The History of Jim Crow

Mari N. Crabtree is an assistant professor of African American Studies at the College of Charleston who is writing a book on collective memories of lynching among African American southerners.

To write about Jim Crow is to write about broken promises, many of which remain broken. Lincoln called for “a new birth of freedom” in the Gettysburg Address, but the promise of a just and democratic nation emerging from the ruins of the Civil War collapsed into what Rayford Logan called “the nadir of American race relations” with the end of Reconstruction. And so, to write about Jim Crow is also to write about the meaning of freedom. In some way or another, the authors included below grapple with the question: How free is free? They ask what it means for a nation that believes itself to be the model democracy to use lynching, segregation, convict leasing, disfranchisement, debt peonage, race riots, and racist caricatures to control black men and women after abolishing slavery. They also ask how Jim Crow disrupted the interior lives of African Americans who survived it.

To write about Jim Crow is to write about broken promises and the meaning of freedom. But, as a friend once gently chided me, despite the horrors, injustices, and indignities of Jim Crow, we must remember to “leave room for the sublime.” My friend warned against handing absolute power over to Jim Crow—to remember the spaces African Americans carved out for joy and love, laughter and hope, refusal and resistance—and then he walked me across his living room to a wedding portrait of his grandparents from the 1940s. The smiling faces, beaming, told a story, not just of survival and resilience, but of truly not caring what the white world thought of them. My memory of their faces all these years later is hazy, but I carry with me my friend’s point—their point, really. Jim Crow was unbelievably brutal and oppressive, but black lives then and now are not dictated wholly by the terms others impose from without. Rather, Jim Crow reveals as much, if not more, about white supremacy and the values of American “democracy” as it does black lives.

Places to Start

This classic text is unsurpassed in its sheer elegance, poignancy, and power. Published at the height of Jim Crow, these essays (and a stray short story) capture the struggles of African Americans at what Du Bois calls “the dawn of freedom,” a moment when the promise of American democracy both seemed most possible and yet remained remote. You experience Du Bois at his best in this book: his acerbic wit, his uncompromising zeal for justice, his deep empathy for the “folk” he writes about.

Prepare yourself for a heavy heart; Leon Litwack’s social history of Jim Crow captures the ugliness of Jim Crow with an unrelenting intensity that will leave you emotionally spent. Litwack is masterful in his ability to weave together an incredible array of stories that are equal parts heart-wrenching and horrifying. However, this book ultimately tells an uplifting story—a story of African American resilience, fortitude, and ingenuity, a story of a people who refused to accept the terms of their oppression.

Digging In

George Fredrickson’s White Supremacy may seem more like digging out than digging in since he travels back to a time before Jim Crow and crosses the Atlantic to South Africa, but his comparative history of the United States and South Africa reveals quite pointedly what made Jim Crow distinctly American and yet part of a global story of racial oppression. Other historians so often (and often deservedly so) chide Americanists for their provincialism, but Fredrickson’s scholarship is comparative history at its best. I would also suggest reading Fredrickson’s companion volume, Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (1996).

Labor history had (has?) a pretty serious race and gender problem, which is why reading Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom comes as such a welcome relief. Hunter captures the nuances of what it meant to be an African American woman working as a domestic laborer in the post-emancipation South. She retraces their inner lives as members of families and communities, but also as workers who made demands of their employers and even organized a labor union to contest Jim Crow’s stunted vision of the meaning of freedom.

Jim Crow was, in one sense, a collection of deep-seated racial anxieties about maintaining white supremacy codified into law. In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, Michael Klarman traces the shifting social consensus on segregation among whites through legal challenges brought before the Supreme Court. Klarman pushes past the courtroom doors, exploring broader social transformations through the work of civil rights activists, politicians, and white supremacist groups. Ultimately, he argues that, just as racial anxieties produced Jim Crow, public opinion moved the Supreme Court far more than the cultural elitism of the justices themselves.

New Moves

The violence of Jim Crow played out in the everyday lives of African Americans, but its most disturbing and visible manifestation was lynching. Crystal Feimster’s book uncovers how lynching was more than racial terror. Her gendered readings of lynching rituals, including the lynching of women, and public debates over lynching and rape reveal how these violent rituals not only reinforced white supremacy but the patriarchy too. Although rituals of racial and gendered violence in the United States have changed, popular representations of African Americans continue to criminalize black men as sexual predators and render the rape of black women invisible.

Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here should compel us to see Jim Crow as not merely a racial caste system but a system of interlocking oppressions based on gender, labor, and race. She shows how incarcerated black women forced to work in the convict lease system and on chain gangs pushed back against racial capitalism and the patriarchy through what she calls “black feminist refusal.” With mass incarceration emerging as this generation’s civil rights issue, we should take a page from Haley and open our eyes to the experiences of incarcerated black women in our times. Only by seeing all the ways the criminal punishment system is oppressive and by recognizing all the people it oppresses can we dismantle the prison-industrial complex.

Voices and Lives

The first time I heard Minnie Weston’s voice fade to a whisper as she hesitated to revisit painful memories about her brothers’ murders, I, too, held my breath and my eyes welled with tears. I was in the Duke University archives listening to her oral history preserved in the “Behind the Veil” collection. Remembering Jim Crow curates excerpts from these powerful oral histories into chapters on bitter truths, heritage and memory, families and communities, lessons well learned, work, and resistance and political struggles. The book includes a CD of oral history excerpts.

By the time Frank finally returns home to Lotus, Georgia, the “pink cotton blossoms spread under the malevolent sun” that greet him betray the innocence and renewal of springtime. They will fall away and become hardened bolls to be picked. He has journeyed far, from the Korean War, carrying traumatic memories of war and of this place he calls home—this country that boasts of its democracy abroad yet refuses to give him rest. Toni Morrison’s Home evokes memory and trauma, home and community, race and violence, and she subtly captures the invisible hand of Jim Crow that displaces, pushes, and drives Frank away from home and back.

Labor unions and the American South sound as wholly incompatible today as they did during Jim Crow, and yet, against all odds, African Americans organized a sharecroppers union in the heart of the Deep South during the Depression. All God’s Dangers is Ned Cobb’s autobiography told through the largely invisible handiwork of historian Theodore Rosengarten, who constructed the narrative based on several interviews with Cobb. Cobb, who goes by the alias Nate Shaw in the book, tells an almost mythic tale that takes you from his impoverished upbringing in rural Alabama through his labor organizing and a dramatic shootout with local vigilantes.