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Jim Crow

For more than a century after the Civil War, a system of laws and practices denied full freedom and citizenship to African Americans, segregating nearly all aspects of public life. By the end of the 19th century, laws or informal practices that required that African Americans be segregated from whites were often called Jim Crow practices, believed to be a reference to a minstrel-show song, “Jump Jim Crow.”

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation symbolically established a national intent to eradicate slavery in the United States. Decades of state and federal legislation around civil rights followed. In January of 1865, the 13th amendment to the Constitution officially abolished slavery in this country, while the 14th amendment, passed in 1866, set forth three principles: All persons born or naturalized in the U.S. were citizens for the nation and no state could make or enforce any law that would abridge their rights of citizenship. No state could deny any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. No state could deny any person equal protection of the laws. Finally, the 15th amendment, passed in 1869, outlawed the denial of voting rights due to race, color, or past servitude.

However, immediately after the Civil War ended, some states began imposing restrictions on the daily lives of African Americans, whether they were survivors of slavery or had always been free. The Supreme Court agreed, striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In 1876 the Supreme Court narrowly interpreted these Amendments to invalidate congressional civil rights legislation, and that was immediately followed by the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction. After Reconstruction, Southerners continued to cling to the notion that nonwhites were inherently inferior to whites.

With the Compromise of 1877, political power was returned to Southern whites in nearly every state of the former Confederacy. This ushered in a long era during which all three branches of the federal government took a “hands-off” approach to racial discrimination generally and racial discrimination in voting in particular. The federal government abandoned attempts to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments in many parts of the country. “Jim Crow” laws, passed in every Southern Legislature, supported this belief and enshrined it in the legal code. By 1890, when Mississippi added a disfranchisement provision to its state constitution, the legalization of Jim Crow had begun.

In the South, any town with a performance hall received a touring minstrel company. Ernest Hogan tapped into the strong currents of racism in the U.S. and gave rise to a whole new sub-genre of ragtime called “coon songs.” Certain popular coon songs had been especially harmful in their effect, and none more so than Ernest Hogan's epoch-defining hit of 1896, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” The song's title inspired derisive humor in the white community. From the 1890s to 1910, such songs spread across the country, initiated in part by the success of African American blackface performer Ernest Hogan's “All Coons Look Alike to Me". Ragtime bubbled to the surface of popular culture during the 1890s, and starting in 1897, exploded onto the scene. Scholars Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff note, “Ragtime released a pent-up reservoir of modernism in African American culture, Hogan later took pride in avoiding the conventions of burnt cork, refusing to 'black up' towards the end of his career. Racial Categories in the U.S. Census evolved from those of 1800: White, Other except Indians not taxed, slaves (3/5th person), to those of 1890: White, Black, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, Indian.

Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime, were crafted in an atmosphere of considerable attention to the precedents American race laws had to offer. American citizenship and antimiscegenation laws were directly relevant to the two principal Nuremberg Laws-the Citizenship Law and the Blood Law. The ultimate, ugly irony was that when Nazis rejected American practices, it was sometimes not because they found them too enlightened, but too harsh.

The signs associated today with Jim Crow – “Whites Only,” “Colored”– appeared at bus stations, water fountains and rest rooms, as well as at the entrances and exits to public buildings. Hotels, movie theaters, arenas, night clubs, restaurants, churches, hospitals, and schools were segregated, and interracial marriages outlawed. Segregation was not limited to African Americans, but often applied to other non-white Americans.

Homer Plessy was a New Orleans carpenter who was 7/8 Caucasian, a man so light-skinned as to appear white, but whose African ancestry denied him access to whites only facilities. Homer Plessey was the man in the middle of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that confirmed the rule of "separate but equal" in U.S. law. Plessey was a light-skinned Creole of European and African descent. He was arrested and jailed in 1892 for sitting in a Louisiana railroad car designated for white people only. Plessy had purposely violated an 1890 state law, called the Separate Car law, which required that passengers on Louisiana trains be segregated by race. Plessy claimed in court that the Separate Car law violated the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but Louisiana Judge John Howard Ferguson found him guilty anyhow. By 1896 the case had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the legality of Judge Ferguson's ruling by an 8-1 majority.

Jim Crow was not enacted as a universal, written law of the land. Instead, a patchwork of state and local laws, codes, and agreements enforced segregation to different degrees and in different ways across the nation. In many towns and cities, ordinances designated white and black neighborhoods, while in others covenants and unwritten agreements among real estate interests maintained residential segregation. African Americans were denied the right to vote by onerous poll taxes, unfairly applied tests, and other unjust barriers.

Following the 1890 census, the first to measure the generation of African Americans born after slavery, crime statistics, new migration and immigration trends, and symbolic references to America as the promised land of opportunity were woven into a cautionary tale about the exceptional threat black people posed to modern urban society. Excessive arrest rates and overrepresentation in northern prisons were seen by many whites - liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners - as indisputable proof of blacks’ inferiority. In the heyday of “separate but equal,” what else but pathology could explain black failure in the “land of opportunity”?

Alfred P. Schultz in 1908 was a typical expression: "The sudden liberation and enfranchisement of the negro was an even greater injustice and injury inflicted on the black man. There are men, they usually pose as philanthropists, who hold that the negro's soul is the same as the white man's soul; that colour is skin deep only. The Scandinavian is a bleeched negro, and the negro a tanned Scandinavian, — an assertion implying the accusation that God committed a huge practical joke when he gave to souls essentially alike skins so various. The truth is, that the souls of the white man, the yellow man, and the black man are as different as their bodies.

"Open your eyes, and recognize that this is a truism. There have been men who declared that the negro is the equal of the white man, but, as yet no one has been sufficiently demented to hold that the black man is superior to the white men. The sudden liberation and enfranchisement of the negro demanded that he should accomplish overnight what it took the white man two thousand years to accomplish. It took the white man two thousand years to progress from slavery to free contract labour. We attempted to force the negro to cover the same distance overnight.

"The ability of the negro to copy the white man's vices is without limit, but he rarely emulates the white man's virtues. The best that the American negro has produced is very, veiy little indeed. He has produced nothing that is original or creative in any sense. The best is not more than a more or less successful copy of the white man's work.... . The best of the negro aristocracy would pass unnoticed as mediocre, if their skin were white. They are considered as men of consequence because they are negroes. As far as the negroes are concerned, the democratic system has broken down completely. Forty years ago the right to sell his vote was given to the negro, and he has exercised it. Never has he anywhere used it to promote any measure for his improvement. Has the negro anywhere else shown capacity for selfgovernment? Has he anywhere been able to legislate for his own welfare?

"The men who had to deal with the African negroes do not speak of the negro race as a child race, for their brutality does not entitle them to that appellation which absent-minded philanthropists (so called) applied to them. The negro of Hayti and of Santo Domingo has one care only: to pour alcohol into himself, chew tobacco, rip bellies open from time to time, and keep on the good side of the medicine-man."

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