What constituted a “vagrant” under the Mississippi Black Codes?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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From other questions that you have asked on eNotes, I believe that you are asking questions based on the primary sources in For the Record, edited by Shi and Mayer.  I am basing my answer on the Mississippi Vagrant Law found in that collection.

The law in question gives a number of very vague categories of people who can be considered vagrants.  These include things like “rogues” and “vagabonds.”  However, the law also had some very specific kinds of behavior that could lead one to be labeled as a vagrant and punished by fines, imprisonment, or (in the case of blacks who could not pay their fines) being hired out to work for someone.  These kinds of behaviors included:

  • “Neglecting” their calling
  • “misspending” their money
  • “habitually misspending their time” by doing things like gambling, drinking, or going to brothels.

There were no references to race in this part.  However, there were race-specific aspects to the law.  Blacks could be deemed to be vagrants if they were over 18 and

  • Had no job or business
  • “unlawfully assembled” with one another” at any time.

White people could specifically be held as vagrants if they hung around with blacks “on terms of equality.”  A white man could be held for living with a black woman as well.

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