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Jim Crow Era

By Gerald Early, Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

Imperial Laundry, 1930s
Imperial Laundry, 1930s
Image courtesy of Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington spoke at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Before a racially mixed but segregated audience (whites were on the floor, blacks in the balcony), Washington — principal of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, one of the noted black colleges in America — delivered his famous "Atlanta compromise" speech. The speech brought Washington national fame. In it, he urged blacks to remain in the South: "[W]hen it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man's chance in the commercial world..." He also acknowledged and accepted, in an oddly phrased way, legalized racial segregation, or what was popularly known as Jim Crow, when he said: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington was not then, nor was he ever, in favor of segregation or Jim Crow laws. Indeed, he participated in one of the most famous symbolic acts of racial integration and social equality at the turn of the century, when American apartheid was at its most intense, when, in 1901, he was invited to the White House to dine with president Theodore Roosevelt — an act that most southern whites, though favorably disposed to Washington, found unthinkable and cause for outrage.

But in this 1895 speech, Washington was clearly acquiescing to the intractable and inescapable reality of a highly segregated southern society. It was a reflection of the mood of the times. Southern society was, by no means, in 1895 entirely segregated by race, but it was moving inexorably in that direction, and after 1896, Jim Crow dominated the South. Blacks and whites went to separate schools, churches, sat separately in public transportation and in theaters; blacks were denied being able to dine with whites or to socialize or conduct business in places designated "For Whites Only." Blacks were denied the use of public libraries and public parks that were designated solely for whites. (Sometimes, substandard libraries and parks were provided in areas where blacks lived, but not always. And it must be remembered that blacks were paying taxes for the upkeep and support of public institutions just as whites were.)

Audio sampleStrange Fruit by Billie Holiday
Recorded April 20, 1939
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)

Segregated water coolers
Segregated water coolers
Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although black men had been granted the right to vote in 1870 with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, few could exercise the franchise by the turn of the century because state governments determined voter eligibility and found many ways to disenfranchise blacks. Blacks were locked out of virtually all professions and trades in the South. In popular culture, blacks had once dominated the profession of jockey in horse racing, but after the 1890s, they were barred from the job. Blacks were banned from playing with whites in professional baseball in the 1880s. Blacks were not permitted to fight for the heavyweight boxing championship, a sports title of considerable significance in late 19th century and early 20th century America. (When a black, Jack Johnson, was finally permitted to fight for this title in 1908 — which he won — his ascendancy precipitated a national crisis that eventually led to race riots in 1910 and his leaving the country in 1912 after being convicted of violation of the Mann Act.)

Plessy v. Ferguson

The period between 1890 and 1915, described as the nadir of race relations in the United States by many noted scholars — including Howard professor Rayford Logan who wrote a famous historical account of the era — saw the United States become one of the most racially stratified and most publicly racist countries in the world. Oddly, this occurred during the time when Progressivism was a dominant political idea in the United States; populism, labor organizing, and agrarian reform were burgeoning ideologies; and the social gospel, a white Christian movement concerned with social justice issues, was being preached in many big cities. At the moment, however, Booker T. Washington's statement was of no help to a man named Homer Plessy.

Washington made his famous declaration more than three years after Homer Plessy, a French-speaking free-born New Orleanian who had one-eighth African blood, challenged racially segregated seating on an intrastate Louisiana train by being arrested for sitting in the whites-only coach. A group of influential black citizens — nearly all of them French-speaking Creoles — had planned this action in 1891. They hired white lawyer and noted novelist Albion Tourgee to represent them. (Tourgee's 1879 novel, A Fool's Errand, is one of the most vivid accounts of Reconstruction by a northerner who lived in the South during that turbulent period in American history. When Thomas Dixon wrote the rabidly racist novel, The Clansman in 1905, upon which the famous 1915 D. W. Griffith movie, The Birth of a Nation, is based, he was, in part, providing the white southern response to Tourgee's account of Reconstruction.)

On May 18, 1896, after losing in both the state court and the state supreme court, the U. S. Supreme Court decided Plessy's case. By an 8-to-1 majority, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy, arguing that racial segregation that provided "separate but equal" accommodations for the races were constitutional. Thus, American apartheid was now officially protected by the Constitution and, as a consequence, endured, with unrelenting political and economic support and social arrangement mainly, though not exclusively, by the southern states, until Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in 1954 by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Plessy v. Ferguson was itself a culmination of a series of events. The creation of the Jim Crow system after the Civil War was not sudden, but rather, occurred in fits and starts.

