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The American South in the Years Before the Civil Rights Act

A postcard featuring grossly exaggerated racial stereotypes from the 1920s


Who or What was Jim Crow?


From the 1880s into the 1960s, a majority of American states enforced segregation through "Jim Crow" laws. States (and cities) could impose restrictions and punishments on black Americans. The most common laws forbade intermarriage and ordered businesses and public institutions to keep black and white clientele separated.

Jump Jim Crow

These laws were named after a popular song and character in minstrel shows.
Minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment in which white men would dress in black makeup and impersonate black characters. Of course, these performances were grossly exaggerated and highly offensive to black people at the time. Stereotypical depictions of blacks, helped to popularize the belief that blacks were lazy, stupid, less human, and unworthy of integration. By 1838, the term "Jim Crow" was being used as a collective racial slur for black people and the growing popularity of minstrel shows aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racist term. By the end of the 19th Century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to describe blacks; instead, the phrase was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.

What are some examples of Jim Crow Laws?

The schools for white children and the schools for negro children shall be conducted separately.

All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent, to the third generation, are forever prohibited.

Textbooks shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them. (North Carolina)

No colored barber shall serve as a barber to white women or girls. (Georgia) It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race. (Georgia)

Children of segregation at Rendall Harpers birthday party, Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1947
I am in the second row, second from left; on my right is Leroy Sulton, my best friend and nextdoor neighbor. The arbitrary nature of racial discrimination is exemplified in this photograph of African-American children, some of whom are obviously the results of many generations of racial mixing, but who have been designated as "black" by American society. As the result of their African ancestry, these children were prohibited from full participation in the social, educational, cultural, and political life of the state even though some appear to be more "white" than "black. - Cecil J. Williams

Any public hall, theatre, opera house, motion picture show or place of public entertainment which is attended by both white and colored persons shall separate the white race and the colored race.

Colored waiting room, Dallas Bus Station, 1952 Those signs in downtown Dallas, the signs over the water fountains and in the bus stations, came down in 1955 or 56, and a couple of years later they began to adhere to the Supreme Court decision. --R. C. Hickman

Jim Crow statuettes offered for sale at an outdoor market.

Land of Few Opportunities

With few jobs open to black people, how did most families earn a living?
Many freed slaves took up sharecropping: a system of farming in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land.

White Landowners Weighing Sharecroppers' Cotton

Sharecropping soon replaced slavery as the primary form of labor for African Americans in the South. In this photo, a white landowner weighs cotton grown by black sharecroppers.

1929: The Great Depression

What was the Great Depression?
The economic crisis beginning with the stock market crash in 1929 and continuing for more than a decade. Joblessness in America rose to 25%. (It is currently around 10%.) Many businesses and banks shut their doors. So many Americans were unable to pay their rent and home mortgages that tent cities like this one in Seattle appeared throughout the United States.

The Ku Klux Klan

Formed just weeks after The Civil War ended, the Ku Klux Klan was established as a secret terrorist organization intended to re-establish white supremacy in America.

Dressed in robes and hoods designed to frighten victims and prevent identification by Federal troops, Klansmen whipped and killed freed slaves in nighttime raids. Klansmen also drove blacks out of their communities,

Smoke billowing over Tulsa, Oklahoma during 1921 race riots

Klan Violence
Lynching is the illegal execution of an accused
person by a mob. Between 1882 and 1968 3,446 black men and women died by lynching.

It is impossible to determine how many of these lynchings were organized by the Klan because they operated in secrecy, but it is believed that the vast majority of these murders were Klan-related.

The novel we are about to begin takes place in rural Mississippi in 1993, amid the frustrations of Jim Crow laws, the hardships of the Great Depression and the terrors of the Ku Klux Klan.