“Black Codes,” Reconstruction, and Suffrage

As the North debated voting rights for African Americans, Southern states, in their desire to maintain dominance and ownership over Black people, began to pass laws to limit the rights of former slaves. 

Black Codes and Rights

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"Convicts Who Had Violated the Black Codes" Source: U-S-History.com

As the North debated voting rights for African Americans, Southern states, in their desire to maintain dominance and ownership over Black people, began to pass laws to limit the rights of former slaves.

“Black codes” were passed in the South between 1865 and 1866 to replace the political and social controls of slavery that were removed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Codes included barring African Americans from voting or holding elected office, limiting property rights and job opportunities, and restricting movement from small towns and farms into cities. In fact, homeless and unemployed African Americans could be charged with vagrancy and forced into labor to pay off their fines.

Southern leadership was determined to keep newly-freed slaves at the bottom of the political and economic system. In response, Congress passed several acts to address the question of rights and to determine how the Southern states would be governed.

These acts included the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which stated that all persons born in the United States were now citizens — regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

The 14th Amendment A constitutional amendment created to make sure citizenship rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 would not be easily overturned in the future added rights granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment said states could not deny equal protection under the law to any citizen.

The constitutional amendment was important because it’s much harder to change or take something out of the Constitution than it is to reverse a law like the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

The Reconstruction Act of March 1867 established military rule over Southern states until new governments could be formed; it also gave male former slaves the right to vote and hold public office.

The 15th Amendment stated that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The language of the 15th Amendment did not include gender

The legislation and amendments transformed the political life of the South. Southern states enacted universal “manhood suffrage,” and Black political power expanded dramatically.

More than 1,500 African Americans held public office in the South. Sixteen African Americans served in Congress during Reconstruction, at least 600 served in state legislatures, and hundreds more served in local offices.

Reconstruction governments established state-funded public school systems, tried to strengthen the bargaining power of agricultural workers, made taxes more equitable and outlawed racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations. While these changes didn’t eliminate public racism or systemic oppression, they were significant steps in the right direction.

Women's Suffrage

While voting rights for Black men were being fought for and debated, there was a coinciding push for women’s suffrage.

After the Civil War, Black and white abolitionists and suffragists in the North came together in an appeal for universal suffrage. The American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed and several Black women and men held leadership positions, including Harriet Purvis, Sarah Remond, Sojourner Truth and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as white activists Abby Kelley Foster, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell.

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Sarah Remond; Source: Wellesley College

As legislators moved closer to voting rights for Black men and not for women, the campaign around universal suffrage began to split. (For more information on this, click here.)

Leaders like Frederick Douglass pleaded with women to hold off on their campaign until African American male suffrage passed. He made this request because it was clear legislators were not going to pass women’s suffrage yet and division might have made it harder to pass African American male suffrage.

Accusations were quickly made, primarily by white women, that Black men had turned their backs on women to get the vote for themselves. However, Douglass and many other Black male suffragists maintained their support of women’s suffrage.

One example of Black men using their political power to support women comes from Massachusetts. During the 1860s and 1870s, there were six African American men who served in the State House of Representatives in predominantly Black districts. All six supported the different women’s suffrage bills that came through the legislature during their terms. Unfortunately, none of those measures passed. 

A second example comes from South Carolina where a number of Black women actually cast ballots in the 1870 election with the support of African American election officials. These actions were a reflection of the unique quality of the suffrage movement for African Americans: unity around universal suffrage to improve the conditions for Black people in America as a whole.  

Inconsistent Legislation in the North

Even as African American suffrage expanded in the South, the idea of Black men voting was not necessarily popular with white northerners.

At their 1868 presidential nominating convention, Republicans agreed that African American male suffrage should continue as a requirement for the Southern states, but Northern states should settle this issue for themselves.

Between 1863 and 1870, 15 Northern states defeated movements to enfranchise African American men.

Minnesota and Iowa were the first two Northern states to pass Black male suffrage by a popular vote after the Civil War.