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The Code Noir


When enslaved Afrikans in America gained a measure of freedom from legalized slavery, plantation owners, local and state governments, primarily in the South, were determined to maintain as much control over the newly freed Afrikans as possible. Their best resort was through political and legal means, concocting a set of statues called the Black Codes.

“As newly freed slaves would soon learn, freedom was not as they had anticipated. White Southerners were anxious to regain power over them and used the law in order to achieve that objective. In 1865, Southerners created Black Codes, which served as a way to inhibit the freedom of ex-slaves. Codes controlled almost all aspects of life and prohibited African Americans from the freedom that had been won. Codes regulated civil and legal rights, such as marriage, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, occupational choice, and the right to hold and sell property.

“Laws were different in each state, but most embodied the same kinds of restrictions. Commonly, codes compelled freedmen to work. In many states, if unemployed, Blacks faced the potential of being arrested and charged with vagrancy. Many of those that did work had their day regulated.
Codes dictated their hours of labor, duties, and often assigned to them as agricultural workers or domestics.” (Jessica McElrath. The Black Codes of 1865)

There were signs posted in towns to keep Blacks from integrating with Whites. These signs read, “If Black, stay back!”

In Europe, the negative attitude towards Afrikans was just as vicious and condescending. Each European country had their own ways of limiting and restricting Afrikans from exercising true freedom. Although slavery still existed, every effort was made to maintain control over the lives of freed Afrikans.

France instituted its own form of black codes titled, The Code Noir. King Louis XIV, in 1685, spelled out behavior for enslaved Afrikans, as well as free Afrikans. France’s main concern was in the French Caribbean Islands. Huge profits were generated from its sugar plantations. Haiti, for example, was it’s most profitable territory. The majority populations were enslaved Afrikans, and slave revolts were frequent. France wanted to maintain as much control over free and enslaved Afrikans so as not to disturb its economic boom during this period.

The Code Noir were some of the most inhibiting rules ever instituted outside of the United States, and explains why the Catholic Church, which instituted slavery, is so influential among Afrikans on the continent and the Caribbean.

Examples of some of its restrictions were: Slaves must be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church; forbade the exercise of any other religion, other than Catholicism. Only Catholic marriages would be recognized. Fugitive slaves absent for a month shall have their ears cut off and be branded. For another month their hamstring will be cut and they will be branded again. A third time they will be executed. All colonial subjects and slaves must observe Catholic holidays regardless of their own faith, and no one must work on Sundays and on holidays. Slave masters must be Roman Catholic.

Married free men will be fined for having children with their slave concubines, as will the slave concubine’s master. If the man himself is the master of the slave concubine, the slave and child will be removed from his ownership. If the man was not married, he should then be married to the slave concubine, thus freeing her and the child from slavery. Weddings between slaves must be carried out only with the masters’ permission. Masters of freed slaves who give refuge to fugitive slaves will be fined. Masters may chain and beat slaves but may not torture nor mutilate them (uh?). Slaves belonging to different masters may not gather at any time under any circumstance. A slave who strikes his or her master, his wife, mistress or children will be executed. Slaves shall not sell sugar cane, even with permission of their masters.

These were just some of the rules for enslaved and free Afrikans under French rule. Of course, we know that the Haitian Revolution put an end to these rules, but Catholicism had made its mark. These rules are the major reasons why so many Afrikans on the continent, and in the Caribbean, under French rule, remained Catholic, passing it on to their descendants who lived in the United States. The same reason holds true for continental Afrikans, and in the Caribbean, under English rule, who are members of the Anglican Church.

– Dr. Kwaku’s class, Afrikan World Civilizations, with all new lessons, will begin Friday, 7 – 9 p.m., Feb. 20 in Leimert Park. See for details.

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