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Steven F. Lawson
Department of History, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center

Racial segregation was a system derived from the efforts of white Americans to keep African Americans in a subordinate status by denying them equal access to public facilities and ensuring that blacks lived apart from whites. During the era of slavery, most African Americans resided in the South, mainly in rural areas. Under these circumstances, segregation did not prove necessary as the boundaries between free citizens and people held in bondage remained clear. Furthermore, Before the Civil War, segregation existed mainly in cities in both the North and the South.blacks and whites lived in close proximity on farms and plantations and geographical isolation made contact between neighbors infrequent. However, free people of color, located chiefly in cities and towns of the North and Upper South, experienced segregation in various forms. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) that African Americans were not U.S. citizens, northern whites had excluded blacks from seats on public transportation and barred their entry, except as servants, from most hotels and restaurants. When allowed into auditoriums and theaters, blacks occupied separate sections; they also attended segregated schools. Most churches, too, were segregated.

Reconstruction after the Civil War posed serious challenges to white supremacy and segregation, especially in the South where most African Americans continued to live. The abolition of slavery in 1865, followed by ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) extending citizenship and equal protection of the law to African Americans and In the years immediately after the Civil War segregation eased somewhat.the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) barring racial discrimination in voting, threatened to overturn the barriers whites had erected to keep blacks separate and unequal. Yet the possibilities of blacks sharing public conveyances and public accommodations with whites increased during the period after 1865. Blacks obtained access to streetcars and railroads on an integrated basis. Indeed, many transportation companies favored integration because they did not want to risk losing black business.

African Americans did gain admission to desegregated public accommodations, but racial segregation, or Jim Crow as it became popularly known, remained the custom. (The term Jim Crow originated from the name of a character in an 1832 minstrel show, where whites performed in black face.) Passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred racial discrimination in public accommodations, provides evidence of the continued presence of segregation and the need to rectify it. The law lasted until 1883, when the Supreme Court of the United States declared the statute unconstitutional for regulating what the justices considered private companies, such as streetcars and entertainment facilities. By this time, the interracial Reconstruction governments had fallen in the South and the federal government had retreated from strong enforcement of black civil rights. With white-controlled governments back in power, the situation of southern blacks gradually deteriorated. To maintain solidarity and remove possible political threats, white southerners initiated a series of efforts to reduce further African American citizenship rights and enforce Jim Crow. The Supreme Court’s 1883 ruling in In the 1880s legislation strengthened segregation in the South. By the 1890s it had become entrenched.the Civil Rights Cases spurred states to enact segregation laws. Between 1887 and 1892, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia refused equal access to African Americans on public accommodations and transportation. These laws forced blacks to sit in the back of the bus, on separate cars in trains, and in the balcony at theaters, for example. From this period on, segregation became a rigid legal system separating the races from cradle to grave—including segregated hospital facilities, cemeteries, and everything in between—no longer tolerating any flexibility in the racial interactions that had previously existed.

Why did Jim Crow become entrenched in the 1890s? The third-party Populist uprising of that decade threatened conservative Democratic rule in the South. Many of those blacks who could still vote, and the number was considerable, joined the Populist insurgency. To check this political rebellion and prevent blacks from wielding the balance of power in close elections, southern Democrats appealed to white solidarity to defeat the Populists, whipped up anti-Negro sentiment, disfranchised African Americans, and imposed strict de jure (by law) segregation.

In the North, while legislation combated segregation, African Americans were still kept separate and apart from whites.In contrast with the South, in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York all adopted laws that prohibited racial discrimination in public facilities. Yet blacks encountered segregation in the North as well. Rather than through de jure segregation, most northern whites and blacks lived in separate neighborhoods and attended separate schools largely through de facto segregation. This kind of segregation resulted from the fact that African Americans resided in distinct neighborhoods, stemming from insufficient income as well as a desire to live among their own people, as many ethnic groups did. However, blacks separated themselves not merely as a matter of choice or custom. Instead, realtors and landlords steered blacks away from white neighborhoods and municipal ordinances and judicially enforced racial covenants signed by homeowners kept blacks out of white areas.

In 1896, the federal government sanctioned racial segregation, fashioning the constitutional rationale for keeping the races legally apart. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law providing for “equal but separate” accommodations for “whites” and “coloreds” did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Plessy v. Ferguson was based upon a belief in white supremacy.Amendment. In its decision the majority of the court concluded that civil rights laws could not change racial destiny. “If one race be inferior to the other socially,” the justices explained, “the Constitution of the United cannot put them on the same plane.” This thinking, which accepted the idea that whites were superior to blacks, derived from scientific judgments of the time that light-skinned people had greater intelligence and a higher degree of civilization than darker-skinned groups, opinions that also fueled U.S. imperialism in the 1890s.