Jim Crow is Born

Sheet Music for Jim Crow
Sheet Music for Jim Crow
Image courtesy of Chicago Historical Society

The term "Jim Crow" is from antebellum American popular culture. In 1828, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, a white minstrel, saw a crippled black stable hand named Jim Crow doing a song and dance called Jumping Jim Crow. Rice bought the man's clothes and learned the song and dance and made it a stage routine. Black-face entertainment had existed in the United States before Rice's popular "Jim Crow" act came into being; indeed, blackface has existed almost since the time that Europeans encountered Africans. But Rice started a craze in America that led to the establishment of blackface minstrelsy as the most popular form of mass entertainment in America during the 19th century, both before and after the Civil War. How the name of "Jim Crow" became associated with racial segregation laws and mores is unclear, but it may have been used as a form of derision and insult in much the same way had these laws been called "Sambo Laws" or "Rastus Laws." Both Sambo and Rastus were derogatory names for African-Americans in the 19th century. Or those who were opposed to such laws, since the earliest record we have of the use of the term in this regard is in antebellum, abolitionist newspapers, may have invented the term.

Ironically, Jim Crow, made famous in the post-bellum South, was started in the North. The term was used to refer to separate railway cars for blacks and whites in Massachusetts in the 1840s. Indeed, there was far more legalized segregation of blacks in the North before the Civil War, despite the fact that blacks constituted a very small portion of the North's population, than in the South, where slaves interacted in the most visible, intimate, and common ways with whites, living and traveling with them quite freely. White slave holders in the South were used to having blacks about their persons. Black Codes, the precursor of post-bellum Jim Crow legislation, were laws passed by antebellum northern states to regulate blacks, and in many cases, to prohibit their entry into a particular state. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the Michigan territory had such laws in the early 19th century that required that blacks pay a fee in order to settle in the state, and often that required that some white citizen of the state be able to vouch for their character. Most of these laws denied blacks the right to serve on juries, testify against whites, or attend public school with whites. In many northern states, blacks could not vote.

Although the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 was the most frightful slave revolt in American history, resulting in the deaths of 31 whites and brutally violent reprisals on the part of whites, some of the most horrific race violence that occurred in antebellum America occurred in the North, where white mob action against small black urban neighborhoods (particularly in the 1830s, when antislavery agitation began in earnest as mass protest movement) was common. Some states repealed these Black Codes in the 1840s and 1850s when the antislavery fervor in the United States peaked. Oddly, these laws were not regularly or systematically enforced, and black migration to the North continued during the antebellum years at a steady pace. But it is clearly true, as white southerners protested later during the era of the civil rights movement and even earlier, that white northerners had invented American apartheid, not the white South. It must be remembered, though, that the white South had no need for such measures for two reasons: first, blacks could not serve in many of jobs they had — from personal servant to artisan — if there had been strict racial segregation in the South before the Civil War. Second, the slave population was heavily policed and controlled, both legally and by means of various forms of intimidation.

Black Codes

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners, inspired by the North's old Black Codes, instituted their own version of them across the south. This was done particularly in response to the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery in the United States and emancipated over four million African-Americans, a shockingly dislocating event in American social and political history. Some of the Black Codes were not harsh, such as the provision that permitted blacks to marry legally, which they could not do under slavery. However, the law only permitted blacks to marry each other, not whites. In most aspects, though, these laws were draconian. Blacks could not serve on juries, could not sue or testify against whites; they were prohibited from owning farmland and forced to sign labor contracts that virtually put them back in bondage.

These Black Codes were often enforced by terror. Violent white paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were formed shortly after the Civil War (the Klan was formed in Tennessee by famed Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest) to terrorize blacks into complying with white supremacist politics. Hundreds of African-Americans were murdered and maimed during the years immediately following the Civil War. The conflict that resulted between the Radical Republicans in Congress and President Andrew Johnson over the direction and extent of Reconstruction produced a flurry of legislation that was meant to protect blacks from these Black Codes, and the "mild" form of Reconstruction that Johnson preferred that would have re-established slavery in all but the name.

