Sunday, February 15, 2009

A biography of Jim Crow

Jim Crow was actually a set of rules that kept segregation in place in different parts of the United States. A solid explanation of this unfortunate period in U.S. history is given in the book The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C.Van Woodward.

While I was working on my book Cemeteries of Ambivalent Desire, I found a University of Texas PhD dissertation from 1932 that describes an incident from the times of Reconstruction.  The wife of Black Texas Legislator Walter Burton attempted to ride in the "white" section of a train.  She was literally kicked off of the train while it was moving.  The author of the dissertation agreed this was a good thing, even though she was writing about it over fifty years later.

The dissertation was written by Abigail Curlee in 1932.  It was titled "A Study of Texas Plantations, 1822-1865."

The enemies of Jim Crow
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / February 15, 2009

SOMETHING to ponder during Black History Month: In the long night that followed Reconstruction, what was the engine that drove Jim Crow? Did segregationist laws codify existing social practice, or was it the laws themselves that segregated the South?

Many people might intuitively assume that Southern racism had led to entrenched public segregation long before Southern legislatures made it mandatory. Not so. Separate facilities for blacks and whites were not routine in the South until the early 20th century. Racism there surely was, but as C. Vann Woodward observed in "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," the idea of separating the races in places of public accommodation initially struck many white Southerners as daft. In 1898, the editor of South Carolina's oldest and most conservative newspaper, the Charleston News and Courier, responded to a proposal for segregated railroad cars with what was meant to be scathing ridicule:

"If we must have Jim Crow cars on the railroads, there should be Jim Crow . . . passenger boats," he wrote. "Moreover, there should be Jim Crow waiting saloons at all stations, and Jim Crow eating houses . . . There should be Jim Crow sections of the jury box, and a separate Jim Crow dock and witness stand in every court - and a Jim Crow Bible for colored witnesses to kiss."

Tragically, what the Charleston editor intended as mockery would soon become reality across the South - "down to and including the Jim Crow Bible," as Woodward noted. But it wasn't an overwhelming grassroots demand for segregation that institutionalized Jim Crow. It was government, often riding roughshod over the objection of private-sector entrepreneurs...

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