted for the Black Codes were elected by the white people, and only white people, of South Carolina and all of them were white.

  2. The Black Codes were also courageously opposed by Blacks in the North, where they were instituted in the 1840s-1860s, especially after more and more Northern states outlawed slavery, and abolitionists began helping slaves escape to the North. The vast majority of Northern states and the Northern population did not want blacks residing amongst them, and so what became “Jim Crow” was invented in the North.

    1. As you know, many Northern and Southern African Americans united with their numerous allies in the North to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 ending many forms of discrimination just over a year after the end of the war. Over the next half-decade further expansions on civil rights were passed in the 14th and 15th Amendments and the Enforcement Acts.

  3. For perspective, former Confederates (voting white males) were disenfranchised from elective Federal positions post-War; further, attention may be paid to the Black Codes of Northern States. For further perspective, in 1860 there were 36,675 freedpersons in Ohio, out of a total Ohio population of 2.34 million, or 1.6%; here’s a link to laws passed in Ohio in 1861, 1874, and 1878, establishing segregated schools (from the Iowa Historical Society). They were repealed in 1886, when the freedperson total was 2.4% of a total Ohio population of 3.58 million.

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