13 February 2012

Jim Crow

We've all heard about the Jim Crow law and have a pretty good idea of what it meant, but I want to learn more. The more I learn the better prepared I am for questions that may arise in the future.

First of all, why "Jim Crow" law? History.com reads, "In U.S. history, any of the laws that enforced racial segregation in the South between the end of the formal Reconstruction period in 1877 and the beginning of a strong civil rights movement in the 1950s. Jim Crow was the name of a minstrel routine (actually Jump Jim Crow) performed beginning in 1828 by its author, Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice, and by many imitators, including actor Joseph Jefferson. The term came to be a derogatory epithet for blacks and a designation for their segregated life." Click here for the entire article.

Jimcrowhistory.org reads, "The term Jim Crow is believed to have originated around 1830 when a white, minstrel show performer, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, blackened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a ridiculous jig while singing the lyrics to the song, "Jump Jim Crow." Rice created this character after seeing (while traveling in the South) a crippled, elderly black man (or some say a young black boy) dancing and singing a song ending with these chorus words: 'Weel about and turn about and do jis so, Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.' Some historians believe that a Mr. Crow owned the slave who inspired Rice's act--thus the reason for the Jim Crow term in the lyrics. In any case, Rice incorporated the skit into his minstrel act, and by the 1850s the "Jim Crow" character had become a standard part of the minstrel show scene in America. On the eve of the Civil War, the Jim Crow idea was one of many stereotypical images of black inferiority in the popular culture of the day--along with Sambos, Coons, and Zip Dandies. The word Jim Crow became a racial slur synonymous with black, colored, or Negro in the vocabulary of many whites; and by the end of the century acts of racial discrimination toward blacks were often referred to as Jim Crow laws and practices." Click here for the entire article.

Watch The Birth of Jim Crow on PBS. See more from Slavery by Another Name.

Basically Jim Crow law separated "the races in public places (public schools, parks, accommodations, and transportation) and prevented adult black males from exercising the right to vote". We can all read the plain stated facts like this one, but what I'm looking for is a more personal view of Jim Crow law. Quote from jimcrowhistory.org.

Jimcrowhistory.org reads:

For the vast majority of southern blacks, the terror of Jim Crow meant that they were forced to live "behind the veil," in the words of the black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois. Scholars refer to these masking tactics as "dissembling," or a psychological ploy in which blacks assumed the appearances of non-confrontation. For Du Bois, this life of masking created a "double consciousness" for blacks: the awareness, driven home by the racist institutions and all-present racial stereotypes, that one was both an American and yet deemed inferior by the larger society because of one's African origins. American but not American. Du Bois writes of it this way: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

To cope with the fact that whites refused to acknowledge the humanity of black Americans, most blacks had to mask their true feelings and actual personalities whenever they were in the presence of white people. Sometimes, this masking meant shuffling and feigning irresponsibility; and sometimes it meant turning the other cheek and walking away rather than responding to white insults. But almost always, it meant conforming to a pattern of racial etiquette in day-to-day affairs.

Blacks avoided looking whites in the eyes; and black males and youths knew not to look, even indirectly, at white women or to touch them accidentally. Blacks were expected to stare at the ground when addressing whites of both sexes. Black customers usually were not served first in stores when white customers were present. They usually were not allowed to try on clothing in white businesses, as it was commonly believed that white customers would not purchase clothes that black customers had tried on. Black shoppers almost always were expected to wait patiently for white clerks to address them before speaking. Adult African Americans were seldom afforded titles of respect by whites, such as the terms "Mister," "Mrs.," or "Miss." They were instead referred to by their first names or by the words "boy," "girl," "auntie," "uncle," and, frequently, "nigger."

As I read this I thought of how I'd feel if I were a black woman during these times. No protection from police officers and laws. I also thought about if my little daughter were growing up during these times and that hurt me more. To think if innocent children being treated like they were trash straight from birth.

Jimcrowhistory.org continues:

The great African-American writer Richard Wright vividly remembered his first understanding of what it meant to be black in a white world. It happened in Arkansas when he was just a small boy. One day he and his friends got into a rock-throwing fight with some little white boys who lived across the tracks in the nice part of town. The black kids threw cinders from the rail tracks, and the white boys threw cinders, too, but also broken milk bottles. One bottle hit Wright in the head. He was stunned because it seemed that the boys on his side knew not to throw bottles because that would be unfair and might seriously hurt the little white boys. The white boys did not seem to care. Wright had to be rushed to the doctor for stitches. But, the greatest shock came to him that evening when he ran down the road to meet his mama, who was returning home after working all day in "the white folks' kitchen." He knew she would understand. He knew that she would tell him what to do next.

"I grabbed her hand and babbled out the whole story. She examined my wound, then slapped me. 'How come yuh didn't hide?' she asked me. 'How come you always fightin'?' I was outraged, and bawled. Between sobs, I told her that I didn't have any trees or hedges to hide behind. There wasn't a thing I could have used as a trench. And you couldn't throw very far when you was hiding behind the brick pillars of a house. She grabbed a barrel stave, dragged me home, stripped me naked, and beat me till I had a fever of one hundred and two. She would smack my rump with the stave, and, while the skin was still smarting, imparted to me gems of Jim Crow wisdom. I was never to throw cinders any more. I was never to fight any more wars. I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again. And they were absolutely right in clouting me with the broken milk bottle. Didn't I know she was working hard every day in the hot kitchens of the white folks to make money to take care of me? When was I ever going to learn to be a good boy? She couldn't be bothered with my fights. She finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn't kill me."

These videos give a few more personal insights:

We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream other wise,
We wear the mask.

--Paul Laurence Dunbar (1895)

To learn more visit jimcrowhistory.org.

All photos taken from www.loc.gov.

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