Study Guide

Jim Crow

Jim Crow Introduction

When Reconstruction ended, white Americans felt free to truly express their racism. Because, you know, they'd kept it all so subtle during the 1860s and '70s. 

The grandfather to Jim Crow laws, the Black Codes were in effect during those decades, and they prevented freed Blacks from enjoying any of the benefits of freedom, like owning land or making money. After 1876 and lasting until about 1965 (seriously), Jim Crow laws were then put in place to segregate Blacks from whites, and also just to generally make things really, really hard for non-whites. 

These laws were a little gross. Okay, a lot gross. And just completely reprehensible.

So, who or what exactly was Jim Crow, you ask, and why did he get a series of laws named after him? Well, Jim Crow was a fictional character that was used in American popular culture to parody and dehumanize African Americans.

Jim Crow comes from a form of entertainment called "minstrelsy." You know how people are always complaining about how "lowbrow" teen comedies and TV shows have become? Well, popular entertainment in the good ol' days was way, waaaaaay more stupid. Minstrelsy was probably the most stupid form of entertainment possible.

Minstrel sketches were parody sketches about African-American life performed by white actors in black makeup called "blackface." They had lots of recurring characters, all of which were more racist than pizza is delicious. (That's a lot of racism.) 

The most well-known character was Jim Crow, a sexualized and sexually-aggressive dancing man. This stereotype was applied to all Black men by white racists, and it became a racial slur.

Even worse, the stereotypes of Jim Crow as aggressively sexual and weak-willed were used to justify all sorts of ridiculous nonsense, like segregation and anti-interracial-marriage laws (called "anti-miscegenation laws," ugh). 

"Jim Crow laws" became an apt name for all these crazy laws. The term conveyed both the extreme racial prejudice inherent in them and the ridiculous premises they were based on. 

But despite being named after a farcical figure, these laws were not funny, and they were a big deal in the South from the end of Reconstruction to the 1960s.

The story of the Jim Crow era is much more than a mere tale of white violence and Black subjugation. Descriptions of disenfranchisement, anti-Black laws and codes, and lynching statistics illuminate only one side of this complex tale. For nearly a century, African Americans—Black leaders as well as average men and women—resisted, rationalized, undermined, accommodated to, migrated from, and tested the limits of a system created to control every aspect of their lives.

What is Jim Crow About and Why Should I Care?

A phrase that historians like to use is "the banality of evil." That's because oppression isn't usually something done by a mustache-twirling mad scientist villain. It's done through thousands of small acts of bullying by average, everyday people. 

You know those kids who go around calling other kids "fat" and giving wedgies? Well, some of those kids don't ever learn any better. Some grow up and are still bullies, and some of those bullies become politicians. And that's how we end up with a society like the United States under Jim Crow.

Chances are when you hear the term "Jim Crow," you imagine a sign declaring "Whites Only" hanging in front of a water fountain. If you've taken any basic American history course, you also picture this conspicuous marker of segregation somewhere in the rural South during the first half of the 20th century, maybe in a small town tucked inside the Mississippi River Delta or in a county of Alabama, the state officially known as the "Heart of Dixie."

This placard, with its poignant warning to Black Americans, has come to represent a troubling era of Southern bigotry, one in which skin color defined a person's access to places of business and recreation, restrooms, amusement parks, bowling alleys, swimming pools, beaches, schools, libraries, hospitals, and even cemeteries.

But racial segregation is only part of the story and explains just one aspect of the power whites wielded in order to control the lives of Black Americans. That declarative phrase—"Whites Only"—can't adequately communicate the implicit boundaries and unspoken social codes and customs in place during the Jim Crow era, nor can it suggest exactly how treacherous this world was for Black Southerners. 

A single gesture, movement, expression, or question could be perceived as a violation of Jim Crow boundaries. Black men and women who demonstrated too much aspiration, confidence, or success became targets of harassment, assault, arson, and murder. And from the late-19th century through the 1950s, most of the nation outside the South ignored or even condoned these crimes.

Maybe we can look even deeper than this, beyond the evidence of the power wielded by white Southerners.

  • What should African-Americans have done in response to the restrictions, injustice, harassment, and violence they faced during the Jim Crow era?
  • What could they have done?
  • What did they do?

The obvious answer to each of these questions is "resist."

But resistance can be combative or nonviolent, or a single heroic action or a mass revolution. It can be political: a vote or a demonstration against the ruling administration. It can be an economic form of insurrection: a refusal to accept poor working conditions or a demand for fair wages. It can be intellectual: a poem, essay, song, lecture, speech, or book. Resistance can be the work of one brave man or woman or it can be organized and conducted by valiant leaders.

It's true that during the Jim Crow era—roughly a century—resistance took each of these forms. However, many—in fact, most—of the ways in which Black Southerners defied the Jim Crow system looked nothing like the sort of resistance that we're most familiar with today. Their rebellion wasn't always explicit or recognizable, and was often marked by small, personal, day-to-day choices. At times, it even came in the form of accommodation and deference. 

