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  • Redefining Vagrancy:Policing Freedom and Disorder in Reconstruction New Orleans, 1862–1868
  • John K. Bardes (bio)

On several boiling days in july 1865, police swarmed the New Orleans wharves atop the Mississippi River levee. Eyeing the interracial crowd of longshoremen, police arrested all black dockworkers as homeless and unemployed vagrants. The Louisiana criminal code of 1855 defined vagrants as "all idle persons" who live "wandering abroad" without "visible means to maintain themselves"—in short, itinerant and parasitic outsiders.1 The July levee raids were hardly exceptional, but rather they were one moment within a lengthier pattern of extensive and deeply intrusive postemancipation vagrancy policing that sharply divided the occupied city and raised fierce local and national debates after the Civil War regarding blackness, criminality, labor, capitalism, and the limits and practice of freedom.

Historians invoke such vagrancy arrests as hallmarks of a postbellum criminal justice system that lacked ideological complexity and pursued only the harassment and redeployment of black labor. But vagrancy, while profoundly racialized, was more nuanced and layered than such an explanation allows. New Orleans's vagrancy policing encoded a deep apprehension regarding wage labor, human migration, and the disruption of normative power relationships between persons. In the face of dramatic social and demographic transformation, vagrancy policing [End Page 69] pursued the unobtainable ideal of a well-ordered and static urban landscape by selectively castigating particular populations as parasitic and alien outsiders unfit for community inclusion. Close examination of arrest records demonstrates how vagrancy reflected elite social-control anxieties, all revolving around constantly evolving conceptions of people—predominantly, but not exclusively, freedpeople—whose incomplete market integration and perceived social deviance marked them as dangerous, unaffiliated, and uncontrollable.

From shortly after New Orleans's surrender in 1862 to the ratification of Louisiana's radical constitution in 1868, the city police, the Union army, and the Freedmen's Bureau arrested thousands of children, women, and men on the charge of vagrancy, summarily sentencing all to lengthy hard labor terms and often sentencing black arrestees to forced, uncompensated labor on what had recently been the slave plantations of Louisiana. As perhaps thirty thousand rural freedpeople fled into the Federal-occupied city, vagrancy became a core paradigm through which civic leaders and U.S. government occupiers comprehended emancipation and its destabilizing social and economic transformations.2 Once considered a minor crime, vagrancy in this period represented the antithesis of civilization and a grave social crisis, demanding curative hard labor, lengthy carceral sentences, and expulsion. Incomplete records preclude the recovery of precise statistics, but conservative tabulations, based on surviving government records and the daily courtroom summaries printed in the local press, indicate that the number of vagrancy arrests during those six years exceeded ten thousand.3 [End Page 70]

In some ways these vagrancy purges conform to conventional emancipation and southern criminal justice narratives. The arrests suggest racially prejudiced policing, white fixation on black mobility, and draconian labor control measures. They seem, initially, to be a fairly representative application of the Black Codes—the criminal laws designed to rebind freedpeople to plantations—demonstrative of postbellum efforts to reconstitute slave labor.4

But close examination of these arrests complicates conventional narratives.5 The paradoxical status of these arrestees—free yet confined, emancipated yet sentenced to penal labor—disrupts the formulation of slavery and freedom as antithetical categories, while highlighting how emancipation was a nuanced, negotiated, and contested process [End Page 71] transpiring in fits and starts.6 The Union army and the Freedmen's Bureau led the charge to arrest freedpeople as vagrants, adding complexity to the idea of a liberation army. Most curious, arrests made under this Black Code were hardly homogeneous but consisted instead of both indigent and propertied black and white men, women, and children, including freeborn people of color and even several well-to-do whites. Indeed, though supporters and opponents increasingly equated vagrancy law with racial control, during the period of Democratic home rule in 1866–1867 white individuals constituted the overwhelming majority of vagrancy arrestees.7 Far from suggesting a singular racial or economic objective, analysis of vagrancy arrest patterns in New Orleans indicates civic concern with multiple categories of difference and several potent sites of...


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pp. 69-112
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