Abraham Lincoln and The Black Code of the District of Columbia

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I recently saw “Lincoln” with Mrs. Ghosts and was blown away by the history and power of the film.

A number of visually stunning scenes depicted life in Washington during the waning years of the Civil War. The historic imagery and cinematography alone are reasons to see the film, yet, the true power of the film revolves around the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, while pushing for an end to the Civil War.

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The film’s climax takes place in the House of Representatives when a crowd of African American servants, freemen and former slaves enter the visitors gallery to observe the historic vote for the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln movie poster
Lincoln movie poster

It is not possible for any of us to wrap our heads around what it must have been like to be black in 19th century Washington, or imagine what it must have felt like sitting in the gallery that day.

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After a little digging through Google Books, I came across a reference which can place a little more context around the times. “The Black Code of the District of Columbia in Place September 1st, 1848” is 122 pages of laws governing all aspects of life and behavior for African-Americans in Washington, D.C. (read a little more on Black Codes on Wikipedia).

Below are just a few excerpts from the book, which you will undoubtedly find shocking. I would also recommend reading the whole book.

Also, remember that different laws were in force for Georgetown, the City of Washington and the District of Columbia (i.e., land outside of Boundary St./Florida Ave.), the latter having laws of Maryland still apply.

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Let me warn you, these actually might make it more difficult to wrap your head around what it was like because it just boggles the mind that these were codified into laws. This is but a small sample of the unconscionable laws governing Washington over 150 years ago.

District of Columbia

When Runaway Slaves May Be Lawfully Killed By Their Pursuers.

If any negro or other slaves, absenting themselves from their master’s service, running out into the woods and there remaining, killing and destroying hogs and cattle belonging to the people of this province, shall refuse to surrender themselves and make resistance against such persons as pursue to apprehend and take them up, being thereunto legally empowered, it shall be lawful for such pursuers, when such resistance is made, to shoot, kill and destroy such negroes or other slaves. Laws of Maryland, 1723; Ch. 15, Sect. 7.

Penalty Against Ordinary-Keepers Harboring and Entertaining Slaves, Or Selling Liquor to Slaves Without License.

If any ordinary-keeper shall harbor, entertain or sell any liquor to any slave, without license in writing first had and obtained from the master, mistress or owner of such slave, such ordinary-keeper shall for every such offence, forfeit and pay one hundred and sixty pounds of tobacco to the master, mistress or owner of such slave, to be recovered with costs, upon complaint of the said master, mistress or owner before a justice of the country where such ordinary-keeper lives. Laws of Maryland, 1780; Ch. 24, Sect. 17.

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Penalty Against Importing Free Colored Persons and Selling Them Into Slavery.

If any person shall import or bring into this state any free negro or mulatto or any person bound to service for a term of years only and shall sell or otherwise dispose of such free negro, mulatto or person bound to servce for a term of years only, as a slave for life or for any longer time, than by law such person may be bound to serve, knowing such negro or mulatto to be free or entitled to freedom at a certain age, every such person shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of eight hundred dollars, to be recovered by action of debt or indictment, one half to the use of the county, the other half to the informer, and in case the said sum be not paid or secured to be paid within thirty days, then such person shall be adjudged to work on the roads for any term not exceeding give years. Laws of Maryland, 1797, Ch. 67. Sect. 16.

Penalty Against Illicit Intercourse Between Colored and White Persons.

Any white woman, that shall suffer herself to be got with child be a negro or other slave or free negro shall become a servant for the term of seven years, and if such begetter of such child be a free negro, he shall become a servant for the term of seven years, to be adjudged by the justices of the County Court where such fact is committed; and any white man that shall beget any negro woman with child whether free woman or servant, shall undergo the same penalties as white women; and the times of servitude, as imposed upon the said offenders, shall be disposed of or employed as the justices of such ounty shall think fit, the produce whereof shall be appropriated toward defraying the county charge. Laws of Maryland, 1715; Ch. 44, Sect. 25, 26, 27.

The Black Code of the District of Columbia in Force September 1st, 1848
The Black Code of the District of Columbia in Force September 1st, 1848
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Ordinances of the Corporation of Washington

Punishment of Free Colored Persons for Gaming.

If any free black or mulatto person shall be found playing at cards, dice or any other game of immoral tendency  or shall be present as one of the company where such game is playing, on conviction thereof before a justice of the peace, he shall forfeit and pay a fine not exceeding ten dollars. Ordinances of the Corporation of Washington, 1827, May 31st, Sect. 4.

Punishment of Slaves for Creating a False Alarm of Fire

If any slave shall kindle or set on fire, or be present, aiding, consenting or causing it to be done, in any street, avenue, or alley, open-ground or lot, any barrel, straw, shavings or other combustible, between the setting and the rising of the sun, whereby a false alarm of fire may be created, on conviction thereof, he shall be whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, at the discretion of the magistrate before whom the case may be tried, which punishment may be commuted by the payment of a fine not exceeding five dollars for every offence. Ordinances of the Corporation of Washington 1829, April 2d.

Punishment of Free Colored Persons for Having Dances, &C., at Their Houses, Without License.

All free black or mulatto persons are prohibited from having a dance, ball or assembly, at his, her or their house, without first having obtained a license or permit, for that purpose from the Mayor, in which shall be mentioned the place, time of meeting, number of guests, hour of breaking up, and the name of the person so applying for such permit; and any free black or mulatto persons, offending against the provisions of this Section, or suffering such disorder during said period, as to disturb the peace of the neighborhood, on conviction thereof before a justice of the peace, shall forfeit and pay for each and every offence a sum not exceeding ten dollars. Ordinances of the Corporation of Washington, 1827, May 31st, Sect. 5.

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Punishment of Slaves for Bathing in Certain Waters Between Sun-Rise and Sun-Set.

It shall not be lawful for any slave to bathe or swim in the Anacostia river, between Sixth street east, and Fifteenth street west; or in the canal or any part of the Tyber east of Fifteenth street west, or in the Potomac river adjoining the city of Washington, lying between the Potomac Bridge and the northern boundary of the public ground at Greenleaf’s Point, or in that part of the Potomac river, adjoining said city, lying between the mouth of the Tyber and Twenty-third street west, and between D street north and the mouth of Rock Creek, or to bathe or swim from or under the Potomac Bridge, on pain of being punished for each offence, on conviction thereof, with any number of stripes on his or her back, not exceeding five, unless his or her owner shall choose to pay a fine of two dollars for each offence. Ordinances of the Corporation of Washington, 1821, July 10th, Sect. 3.–1826, June 8th–1830 July 24th–1843, Demcember 21st, Sect. 3.

Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown

Punishment of Slaves for Sitting, Standing, or Lying Upon the Benches or Stalls of the Market House.

It shall be unlawful for any slave to sit, stand or lie upon any of the benches or stalls of the Market House, either during the day or night season, and upon conviction thereof, before any tribunal competent to try the same, he or she shall be punished by inflicting not more than ten stripes, unless the owner of such slave, or some other person, shall pay a fine of one dollar, in lieu thereof. Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown, 1845, November 4th, Sect. 3.

Punishment of Slaves for Flying Kites.

If any slave shall fly any kite or kites, within the limits of this corporation, on conviction of the same before the mayor, and being found unable to pay a fine, for every such offence, not exceeding two dollars, to be recovered before the mayor, one half to the informer and the other half to the corporation, such offender may be punished by whipping at the discretion of the mayor. Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown, 1827, June 23d, Sect. 1, 2, 3.


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