In May following the end of the Civil War, Union Brigadier General Alexander McDowell McCook codified President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation — which freed all enslaved people in the United States — into state law. Though slavery was now illegal in the state and nationwide, Florida’s plantation owners and Confederate state leaders vowed to maintain control over Black people, whose labor had allowed them to economically flourish for decades. They did this by exploiting a loophole in the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, “except as a punishment for [convicted] crime.”

Thus began Florida’s era of Black Codes — a set of laws Southern states passed to limit the economic mobility of Black people, which included sweeping and arbitrary “vagrancy” laws to keep slavery and involuntary servitude afloat in practice. Even for the South, Florida’s Black Codes were especially harsh.[1] These policies allowed the state to exploit the labor of free Black Floridians in myriad ways — like through fines, imprisonment, and indentured servitude. Being convicted of vagrancy carried hefty fines of up to $1,000, equivalent to an estimated $20,200 in 2023 dollars.

Unable to pay these fines, numerous Black Floridians were sold to plantation owners and forced to work the land to pay off their debts, sometimes the same land they had worked while enslaved. The alternative to fines and indentured servitude was imprisonment. The Black Codes removed both monetary and human resources from Black communities in Florida, keeping economic prosperity out of reach for the foreseeable future.

For more information about the Black Codes, visit other policy areas of The Florida Timeline:




[1] Theodore B. Wilson, 1965, The Black Codes of the South (no. 6), University of Alabama Press.