Idle and Dangerous: Vagrancy Policing in a Southern Port City, 1852-1868

John Bardes, Tulane University

Immediately following U.S. slave emancipation, New Orleans police conducted nearly fifteen thousand arrests for the crime of vagrancy. Virtually all received lengthy hard labor terms.1 U.S. historians equate Southern vagrancy laws with the postbellum Black Codes, invoked as hallmarks of a criminal justice system that lacked ideological complexity and pursued only the redeployment of black labor.2 This framing overlooks two trends buried deep within New Orleans’ criminal archives: first, a significant share of these postbellum “Black Code” arrestees were foreign-born white men and women; second, the city government’s castigation of emancipated freedpeople as vagrants closely replicated antebellum efforts, undertaken under the city’s nativist Know-Nothing leadership, to use vagrancy policing to suppress Irish, Latin American, and Mediterranean immigration.3

My paper argues that Southern vagrancy policing, while profoundly racialized, is not reducible to black labor control. Vagrancy arrest and trial records encoded deep elite apprehensions regarding migration – both foreign and domestic – and its disruption of social order, economy, and normative power relationships between persons. Faced with dramatic demographic transformations, vagrancy policing pursued the unobtainable ideal of the well-ordered and static urban landscape, by selectively castigating particular migrant populations as alien outsiders unfit for community inclusion.

This research considers the extent to which movement, and state efforts to suppress that movement, mediated freedpeople’s emancipatory experiences.4 Freedpeople’s arrest records tell intimate stories of exodus, detention, and protest. Vagrancy massincarceration disrupts the mainstream, mono-directional “slavery to freedom” storyline, revealing the everyday, gritty, and ground-level struggles to negotiate freedom’s meaning.5

Yet this paper also challenges the reduction of Southern social complexity into a simplified and essentialist black-white binary.6 Vagrancy policing reveals considerable ideological nuance, and enforced multiple and continually evolving categories of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic difference. Moreover, the interconnectedness of racial anxiety and anti-immigrant xenophobia, so visible in nineteenth-century vagrancy policy, again looms pertinent today.


1 Tabulation based upon records of the Union army, Bureau of Negro Labor, and Freedmen’s Bureau, as well as the daily courtroom summaries printed in The New Orleans Times, The New Orleans Daily Crescent, and The New Orleans Daily Picayune between 1863 and 1868. 2 For example: Douglas Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 178-179; Joseph A Ranney, In the Wake of Slavery: Civil War, Civil Rights, and the Reconstruction of Southern Law (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 17, 46-47; Chunchang Gao, African Americans in the Reconstruction Era (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 153; Howard Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 35-36; J. William Harris, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and the Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 57-58, 61-62; Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 1, 53, 124. 3 Indeed, though supporters and opponents equated vagrancy law with racial control, during the Democratic home rule of 1866-1867 whites constituted the overwhelming majority of vagrancy arrestees. (Based upon daily courtroom summaries printed in The New Orleans Times, The New Orleans Daily Crescent, and The New Orleans Daily Picayune). This racial heterogeneity of vagrancy arrests was not unique to New Orleans. Prior studies of Southern criminal records, noting enigmatically high white vagrancy arrest rates and sporadic vagrancy mass-arrests divorced from seasonal labor cycles, have conceded vagrancy’s puzzling nonconformity to preexisting narratives, without offering explanation. Christopher Waldrep, Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 110-111; William Cohen, At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991). 242-243. 4 For emancipation and movement, see Yael A. Sternhell, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Cohen, At Freedom’s Edge. 5 Carole Emberton, “Unwriting the Freedom Narrative: A Review Essay,” Journal of Southern History 82 (2016): 377-394. 6 Laura Edwards, “Southern History as U.S. History,” Journal of Southern History 75 (2009): 533-564; Edward Ayers, “What We Talk about When We Talk about the South,” in All over the Map: Rethinking American Region, ed. Edward Ayers, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Stephen Nissenbaum, and Peter Onuf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). For notable recent challenges to this Southern racial essentialism, see Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 12; Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).