Jim Crow sign
Jim Crow sign
Image courtesy of Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

In 1866, Congress passed a Civil Rights Act, voiding most of the practices of the Black Codes, and reversing the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, officially making blacks citizens of the United States — the first time an American law had ever done so. This was superseded two years later by the passage of the 14th Amendment, which ensured black citizenship. Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which divided the south into military zones and gave federal troops the power to enforce the law. In 1870, the Radicals passed the 15th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote. Finally, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which went even further than any of the amendments in offering legal protection to African-Americans by prohibiting discrimination in accommodations, public transportation, theaters, and other places of public amusement. These laws, and the presence of federal troops in the south, resulted in reformist Reconstruction governments in many southern states, which included many African-Americans in political and policy-making roles.

White Southerners, determined to seize control of southern politics again, fought against these laws, both legally and illegally. In 1876, in the disputed presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, Hayes, the Republican, agreed to remove federal troops from the South in exchange for southern support for his presidency. Troops were removed in 1877, effectively ending Radical Reconstruction. With the end of Reconstruction came the imposition of the southern Apartheid system with ever-greater intensity and purpose as the 19th century moved to its final decade.

Before the Plessy case, the Supreme Court had already undermined the power and scope of the 13th and 14th Amendments in the Slaughterhouse cases of 1873, which ruled that the Amendments were meant to apply blacks in a tortuously narrow way (particularly, the 13th Amendment, which the court said could not be used by white butchers in a claim that a state action was, in effect, reducing them to a state of bondage), and that the federal government was not given broad powers to intervene in discriminatory state action. Indeed, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1886 opened the way for the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to be used by corporations. As a result, by 1911, the Supreme Court had heard 607 14th Amendment cases, of which 312 were related to corporations as "artificial individuals," and only 30 related to African-Americans, for whom the Amendment was clearly created. Thus, the court succeeded in narrowing federal intervention for the protection of the rights of blacks.

The remarkable Civil Rights Act of 1875 was effectively declared unconstitutional in a Supreme Court decision of 1883 in a group of five challenges known at the Civil Rights Cases. The South was particularly opposed to this Civil Rights Act because they saw it as granting social equality between the races and forcing race mixing. Moreover, in the 1880s, the white South was growing more concerned about a new generation of blacks, whom they called "New Negroes," born since emancipation, who did not seem so amenable to the "peculiar" ways of southern life. Crime increased dramatically in the South in these years, particularly black crimes. So did lynchings. Many of these crimes committed by blacks were real enough, but not infrequently, blacks were falsely accused of crimes for a variety of reasons, particularly if the person accused was some threat to the power structure.

The crime of rape against white women was a common accusation against black men during this period, and evidence shows that there was an increase in this crime during these years. However, the increase was nothing near the hysteria with which the South denounced the crime, and the brutality with which it punished the perpetrators. Strikingly, despite all the noise about rape and the sanctity of white womanhood, black rapists were the cause of only a small number of lynchings. When blacks were lynched, it was overwhelmingly for other reasons. The convict-lease system, a legacy of the older Black Codes of the 1860s, put many black men in prison on relatively minor charges for long periods of time — far longer, in many instances, than a white would serve convicted of the same crime, during which they worked virtually as slaves for private contractors, the state pocketing the rental fee. Thus, the stage was set, by 1896, for the Plessy decision.

Segregation and Jim Crow caused several things to happen. Undoubtedly, the intensification of segregation brought together the Creole (bi-racial) and black communities of the South in ways that would not have happened had more race-mixing been permitted. In New Orleans, this had a dramatic effect in the creation of jazz as both Creole and black musicians brought different but crucially important elements to the mix of this music that might never have come together if these two groups did not find themselves forced together socially and politically. Segregation made it possible for further black cultural syncretism to take place, which made jazz not only a viable expression across a broad spectrum of the artistic black community, but also an expression open to experimentation because it was built on the idea of blending. Because of the Creole influence, jazz was always open to European and parlor influences. Because of the black influence, jazz always had a foundation of African and gutbucket expressions and traditions that continued to inform the music throughout the 20th century. Second, indirectly, southern segregation led to black migration from the South after 1914, spreading the music and de-regionalizing it, thus making it a more compelling art. Third, segregation closed many avenues of expression to blacks as well as many professions; but one that was not closed was music, which compared to other work that blacks could do at that time, was a relatively attractive occupation. So directly, segregation probably accelerated the development of jazz because such a large number of talented young men (and some women) went into it who might have, if the society had been less racially restrictive, either played some other form of music or not played music at all.