After the Civil War, the former Confederate states returned to the United States and were once again governed by the US Constitution, including the Thirteenth Amendment. Each state passed laws relating to the rights and privileges of African American people, many of whom had formerly been enslaved and thereby had legally been considered property rather than people. Nevertheless, the white constituents in numerous states refused to recognize that African Americans had the same rights to other citizens. Instead, they passed laws restricting black people’s rights. Collectively, these laws were known as the Black Laws or Black Codes.
The historical importance of the laws endured long after Reconstruction ended. Many of them remained in force for almost a century and effectively blocked the improvement of black people’s social and financial well-being. One common characteristic among most states’ laws was vagrancy: the laws criminalized extreme poverty by making it illegal for people without money to be on public streets. Those arrested as “vagrants” could be jailed or forced to work off their sentence for minimal or even no wages. Other key components were segregation in housing, education, and employment, and legal prohibition of interracial marriage. The perpetuation of these laws, sometimes with minor variations, was one key area that Civil Rights activists worked to end.