November 22nd, 1865

Mississippi Authorizes “Sale” of Black Orphans

After the physical and economic devastation of the Civil War, Southern states faced the daunting task of rebuilding with the young white male population drastically reduced by war-time casualties and, due to emancipation, without the enslaved black labor supply on which the entire region had been built. In response, some Southern state legislatures passed race-specific laws to establish new forms of labor relations between black workers and white “employers” that ostensibly complied with the letter of the law while re-creating the involuntary, master-slave relationship.

The Mississippi legislature on November 22, 1865, passed “An Act to regulate the relation of master and apprentice, as relates to freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes.” Under the law, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other county civil officers were authorized and required to identify all minor black children in their jurisdictions who were orphans or whose parents could not properly care for them. Once identified, the local probate court was required to “apprentice” black children to white “masters or mistresses” until age 18 for girls and age 21 for boys.

Though not required to pay a wage to the children, whites were required to pay a fee to the county for the apprentice arrangement and the children’s former owners were to be given preference. The law purportedly required white “masters” to provide their apprentices with education, medical care, food, and clothing but also re-established many of the more notorious features of slavery, including authorizing white masters to “re-capture” any apprentice who left their employment without consent, and threatened children with criminal punishment for refusing to return to work.