Although the Supreme Court inscribed the doctrine of “separate but equal” into law, in practice this did not happen. Local and state authorities never funded black education equally nor did African Americans have equal access to public accommodations. To make matters worse, In the South segregation prevailed unabated from the 1890s to the 1950s.after the 1890s, nearly all southern blacks lost their right to vote through measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and the white primary. For the next fifty years racial segregation prevailed, reinforced by disfranchisement, official coercion, and vigilante terror. In addition, starting in 1913 with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who had close ties to the South, the federal government imposed racial segregation in government offices in Washington, D.C. (a policy that would not be reversed until the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s).

The struggle against Nazi racism in Europe called attention to racism in America.The bedrock of Jim Crow began to crack after World War II. The war had exposed the horrors of Nazi racism; non-white nations in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia struggled to end colonial rule; and scientists no longer accepted the notion of superior and inferior races. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces, thus reversing a longstanding practice. In 1954, the Supreme Court justices in Brown v. the Board of Education reversed Plessy and decided that legally sanctioned racial segregation was inherently unequal and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, the Brown ruling signaled only a first step, and it took another decade and a mass movement for civil rights for African Americans to tear down the racist edifices of segregation in the South.

Guiding Student Discussion

The challenge is to explain to students the reasons for and the legacy of segregation.Explaining segregation to students is a lot more difficult because of the progress made since the Civil Rights Movement. The symbols of the Jim Crow past—“Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs—are found mainly in antiques stores, museums, photographs, and documentaries. Now that an African American has been elected president of the United States, segregation seems as outmoded and distant a practice as watching black and white television. Thus, the major challenge is to explain to students the reasons for and the legacy of segregation. This requires a series of questions.

The first question to ask is when did racial segregation begin? The importance of this question helps in gauging the potency and endurance of racism as a feature of American history. If segregation began Students should understand that segregation is embedded deeply in America's past.very early in the nation’s history, this suggests that racism is embedded in the very fabric of American society and culture and is something extremely difficult to eradicate. The evidence points in this direction. Before the Civil War, free Negroes in the North encountered segregation in schools, public accommodations, and the military. In 1849, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in Roberts v. City of Boston held that the state could require separate and equal schools for Negroes without violating the right of equality in the Massachusetts Constitution.

Segregation continued to exist after the Civil War and spread to the South once slaves were emancipated. Still, it is one thing to confirm that segregation Students should understand the role the federal government played in establishing and dismantling segregation.persisted following slavery, as evidenced by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and another to assess its strength. What seems unique about race relations from the 1870s to the early 1890s was its porousness: segregation was not as rigid then as it later became. Moreover, blacks still had the right to vote and could wield influence in public affairs. This changed in the 1890s, and teachers should make clear the decisive role of the federal government in contributing to the establishment of hardcore segregation in the South. Thus, Jim Crow did not come about just through individual acts of prejudice but required government intervention from the North as well as the South. Without the official Students should understand that Jim Crow was not simply a matter of individual acts of prejudice. It required government sanction.approval of the Supreme Court in Plessy, the southern states would not have had the constitutional power to enforce Jim Crow. Only when the federal government took action after World War II in what has been called “the Second Reconstruction” did segregation fall, thereby highlighting the critical position Washington, D.C. played in preserving and then dismantling Jim Crow.

Despite complicity from the North, the harshest and most long-lasting forms of segregation occurred in the South. Why were white southerners so adamant in maintaining segregation? Students should comeSegregation was intended to enforce and underscore the subordinate position of blacks in American society. to recognize that segregation was part of the system to subjugate African Americans and affirm their status as inferior people. Southern whites considered this system of vital importance because of the vast majority of African Americans lived in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Separate was never equal nor was it meant to be. Segregation was intended to debase African Americans, strip them of their dignity, reinforce their inequality, and maintain a submissive agricultural labor force. In this way, you can point out to students that the southern United States from the 1890s through the 1960s was similar in many ways to South Africa during its Apartheid Era.