And not all acts were deliberately defiant. In fact, many Black Southerners employed these techniques not to undermine the system, but simply to ensure a future for themselves and their families.

In a nutshell, the word "racism" isn't enough to explain nearly a century of segregation and terror. The effects that this period of segregation, Black disenfranchisement, and bloodshed had—and still have—on the nation as a whole, are paramount.

Realtalk, this is grim history, the kind that's difficult to stomach if not impossible to comprehend. Tough stuff, yes, but it's essential for us to truly appreciate the tremendous stakes of the Civil Rights Movement and perhaps more importantly, to demystify America's recent past in order to better evaluate how much has changed and whether obstacles to racial equality still remain.

Jim Crow Resources

Books

James Allen, ed., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000)
This book is the companion text to collector James Allen's extraordinarily disturbing website of the same name. The text includes many of the postcards and photographs taken as souvenirs at lynchings all across America during the Jim Crow years, a document for anyone skeptical of the reality of this grim piece of United States history.

Thomas Dixon, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905)
The second novel in a trilogy about Radical Reconstruction, The Clansman depicts the postwar years as a catastrophe in which former Black slaves terrorized the white South, made a mockery of government, and raped virginal Southern belles. The book provided the inspiration for D.W. Griffith's blockbuster film, The Birth of a Nation, which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a group of Southern freedom fighters.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Historian, novelist, and Black activist W. E. B. Du Bois published this collection of autobiographical essays after spending years living and teaching in the Jim Crow South. Within the text, he reflects on race relations in the post-Civil War South and offers a sharp critique of Booker T. Washington and his policies of accommodation.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
A classic of American fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Alabama during the years of the Great Depression and narrated by the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who's decided to defend a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998)
Historian Leon Litwack offers an abundantly detailed account of the ways in which Blacks in the Jim Crow South were disenfranchised and stripped of their opportunities to advance themselves intellectually and economically. He describes the sometimes brutal tactics used by whites to punish those who were too assertive, too ambitious, or too successful, and reveals the many different ways Black men, women, and children responded to the day-to-day pressures to remain subordinate.

Theodore Rosengarten, All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974)
All God's Dangers is a rich autobiography of an illiterate Alabama sharecropper who recalled for his interviewer, Theodore Rosengarten, vivid details from nearly every moment of his life in the Jim Crow South. It's a powerful and moving account of the economic and social obstacles facing Black Southerners from generation to generation.

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)
Up from Slavery is the second autobiography published by Washington, but remains, to this day, his best-selling work. His first-hand account of slavery, emancipation, and his life-long struggle to gain an education is often upbeat and optimistic—a tale of a man seeking to achieve the "American Dream."

Richard A. Wright, Black Boy (1944)
African-American author Richard Wright takes his readers on a personalized journey, first through the Jim Crow South and then into the urban North. Wright, who was born outside Natchez, Mississippi in 1908, describes his confusing and painful racial coming-of-age; through a series of interactions with Southern whites, Southern Blacks, friends, and family members, Wright discovers the strict boundaries within which he and other African Americans must act each day in order to survive.

Music

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, Vol. 2: 1926–1933 (2008)
This collection offers a rich sampling of the catalog of a woman considered by many to have been the greatest blues songstress of all time. Listen to over 80 tracks originally recorded during one of the most turbulent decades of the Jim Crow era.

Various Artists, Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music (2006)
Record collector Joe Bussard, in an effort to tell the tale of early American blues music, has compiled this collection featuring rare records by lesser known recording artists, like Papa Harvey Hull and Long "Cleve" Reed, as well as tracks by iconic singer-songwriters, including Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Blind Willie Johnson.

Various Artists, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922 (2005)
This collection, featuring pioneering African-American recording artists and musicians (as well as Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Speech), showcases the distinctive styles of post-Civil War music and offers a powerful perspective on the early recording industry.

Various Artists, Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot (2003)
This compilation offers both entertaining ditties and sobering reminders of the harsh racism that characterized early-20th-century America, such as white comic Arthur Collins' performance of "All Coons Look Alike to Me" and Polk Miller's "Watermelon Party."

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990)
Robert Johnson was born and raised in Mississippi Delta during the height of the Jim Crow era, when legal segregation and the threat of violence controlled the lives of all Southern Blacks. His haunting lyrics and eerie guitar riffs, recorded in the 1930s, reflect these experiences and offer listeners a rare window into the soul of a man who both suffered and endured.

Images

Thomas "Daddy" Rice
The original "Jim Crow" figure was a white minstrel actor who exaggerated Black behavior to entertain audiences.

Race and a Child's Game
A dart game featuring a caricature of a Black child (c. 1900).

