Life Under Jim Crow
The History Cat Classroom
The Jim Crow Show
The lights went down at the Park Theater in New York City for a one-man show performed by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. To the all-white audience, Rice’s character, Jim Crow, was uproariously funny. Dressed in a raggedy stable boy costume and straw hat, his white face darkened by burnt cork in a style known as “blackface”. He sang he danced, he talked in a mockery of black dialect. Jim Crow showed blacks the way the 1840’s all-white audience wanted to see them portrayed: happy-go-lucky children who just couldn’t get enough of singing and dancing.
“Daddy” Rice grew rich and famous through his racist performances. But even after motion pictures killed the Jim Crow show the name lived on through a series of brutal (and totally illegal) laws that kept blacks inferior and segregated from whites throughout much of the United States.
During the train wreck that historians call Reconstruction African-Americans almost had a real shot at equality in the United States. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments gave blacks their long overdue rights as citizens. In 1875, Congress even passed a Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination. Fear and ignorance of black people won out. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional.
White supremacy— not the U.S. Constitution— would become the law of the land, forcing millions of U.S. citizens into a state of poverty and terrorism unseen in American history.
Black Minstrel Shows portrayed blacks as ignorant, greedy, and simple minded.
But let’s back up and take a closer look at how Jim Crow had taken root in the first place. After the Supreme Court gave the green light to segregation in the landmark case, Plessey v. Ferguson (1896), Jim Crow spread across the South like a Biblical plague. Each town and state put their own spin on segregation but they all went to ridiculous lengths to keep black people “in their place”.
Parks, schools, taxis, buses, doctors’ waiting rooms, churches, movie theaters, swimming pools, libraries, restaurants, public beaches, mental asylums, telephone booths, hospitals, cemeteries; there literally wasn't a single aspect of life that wasn’t Jim Crowed between 1890 -1965.
A ‘White’s Only’ library might be fully stocked and have multiple branches while blacks were forced to use a single branch that didn’t come close to having the same selection. In Atlanta, libraries went so far as to make sure that a book checked out by a colored person would never be loaned to a white person.
If a restaurant or shop catered to “negro trade”, an African-American customer would have to enter through a side or rear entrance. Shops sometimes even had certain “whites only” counters that blacks could not shop from. Restaurants either made their black customers take their food ‘to go’ or forced them to sit at a table in the kitchen— well out of sight.
Even soda pop wasn’t immune from racism. When Pepsi began showing African-Americans in a positive light in their advertisements (i.e. by not using stereotypes of mammies and the ‘happy darky’ eating watermelon) many Southern whites boycotted Pepsi altogether. Seriously, just showing a nicely dressed, normal, African-American family having a soda was enough to fuel the seething rage of white supremacists!
The Jim Crow South was littered with “Whites Only” signs that hung like hideous Halloween decorations in every imaginable place where whites and blacks might come into contact. These signs were the plug-ugly face of Jim Crow, but segregation ran much deeper than signs. At its core, Jim Crow was slavery with a new face (or should we say white hood).
You always could tell when you entered the black section of a southern town. It was literally like entering a third world country, the paved roads of the white’s section abruptly turned to dirt. Street lights that were fully functioning in the whites section might be broken or the city might never even bothered to install them. The homes were shabbier. Many African-American neighborhoods lacked basic services like plumbing or electricity.
Jim Crow was about economic oppression, plain and simple. Through laws and social pressure, blacks found the doors to economic freedom closed. Blacks were expected to continue to work in “traditional” jobs like janitors, waiters, housekeepers, chauffeurs, dock workers, unskilled manual labor, and most importantly as field hands.
After the Civil War, plantation owners swapped their slaves for sharecroppers. Blacks were forced into signing contracts with white landowners, agreeing to do all of the work in return for a share of the crop (usually half). Sounds fair, right?
The problem was that blacks who didn’t have enough money to buy their own farms also weren’t going to have enough money to pay for the tools and seed. But those nice landowners were more than happy to loan their sharecroppers the money. But, when it came time to collect their share of the harvest, blacks often found themselves more in debt than they had started at the beginning of the year. Dishonest land owners overcharged for everything and then sometimes pulled a switch-a-roo, paying their workers less than the amount agreed upon. Of course, blacks had no way to fight back and the landowners knew it. In this way, more than 80% of African-Americans in the South were locked into a system no different than they had been a hundred years before.
Negative stereotypes of black people were passed on through popular cartoons.
The walls of Jim Crow
were beginning to crack...
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces. Then came the 1954 ruling Brown vs Board of Education declaring that segregated schools were not only unconstitutional but were psychologically damaging to African-American children. The following year, Rosa Parks launched the biggest boycott against segregation this nation had yet seen. In 1957, Nine black teenagers (the Little Rock Nine) made world headliners when they faced hundreds of screaming white supremacists, armed police, and guard dogs to enter the doors of all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas It looked as if racial equality was just around the corner. But white supremacists weren’t going down without a fight.
Nearly a million African-American men and women had served in Europe and the Pacific during World War Two. You’d think that taking a bullet for ones country’s freedom would have earned them some respect. You’d be wrong. Southern GI’s faced, even more, hostility as their uniform, heroes medals and stripes marked them as “uppity negras”. There was nothing more threatening to the white supremacist than a black person who was getting ahead of himself. Translated from Racist into English “getting ahead of yourself” meant black people working hard and earning enough money to support their family, buy a house in a middle-class neighborhood, and maybe a nice car. Wait! Isn’t there a name for that? Oh yeah, The American Dream.