I hear the term “Jim Crow” a lot these days, mostly thrown around by people who don’t fully understand it and underplay what it was, where it came from, and what came afterward. While Jim Crow is considered to have run between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It’s better thought of as a period on a timeline representing a slight evolution from the Black Codes and Slave Codes that preceded them. Also, Jim Crow didn’t disappear after the 1960s but evolved into something else that remains today.
To understand Jim Crow, you have to start with the Slave Codes. Enslaved people came to St. Augustine, FL in 1565, brought by Spaniards. In 1619, enslaved people were brought to coastal Virginia. Still, most Black people arriving in America were indentured servants, though treated more harshly and often working beyond their contractual terms. Slavery became the norm after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 when Black enslaved people, Black indentured servants, and white indentured servants joined forces which horrified the elite plantation owners. Throughout the South, the servants and enslaved typically outnumbered their white owners, and they had a great fear of rebellion. When Black and white rebelled together, plantation owners needed a new business model. Indentured servitude was eliminated for all practical purposes. New Black people brought over were all slaves. White people became overseers or apprentices.
The new business model required new rules. According to their agreement, the Black indentured servants were supposed to be serving limited terms, typically seven years. Saw their servitude extended to a lifetime of service or until they grew too old to do the work. That helped make up for the loss of white labor. The poorest and least educated white person was placed above the most skilled Black person. Some immigrants previously thought of as non-white were now recognized as white to increase the ranks.
By 1705, Virginia came out with the first slave codes, which soon spread throughout the colonies. They established standardization, provided for the return of runaway slaves, prohibited Blacks people from learning to read or write, and gave expansive ownership rights to white people. Basically, a white person could kill an enslaved Black person that they owned without recourse. The Slave Codes provided for the following:
- Established new property rights for slave owners
- Allowed for the legal, free trade of slaves with protections granted by the courts
- Established separate courts of trial
- Prohibited Blacks, regardless of free status, from owning arms [weapons]
- Blacks could not employ whites
- Allowed for the apprehension of suspected runaways
- Prohibited Blacks from being taught to read or write
After the Civil War, slavery, in theory, had come to an end. It took a while for the word to spread like to Texas on Juneteenth and even later to points further West. It would be nice to think it was only a matter of delayed communications due to distance, but the truth is Black people often weren’t told they were free. After the war ended in 1865, many Black people were still enslaved in places as disparate as Oregon, California, and New Jersey. In one known case, a former territorial Governor in Oregon kept at least one enslaved person until 1878, thirteen years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
After slavery ended, for those that knew they were free, there was no plan to integrate the freedmen and freedwomen into society. Cotton still needed to be picked, and sugar and rice harvested. The labor-intensive production of cotton increased after the Civil War ended, and it wasn’t because of the cotton gin. The labor came from three sources; an increase in the number of white farmers (many of them poor), white and Black sharecroppers, and Black victims of mass incarceration (often forced to serve their sentences on the plantations they were freed from). The Black Codes were adopted state by state to provide new legislation to get around the Thirteenth Amendment that freed the slaves.
The Black Codes were simply an effort to reimplement slavery as best they could under the law. Mississippi and South Carolina issued the first Black Codes. In Mississippi, former slaves were required to show proof of employment each January. If they left their employment before the end of the year. They would forfeit their wages and were subject to arrest. In South Carolina, if Blacks worked in any other occupation besides farmer or servant, they were subject to an annual tax. Failure to pay would lead to forced servitude on a plantation. Blacks were unable to own guns and knives.
Preventing Blacks from voting was one of the major themes of the Black Codes. Laws were passed requiring ownership of property. Poll taxes and unpassable literacy tests were en vogue. Other measures including scaring voters away or just killing them,
The 13th Amendment eliminated slavery except for those convicted of crimes. The Black Codes encouraged America’s first efforts at mass incarceration, resulting in hundreds of thousands of blacks being forced into slavery under the guise of law and order. Vagrancy violations were punished by forced work; orphans were sent to plantations against their will. Parents had to demonstrate their ability to support their children, or they could be removed, ultimately sent to a plantation—legalized slavery by another name. Once you understand the Black Codes, you are ready to have a better appreciation of Jim Crow.
