Tricentennial Thursday: ‘Code Noir’ legalized slavery, provided protection

By Mark Lombard, Clarion Herald

The “Code Noir” – or Black Code – of 1724 outlined policies and practices for governing and relations between the enslaved and the colonists in Louisiana. 

The first version of the code was introduced in 1685 and was applied to French colonies in the West Indies in 1687, Guyana on the South American coast in 1704, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean in 1723. 

In 1724, the second version of the code was promulgated by King Louis XV and introduced to Louisiana. The code provided the French administration a legal framework for slavery, established rules and protocols governing conditions of colonial inhabitants, provided some moral justification for accepting a slave-based society and ended the illegal, though not the legal, slave trade.

Included in the 54 articles were mandates: forbidding residence by Jews in the French colonies; prohibiting any exercise of religion other than Roman Catholicism; requiring baptism of the enslaved in the Catholic Church and burial of these then-Christian slaves in consecrated ground; and, establishing protections for the enslaved by masters.

“The Code Noir is the code that was first established in 1724 and continues with some changes through the Spanish period,” through the late 18th century and the initial years of the 19th century, said archdiocesan archivist Dr. Emilie Leumas. “It is what governs the people and how slaves are treated in the country, demanding that slaves be free from work on Sunday and that slaves are to be instructed and baptized in the Catholic faith.” 

Slaves taught Catholicism

“The Code Noir,” she added, “makes it imperative that masters impart religious instruction to their slaves. It permits the exercise of Roman Catholic creed only. It forbids white subjects to marry those of color. Marriages of slaves have to be approved by consent of the master. Children follow the condition of their parents and their mother,” meaning that if the mother is enslaved and the father is free, then the child is enslaved, while if the father is enslaved and the mother is free, then the child is free. 

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the new American administration “repealed most of the ancient laws of the territory that were contrary to or irreconcilable with American law,” Leumas said. But much of the Code Noir was retained by the Louisiana Civil Code, including “our laws about slavery,” she added.

Definition of a slave after 1824

In 1824, the Louisiana code provides definition for slaves going forward.    “‘The slave is one who is in the power of the master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor, which means that he could farm him out. He could make the rent off of that person,” Leumas said. In this period, “the slave could own nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything,” she added, “and everything belongs to the master.”

The code further defined manumitted people as those who were once slaves but were legally free. It defined slaves who were enslaved for a time, but would acquire freedom at a later date.

Freedom at a price

In 1827, the Louisiana code was further amended, “and this had to do with every person desiring to emancipate a slave,” Leumas said, noting that, “if emancipation were to occur, and the slave had not reached age 30, then the master had to present to a parish judge a petition explaining the motives for the emancipation. The Louisiana code continued throughout the antebellum period to tighten the laws concerning slaves and their emancipation. By 1857, emancipation of slaves was deemed illegal.”  

Despite some of these protections through the Code Noir, and later the Louisiana Civil Code – which resulted in a far higher percentage of blacks being free people of color in Louisiana (13.2 percent compared to 0.8 percent in Mississippi) – New Orleans became the largest slave-market distribution center in North America during the decades preceding the Civil War, when the phrase being “sold down the (Mississippi) river” had a particularly chilling connotation.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

Mark Lombard can be reached at


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