Jim Crow Sign Set, 1930s and 1940s
The era of Jim Crow segregation was ushered in by two landmark Supreme Court decisions in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This decision was made after an examination of five cases of discrimination. The court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment protected African Americans from discrimination from states but not from private individuals or businesses. Discriminatory laws were further upheld in an 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Adolph Plessy was a light-skinned black man who was arrested for sitting in a railroad car that had been reserved for white passengers. The Supreme Court decided that Plessy's rights were not violated because he was offered separate, but equal accommodations to the white car. This ruling led to a standard practice of “separate but equal” accommodations in order to separate the races. While separate, however, these accommodations were rarely equal. After these rulings, southern states intensified the creation of laws which legalized discriminatory practices, establishing African Americans as second-class citizens. The majority of these laws were aimed at either keeping the races separate in public spaces or preventing adult black males from exercising their right to vote. These discriminatory practices were not only codified in law, but were also often enforced by acts of brutal mob violence against southern blacks.
States throughout the South passed laws that restricted the access of African Americans to public areas and services. Local officials began to post signs like those seen here, marking facilities as either “Colored,” or for “Whites Only.” These signs were posted at restrooms, waiting rooms, water fountains, and on the entrances and exits of various public buildings. Some places even established curfews that restricted when, and for how long, African Americans were allowed in public. During the twentieth century racial discrimination was not reserved only for African Americans. Asians, Hispanics, and any other people seen as different from the white men in power were at times and in different places discriminated against.
These photographs, taken late in the 1930s and early in the 1940s, record the kind of signage that indicated the division of the races. These images also show that discrimination was not specific to the South, as one image is from Ohio, and that American Indians suffered under similar predjudices as seen in the photograph from Montana.
During the difficult years of the Jim Crow era, many southern blacks organized self-help associations that paralleled the services they were prohibited from receiving in the white community. These groups and associations ranged from fraternal lodges to life insurance companies and volunteer services. The Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in 1954 with its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision. Civil rights for African Americans were legally guaranteed a decade later with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed many of the state obstructions to African Americans' voting.
1. Why were these signs put up?
2. What were the primary objectives of the Jim Crow laws?
3. How did African Americans cope with the Jim Crow laws?
1. Why do you think that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments excluded women? Do you think that the history of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era would have been different if white and black women had been granted the right to vote immediately following the Civil War?
2. Would the segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans have continued without the Supreme Court rulings in 1883 and 1896? Why do you think so?
Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Cohen, William. At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861–1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.