Black History Month – The Slave Code

The Intellectual Revolution presents…

the slavery code

By the 1600s, Africans were being transported to America as slaves, and eventually the African slave trade became a major part of the economy in North America. Slaves did not accept their fate without protest. As African-Americans in the colonies grew larger and larger in number, there was a paranoia on the part of the white settlers that a violent rebellion could occur in one’s own neighborhood. It was this fear of rebellion that led each colony to pass a series of laws restricting slaves’ behaviors. The laws were known as slave codes. These laws would encompass many facets of slavery, such as the status of the slaves in each jurisdiction, the rights of their masters, and acceptable treatment of those bound in slavery.

Although each colony had differing ideas about the rights of slaves, there were some common threads in slave codes across areas where slavery was common. Slaves codes typically left the slaves with few, if any, legal rights. Legally considered property, slaves were not allowed to own property of their own. They were not allowed to assemble without the presence of a white person. A slave could not sign or enter into a contract, and his or her testimony, if given in a case that involved Caucasians, was usually inadmissible in a court of law. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write, and the law did not recognize marriage between slaves. This made it easier to justify the breakup of families by selling one if its members to another owner.  These laws even made it illegal for slaves to defend themselves against bodily harm. If any Caucasian people attacked a slave, the slave could not hit them back, even to save his own life. If he did so, he might be punished with whipping, prison time, or even death.

Now most people may read the above statements and think this information is common knowledge. So, if you already knew the majority of these facts then you’re off to a great. However, I will try to make things a bit more relative to readers of today by trying to break this down even further. How would this be done you ask? Simple, by providing actual examples of how these codes were actually written during the times of slavery. I believe the actual words magnify the deep-rooted belief that these people were less than human, and hopefully this will help readers understand how often each of them were left to fight a battle that had been lost well before it ever began.

Virginia, 1650
“Act XI. All persons except Negroes are to be provided with arms and ammunitions or be fined at the pleasure of the governor and council.”
Virginia, 1662
“Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishmen upon a Negro shall be slave or Free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”
Maryland, 1664
“That whatsoever free-born [English] woman shall intermarry with any slave […] shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were.”
Virginia, 1667
“Act III. Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by birth […] should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament.”
Virginia, 1705
“All servants imported and brought into the Country…who were not Christians in their native Country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate.”
Virginia, 1705
“If any slave resists his master…correcting such a slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.”
South Carolina, 1712
“Be it therefore enacted, by his Excellency, William, Lord Craven, Palatine…. and the rest of the members of the General Assembly, now met at Charles Town, for the South-west part of this Province, and by the authority of the same, That all negroes, mulattoes, mestizo’s or Indians, which at any time heretofore have been sold, or now are held or taken to be, or hereafter shall be bought and sold for slaves, are hereby declared slaves; and they, and their children, are hereby made and declared slaves….”
South Carolina, 1712
“Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That no master, mistress, overseer, or other person whatsoever, that hath the care and charge of any negro or slave, shall give their negroes and other slaves leave…to go out of their plantations…. Every slave hereafter out of his master’s plantation, without a ticket, or leave in writing, from his master…shall be whipped….”
Louisiana, 1724
“The slave who, having struck his master, his mistress, or the husband of his mistress, or their children, shall have produced a bruise, or the shedding of blood in the face, shall suffer capital punishment.”
AL slave code
Alabama, 1833, section 31
“Any person or persons who attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall, upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.”
Alabama, 1833, section 32
“Any free person of color who shall write for any slave a pass or free paper, on conviction thereof, shall receive for every such offense, thirty-nine lashes on the bare back, and leave the state of Alabama within thirty days thereafter…”
Alabama, 1833, section 33
“Any slave who shall write for any other slave, any pass or free-paper, upon conviction, shall receive, on his or her back, one hundred lashes for the first offence, and seven hundred lashes for every offence thereafter…”
lashed slaved

The South Carolina slave code served as the model for other colonies in North America. The 1712 South Carolina slave code included further provisions such as:

  • Any slave attempting to run away and leave the colony (later, state) receives the death penalty
  • Any slave who evades capture for 20 days or more is to be publicly whipped for the first offense; branded with the letter R on the right cheek for the second offense; and lose one ear if absent for thirty days for the third offense; and castrated for the fourth offense.


  • Owners refusing to abide by the slave code are fined and forfeit ownership of their slaves
  • Slave homes are to be searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods. Punishment for violations escalate to include loss of ear, branding, and nose-slitting, and for the fourth offense, death.
  • No slave shall be allowed to work for pay, or to plant corn, peas or rice; or to keep hogs, cattle, or horses; or to own or operate a boat; to buy or sell; or to wear clothes finer than ‘Negro cloth’
  • The fine for concealing runaway slaves is one thousand dollars and a prison sentence of up to one year
  • A fine of one hundred dollars and six months in prison are imposed for employing any Black or slave as a clerk
  • A fine of one hundred dollars and six months in prison are imposed on anyone selling or giving alcoholic beverages to slaves, teaching any slave to read and write, and death is the penalty for circulating incendiary literature

– Supreme Soul

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2 Responses to Black History Month – The Slave Code

  1. cthebizzybee says:

    This is much needed information for people of this generation. So often we get wrapped up in today’s events and forget yesterday’s struggles that got us here. The code concerning baptism was particularly striking. To think that some slaves were denied baptism for fear that they would be considered free was a fact that I had not come across previously. On the contrary, denial of an education of any kind for slaves is a reoccurring thought I have as I travel through my own educational journey as a Black woman. I constantly remind myself how privileged I am to live in a time where I can be educated. So much history has transpired that I might be able to learn what interests me. Not all women or Black people today have the same opportunity right here in the US. I am so blessed and I’m thankful for times as these when I can be reminded of just how much transpired, how many sacrifices had to be made, and how I should truly seize all opportunities to be the best me I can be. We have come so far, yet there’s still much to attain. I aspire to make my ancestors proud, that their living (and dying) not have been in vain and to educate those around me that we all may be better. To do better, we have to know better….so let’s spread that knowledge!

    • Supreme Soul says:

      Thank you so much ma’am for your passionate and poignant comment! I truly am glad to see that some of this stuff isn’t just passing us by and eventually be forgotten. Because those who forget their history are….I’m sure you know where I’m going with this.

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