Jim Crow


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Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.


Bus Stop Waiting Room, Georgia, 1950's



About.comAfrican-American History  


Creation of the Jim Crow South

Segregation in the South

Jessica McElrath


Jim Crow laws were laws that imposed racial segregation. They existed mainly in the South and originated from the Black Codes that were enforced from 1865 to 1866 and from prewar segregation on railroad cars in northern cities. The laws sprouted up in the late nineteenth century after Reconstruction and lasted until the 1960s.

Prior to the enactment of Jim Crow laws, African Americans enjoyed some of the rights granted during Reconstruction. Gains included the addition of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, rights dwindled after Reconstruction ended in 1877. By 1890, whites in the North and South became less supportive of civil rights and racial tensions began to flare. Additionally, several Supreme Court decisions overturned Reconstruction legislation by promoting racial segregation.

The Supreme Court set the stage for Jim Crow laws by several of its decisions. The Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional and ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit individuals and private organizations from discriminating on the basis of race. However, it was the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that led the way to racial segregation. In 1890, Louisiana passed a law that required blacks to ride in separate railroad cars.

Blacks protested and challenged the law. Homer Plessy, a carpenter in Louisiana who was seven-eighths Caucasian, was chosen to test the constitutionality of the law. On June 7, 1892, Plessy boarded a train and sat in a car reserved for whites. He refused to move and was arrested. A local judge ruled against Plessy and in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the lower courts ruling. It held that "separate but equal" accommodations did not violate Plessy's rights and that the law did not stamp the "colored race with a badge of inferiority."[1] The Court provided further support for separate accommodations when it ruled in Cumming v. County Board of Education] (1899) that separate schools were valid even if comparable schools for blacks were not available.

With the Supreme Court's approval, the Plessy decision paved the way for racial segregation. Southern states passed laws that restricted African Americans access to schools, restaurants, hospitals, and public places. Signs that said "Whites Only" or "Colored" were posted at entrances and exits, water fountains, waiting rooms, and restrooms. Laws were enacted that restricted all aspects of life and varied from state to state. Georgia in 1905, passed a law requiring separate public parks, in 1909 Mobile, Alabama created a 10 p.m. curfew for blacks, and in 1915, South Carolina blacks and whites were restricted from working together in the same rooms of textile factories.

By 1915, the strength of Jim Crow laws were slowly beginning to erode. The Supreme Court in Guinn v. United States (1915) ruled that an Oklahoma law that denied the right to vote to some citizens was unconstitutional. In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), the Court held that a Louisville, Kentucky law could not require residential segregation. Additionally, the decisions in Sweatt v. Painter (1949) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950) helped break down the ruling in Plessy. But it was the Supreme Courts decision in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned the Court's decision in Plessy. It held that separate schools were unequal and its ruling helped dismantle racial segregation. The Court provided momentum for the growing civil rights movement that eventually led to the end of racial segregation.

[1] Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).