Convict Laborers in Texas
Convict laborers working on the construction of the Texas State Capitol (c. 1885).

Chain Gang in Virginia
In Newport News, Virginia, a prison chain gang repairs city streets (c. 1901).

"For Colored People"
The Rex Theater, a movie house in Leland, Mississippi (c. 1939).

Clune's Broadway Theater
Inside Clune's Broadway Theater in Los Angeles, a 775-seat movie house and the site of the premiere screening of The Birth of a Nation.

"Oppose 'Birth of a Nation'"
A headline from the Cleveland Advocate, September 25th, 1915.

Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington standing speaking before a Black audience in Lakeland, Florida (c. 1900).

W.E.B. Du Bois
Historian, writer, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois.

Heading North
A family of Southern migrants headed north to Chicago (c. 1919).

Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Movies & TV

Ethnic Notions (1987)
Director Marlon Riggs' documentary reveals the recent history of racial stereotyping in the United States. His film uses original footage and other artifacts from the 19th and early-20th centuries to illustrate the most common ways whites chose to view Blacks, helping viewers understand how dangerous these cultural representations were, and still are, to the Black community.

Native Son (1986)
Actors Victor Love, Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, and Oprah Winfrey star in this film adaptation of Richard Wright's novel about a young Black man in 1930s-Chicago caught in an inescapable web of poverty, racism, and aggression.

The Color Purple (1985)
Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about a young Black woman growing up in rural Georgia in the early-20th century. In sharp contrast to Richard Wright's Native Son, The Color Purple explores some of the unique challenges faced by African-American women during the Jim Crow era.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933)
Set in the 1930s, the film tells the story of James Allen, a white veteran of World War I, who's wrongfully accused of robbery and sentenced to serve ten years in a Southern chain gang. Based on the autobiography of Robert Burns, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, the film was highly controversial for its gritty—and largely accurate—portrayal of the conditions in forced prison labor camps and chain gangs. So much that the state of Georgia insisted that "Georgia" be removed from the film's title and then refused to show it in any theater within its borders.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The hero in director D.W. Griffith's cinematic masterpiece—a record-breaking, box-office hit from the early-20th century—is a white Southerner who helps organize the Ku Klux Klan to free the South of its supposed oppression by Reconstruction-era Blacks. The film captivated white audiences and drew vigorous protests from African-American civil rights organizations like the NAACP.

Websites

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
PBS's site on Jim Crow includes an interactive timeline, an interactive map, and stories that illuminate the tough day-to-day lives of African Americans in the South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Trial of Joseph F. Shipp
Browse this collection of primary and secondary source documents related to the criminal trial of Joseph F. Shipp, a sheriff tried in 1907 for his role in the lynching of Black Southerner Ed Johnson. The site includes the original Supreme Court case documents, witness transcripts, and newspaper accounts of the murder and the trial.

Without Sanctuary
Without Sanctuary features a haunting collection of photographs taken at public lynchings throughout the United States. The images, most of them souvenir postcards, expose one of America's most disturbing—and too often ignored—legacies. Be aware that the photos displayed here are very graphic.

North Carolina's Jim Crow Legacy
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Documenting the American South archive offers over 1,200 sources on various aspect of Southern history, including oral interviews with those who experienced North Carolina's Jim Crow laws and codes first hand.

In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience
This rich and well-organized website dedicated to the study of this monumental population shift includes primary sources, maps, charts, photographs, and interviews. In addition, you'll find a number of links to the full text of articles, chapters, and books on the topic written by leading historians.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
This site is the companion website for PBS's presentation of director Ken Burns' documentary. It features several fascinating essays about Johnson's early life, the events that led to his stardom, and the legacy he left behind after his death.

Historical Documents

Lynching Statistics
View these staggering lynching statistics, listed by state and race and covering the years spanning from 1882 to 1968.

On the Lynching of Ed Johnson
A sermon delivered by Dr. Howard E. Jones, a white reverend, to his white congregation following the lynching murder of Ed Johnson, a Black man accused of rape.

The Clansman
Full text of Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, along with illustrations, and a biography of the author.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
The full text of W. E. B. Du Bois' civil rights manifesto, The Souls of Black Folk.

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery
The full text of Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, "Mob Rule in New Orleans"
This is an essay written by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in 1900.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, "A Red Record"
Here's an essay written by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in 1895.

Charles Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth"
This page includes a series of essays by Charles W. Chesnutt, a prominent Black author and activist.

Henry McNeal Turner's Protest
Bishop Henry McNeal Turner's statement in protest of the Supreme Court ruling in The Civil Rights Cases of 1883.

Mrs. J. H. Adams' Request
Letter from Mrs. J. H. Adams, Macon, Georgia to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, Chicago, Illinois, April 1918.

Mr. Cleveland Galliard's Request
Letter from Cleveland Galliard of Mobile, Alabama to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, Chicago, Illinois, April 1917.