As the Black population increased, Connecticut’s lawmakers enacted more and more laws to control it. The so-called Black Code was a series of laws passed between 1690 and 1730 which described the rights and responsibilities of slave and master.
The Black Code formalized slavery in Connecticut. There were no laws specifically forbidding slavery, and custom and the laws controlling it combined to give slavery legal standing in Connecticut. The early Capital Law of 1642 which prohibited stealing “man or mankind” was interpreted to mean only White mankind.
Black servants were required to carry passes outside the town or be treated as runaways. Sellers of liquor were not allowed to serve Blacks without permission from their master. It is not clear what was done to Blacks who drank without permission. Blacks were not allowed to sell items without proof of ownership or written permission from the owner. Blacks were liable to whippings for disturbing the peace or “offering to strike a white person.” Blacks found outside after 9:00 p.m. without a pass could be whipped. Whipping was also the punishment for slaves who used unseemly language.
This group of laws applied equally to free and slave Blacks, but free Blacks who were well-known and responsible local citizens were exempted in some towns. The law concerning liquor is interesting in that it also applied to minors and apprentices. Some writers assert that this demonstrates the Black slaves’ position to have been closer to that of life apprentice than that of chattel. This point also makes sense in light of a section of the Black Code enacted in 1730. Slaves were allowed to give evidence in court, to enter petitions and pleas and to make complaints.
Two other parts of the code which were not meant to harm Blacks effectively discouraged manumission. These were sections dealing with the responsibilities of masters and towns to freed slaves. To discourage the wholesale freeing of old or infirm slaves, masters were required to provide for any Black whom they freed if ever he came to want. The second act specified that the town would provide for any needy ex-slave and sue the former master to recover expenses if the master refused support. Designed to save the town the expense of supporting former slaves, the laws served in numerous cases to prolong slavery.
The Black Code is interesting for the several ways in which it differs from Southern slave codes. Probably most significant are the rights of slaves in court. They were obviously considered members of the society with very specific rights despite their bondage. Crimes against slaves were treated no differently from crimes against Whites, although there were practical differences. The stories in the next two lessons attempt to bring out some of the differences between the rights of Blacks and Whites in Connecticut.
: Hagar is suing her master for her freedom on the grounds that her master’s father had promised her her freedom just before he died. Her case is clear, but what is important is that she is given an opportunity to present it, and that the testimony of other Black servants is admissible.
Although this is a reading comprehension lesson, it leads easily to a discussion of a more general nature on slaves’ rights and the concept of manumission.
: The slave Jason runs afoul of the Black Code while on an errand for his master. With him are a free Black and a White apprentice. The differences in their punishments and in the treatment they receive in court are the central points this story makes.
This is also a reading lesson.
: The students are given a chart of the basic elements of the Black Code and are required to interpret the chart in order to answer questions about the code.