Republicans in Congress, to their credit, didn’t appreciate the de facto return of slavery and introduced a Civil Rights Act in 1870, though it took five years to become law. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 almost gave America desegregated schools almost a century earlier (depending on how your state measured “with all deliberate speed”), but that was a bridge too far for Congress, and it was removed. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 kickstarted the Reconstruction Era, and when combined with the Fifteenth Amendment, Black people started getting elected to state legislatures and Congress.
This didn’t happen without repercussions. The Ku Klux Klan formed in 1865 and became a widespread presence during Reconstruction. Congress (bless their heart) passed the Enforcement Act of 1871, which almost decimated the Klan though they were replaced by the Redshirts, White Leagues, and White Councils that performed the same function. Just like Jim Crow hasn’t entirely gone away, neither have white supremacists, which in 2021 have been deemed our nation’s greatest domestic threat. In 1883, the Supreme Court did what the Supreme Court always does. They found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional because while private entities can’t discriminate, governments are free to do so. Their ruling also weakened the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. They supported discrimination with an 8–1 vote.
Though Black people had attained the right to vote and, on paper, had gained many rights. The only thing keeping the illusion of Reconstruction in place was the presence of federal troops in the South after the war. Lynchings were up, and seven Black legislators were killed among the thousands. The supposed protection of the honor of white women was big, and voter suppression was paramount as always. In 1876, there was a contested Presidential election that looked like the Democrats should have won. Democrats won the popular vote and were one Electoral College vote shy of claiming victory with three states contested. Ultimately, Democrats and Republicans conspired in a backroom to let Republican Rutherford B. Hayes become president to remove the federal troops from the South. The troops were removed in 1877, and the following year, Hayes enacted the Posse Comitatus Act, which ensured they would never return.
Once the troops were removed, Democrats retook state legislatures throughout the South, mostly by preventing Black people from voting by any means necessary. That included lynchings, scare tactics, poll taxes, literacy tests, moving polling locations, and providing false information about voting locations, dates, and times. Once the legislatures were populated by white supremacists again, they passed a new series of laws that weren’t limited to the South but spread across the country. These were the Jim Crow laws that are the subject of this story.
Come, listen, all you girls and boys, I’m just from Tuckahoe;
I’m going to sing a little song, My name’s Jim Crow.
Chorus: Wheel about, and turn about, and do just so;
Every time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.
I went down to the river, I didn’t mean to stay,
But there I saw so many girls, I couldn’t get away.
I’m roaring on the fiddle, and down in old Virginia,
They say I play the scientific, like master Paganini,
I cut so many monkey shines, I dance the galoppade;
And when I’m done, I rest my head, on shovel, hoe or spade.
I met Miss Dina Scrub one day, I give her such a kiss;
And then she turn and slap my face, and make a mighty fuss.
The other girls they begin to fight, I told them wait a bit;
I’d have them all, just one by one, as I thought fit.
I whip the lion of the west, I eat the alligator;
I put more water in my mouth, then boil ten loads of potatoes.
The way they bake the hoe cake, Virginia never tire.
They put the dough upon the foot,
I promised we’d get to how the name Jim Crow originated. Long before Al Jolson, a white minstrel performer named “Daddy” Rice (Thomas Dartmouth) basically made a living off one song. The song went viral, and Rice performed it all over the country as “Daddy Pops Jim Crow.” He would add verses according to the city and current events. He took his tour to Britain as well.
Rice performed in character in blackface as a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted Black enslaved man. In a case of self-admitted cultural appropriation, he claimed to have made up the character after seeing an elderly Black man singing a tune, “Jump Jim Crow,” in Louisville, KY. The disabled enslaved man was alternately known as “Jim Cuff,” “Jim Crow,” or “Uncle Joe.” In some versions, he was reported to have lived in St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. The Jim Crow in Rice’s routine was a caricature of Black people meant as a mockery. The height of the song’s popularity was thirty years before the Civil War, when it made a comeback.
