The Jim Crow Era

click jim

“Black codes” were passed soon after the Thirteenth Amendment became law in 1866, disallowing blacks the right to testify against whites, to serve on juries, to have full access to the courts, and to vote. Some black codes even required that former slaves sign yearly labor contracts, thus restricting their economic freedom and guaranteeing their subservient position (1). The freedmen were at a legal and economic disadvantage. In Louisiana, a local ordinance required that every African American be in the service of a white person who would be held responsible for his conduct. Blacks were not allowed to join militias or own weapons; insulting acts against whites were punished in some states. “Jim Crow,” which would soon become synonymous with racial segregation, and would become the official policy of the South after Plessy v. Ferguson, was already unofficially preventing African Americans from riding in first-class passenger cars and intruding “into any religious or other assembly of white persons” (2). Schools were always segregated.

Some examples of Jim Crow laws from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia are:


It's important to note that Jim Crow was a national phenomenon, not caged only in the South. The legalization of Jim Crow did began in the South, but soon spread to all parts of the country, and concerned other ethnicities, not African-Americans. An interesting social history dealing partly with early twentieth-century segregation in Chicago is Arc of Justice, by historian Kevin Boyle.

Some examples of Jim Crow laws outside of the South:


Although historian C. Vann Woodward posits an interesting argument in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, that racial segregation did not begin until the turn of the nineteenth century, many historians and legal experts disagree with Woodward: “Woodward's critics contended that many aspects of racial segregation, even if not always enshrined in positive law, were put in place shortly after the Civil War if not before” (3). The “black codes” were a response to the Thirteenth Amendment by the Southern democrats, who saw “almost everything the freedpeople” gained as a loss of white political power (4). To respond to the insufficiency and ambiguity of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Northern republicans crafted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to broaden the definition of citizenship by making it more inclusive, to trump the “black codes,” and to guard the civil rights of the freedmen (5). Both were very controversial and resulted in the impeachment and near conviction of President Johnson. Presidential Reconstruction was at an end; radical Reconstruction, in the hands of fervent republicans, was just beginning (6).



Restaurants, fountains, toilets, cemeteries, hospitals, phone booths, public schools, libraries, and parks were quickly being segregated. In North Carolina, white children were forbidden to use schoolbooks that had been touched by blacks. In Alabama, it was criminal for blacks and whites to play checkers together. Lynchings were on the rise. It was as if “Plessy was seen throughout the South as an invitation to treat African Americans virtually as lepers” (7). Anti-miscegenation laws, disfranchisement statutes, and school segregation that were spreading since the end of Reconstruction now received solid backing by Plessy (8). By 1900, Jim Crow was firmly embedded in the South, and spreading. One of the most effective uses of segregation was used in real estate, to guard against blacks moving into white neighborhoods, which ostensibly drove prices down. The job market was affected, as whites became fearful that the blacks, which were migrating northward at a great pace by the turn of the twentieth century, felt the competition. Kevin Boyle vividly discusses the dynamics of Jim Crow in his book Arc of Justice. Housing and jobs inflamed communities across America, and the politics of the era did little to subdue tensions. Official segregation would not end until 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled against segregation in the schools. Even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, blacks are still segregated from whites in certain areas. As Boyle writes, “by then, it was too late. Segregation had become so deeply entrenched in America it couldn't be uprooted, no matter what the law said” (9). “White flight” and “gentrification” are now common concepts in discussing why African Americans, and other minorities, have such a difficult time obtaining desired housing in certain sections of America.


1. Brook Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1997), 7.

2. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Making of America, 3rd ed. (New York: Touchstone Book, 1996), 155.

3. Kenneth W. Mack, "Law, Society, Identity, and the Making of the Jim Crow South: Travel and Segregation on Tennessee Railroads, 1875-1905," Law & Social Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Spring, 1999): 378.

4. Suzanne Lebsock, A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), 40.

5. Harvey Fireside, Separate and Unequal: Homer Plessy and the Supreme Court Decision that Legalized Racism (New York: Carroll & Graft Publishers, 2004), 119.

6. Thomas, 8.

7. Fireside, 224.

8. Ronald L. F. Davis, "Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay," n.d., <http://jimcro> (retrieved on October 20, 2009).

9. Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company): 89.