There are other suggestions the name Jim Crow derived from the words “crow,” often used to refer to Black people in the 1730s, and “Jimmy,” which was another term for crow; in this case, a shortened version of a crowbar. The image of dancing crows predated Rice’s minstrel show and came from the practice of farmers soaking corn in whiskey for crows to eat. They became disoriented and couldn’t fly, stumbling about until the farmers clubbed them to death.
Should dey get to fighting,
Perhaps de blacks pee
For deir wish for freedom,
Is shining in deir eyes.
And if de blacks should get free,
I guess dey’ll see some bigger,
An I shall consider it,
A bold stroke for de nigger.
I’m for freedom,
An for Union altogether,
Although I’m a black man,
De white is call’d my broder
While Jim Crow laws began almost immediately after the Compromise of 1877 and Democrats taking over Southern state legislatures. When the Supreme Court threw out the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883. It was as if Jim Crow laws were given steroids. Bishop Henry McNeil Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said the following:
The world has never witnessed such barbarous laws entailed upon a free people as have grown out of the decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued October 15, 1883. For that decision alone authorized and now sustains all the unjust discriminations, proscriptions and robberies perpetrated by public carriers upon millions of the nation’s most loyal defenders. It fathers all the ‘Jim-Crow cars’ into which colored people are huddled and compelled to pay as much as the whites, who are given the finest accommodations. It has made the ballot of the black man a parody, his citizenship a nullity and his freedom a burlesque. It has engendered the bitterest feeling between the whites and blacks, and resulted in the deaths of thousands, who would have been living and enjoying life today.
On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court did more Supreme Courting and gave America “Plessy v. Ferguson,” which not only upheld the Jim Crow laws but said Black people were not citizens and had no rights the court was bound to follow. It enshrined the “Separate but Equal” concept. America did well with the separate, but equal never happened. That decision was 7–1; the lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan, wrote this:
In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case
The Supreme Court eventually reversed their error with the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954. Instead of a forceful overturning, they allowed school boards across the nation to use “all deliberate speed” in implementing desegregation. Today, there are de facto segregated school districts in New York, Mississippi, and elsewhere despite attempts in the 1970s and later to force schools to desegregate through consent decrees and school busing. Jim Crow still lives.
The Jim Crow laws were pervasive and encompassed almost every area of life. Segregated housing, unfair lending practices, inequity in pay, job discrimination, over-policing, and underfunding of schools. Many of them were derivatives from the Black Codes, which they were intended to replace. The Black Codes were written to reinstitute slavery and Jim Crow to replace the Black Codes.
Most of the Jim Crow laws were undone by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Of course, the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is partially why we have forty-seven states trying to implement hundreds of new laws trying to suppress minority and youth votes. Demographics find white people in America hurtling toward becoming a minority by 2045. The Supreme Court will be their last line of defense.
Jim Crow laws were allegedly undone in the mid-1960s by a trio of Acts passed by Congress and signed into law by two Presidents. Many remnants of Jim Crow remain. Modern police forces are direct descendants of the slave patrols that preceded the Civil War. They still kill Black people, not just with impunity but with qualified immunity. Mass incarceration and disparate sentencing permeate our justice system. Schools in urban areas are of lesser quality with fewer resources. Efforts are currently being made to rob them of public funding and redistribute funds to suburban and private schools. It costs more to insure your car in a Black neighborhood, and you pay higher interest on loans. The FBI recently pursued investigations of “Black Identity Extremists” while refusing to address white supremacy.
When some politicians try to represent current voter suppression laws as “modern-day Jim Crow laws.” What they have wrong is the suggestion we have to go back sixty or more years to find comparisons. We only have to look to the Supreme Court and their decimation of equal rights to find far more recent examples. Once upon a time, Congress took action to stop racism is on the brink of failing to investigate the white supremacist-led attack on the Capitol unless they can also go after Black Lives Matter. They similarly may take no action on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act because they side more closely with the slave patrols than the people.
There isn’t a fancy name for the Jim Crow that exists today. The existence of systemic racism is denied by one-half of the country lest they be expected to deal with it. Perhaps some minstrel singer or K-pop band will come up with a catchy tune with a name that will catch on? Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In this case, it would be the stench of Jim Crow in the aroma.
Thanks to Paul Dean Moore for suggesting the topic.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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