In addition, Jim Crow can be viewed as a system of “disease control.” Segregation quarantined blacks to prevent them from infecting whites with the social and cultural impurities associated with “inferior” African Americans. White men established segregation to keep black men from having sexual relations with white women. Viewing miscegenation as the ultimate threat to the perpetuation of their superior racial stock, they often resorted to lynching black men for allegedly raping white women. In doing so, white men not only reinforced their control over blacks but also white women. They sought to maintain the virtue and chastity of their wives and daughters, reinforcing their patriarchal roles as husband, father, and ultimately guardian of their communities. However, it can be debated whether the real issue was sexual purity or power, for many white southern men both during slavery and Jim Crow actively pursued clandestine sexual relations with black women,

Segregation grew out of fear and a desire to control.Nevertheless, this fear of miscegenation, whether real or imagined, reinforced Jim Crow. White southerners were adamant about maintaining school segregation, particularly in the early grades, because they did not want little white girls to socialize with black boys, which might lead to more intimate relations as they turned into teenagers and young adults.
F. W. Woolworth store, Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960
F. W. Woolworth store, Greensboro, North Carolina, site of 1960 lunch counter sit-in.
This fear of sexual contact also applied to other areas, and the most interesting one that students should consider relates to department store lunch counters. Why were blacks allowed to make purchases in stores like Woolworth’s (you will probably have to explain what Woolworth’s was) and even stand on checkout lines next to whites, but they could not eat at the lunch counters that lined the inside walls of these stores? Ask your students what they see as the difference between the two and you will probably find, as I have, that they discern that sitting down to eat was seen as a social activity that in the racialized South had sexual connotations, whereas walking around a store or standing in line did not have the same meaning.

How did African Americans respond to Jim Crow and did they view separation and segregation in the same way? Having students Students should understand the difference between voluntary separation and the two should reveal that for the most part African Americans did not oppose separation so long as it was voluntary. Following the Civil War, blacks formed their own schools, churches, and civic organizations over which they exercised control that provided independence from white authorities, including their former masters. African Americans took great pride in the institutions they built in their communities. Black businessmen accumulated wealth by catering to a Negro clientele in need of banks, insurance companies, health services, barber shops and beauty parlors, entertainment, and funeral homes. African Americans as diverse politically as Booker T. Washington in the 1890s, Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, W.E.B. DuBois in the 1930s advocated that blacks concentrate on promoting self-help within their communities and develop their own economic, Integration weakened some black community, and cultural institutions. Ironically, one of the unintended side effects of racial integration in the second half of the twentieth century was the erosion of longstanding black business and educational institutions that served African-Americans during Jim Crow.

Students can then see that in contrast to voluntary separation and self-determination, segregation was coercive and grew out of attempts to maintain black subordination and second-class citizenship. Sanctioned by the government, Jim Crow demeaned African Americans, denied them equal opportunity, and assigned them to the margins of public life. If African Americans overstepped Jim Crow’s boundary lines they were forced back by law and, if necessary, through retributive violence.

How did African Americans challenge segregation and white supremacy? In other words, when did the Civil Rights Movement begin and Begin your teaching of the Civil Rights Movement with World War II.what did it seek to accomplish? These are questions that historians still debate. My advice is to start before the usual launching point of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and begin with World War II, when African Americans began a “Double V” Campaign—victory against totalitarianism abroad and racism at home. The continued migration of blacks to the North and West gave African Americans increased voting power to help pressure presidents from Harry Truman on to pass civil rights legislation that would aid their family, friends, and neighbors remaining in the South. At the same time, southern black communities organized and mobilized. A new generation of leaders, many of them military veterans or black college graduates, challenged Jim Crow and disfranchisement. Black women have often been ignored as a significant force behind the Civil Rights Movement, with the focus on the men who led the major organizations. However, teachers should emphasize the role of mothers who permitted their children to face the dangers of integrating schools, daughters who readily joined protest demonstrations, domestic servants who walked miles to work to boycott segregated buses, and churchwomen who rallied their congregations behind civil rights.

Finally, what did African Americans strive for in eliminating segregation? Usually integration is wrongly interpreted as an end in itself or an attempt by blacks to Stress that integration was a tactic, not a goal.assimilate into white society. It is most important for students to understand that for blacks integration was a tactic, not a goal. For example, African Americans sought to desegregate education not because they wanted to socialize with white students, but because it provided the best means for obtaining a quality education. Blacks confronted Jim Crow to defeat white supremacy and obtain political power—the kind that could result in jobs, affordable housing, satisfactory health care, and evenhanded treatment by the police and the judicial system. Rather than erasing their pride in being black or expressing a desire to be like whites, African Americans gained an even greater respect for their race through participation in the Civil Rights Movement and their efforts to shatter Jim Crow.

Historians Debate

In 1955, C. Vann Woodward published The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward reflected the optimism following the previous year’s Brown decision by arguing that segregation was not as inherent to southern society as previously believed. He demonstrated that not until the 1890s did southern whites institute the rigid system of Jim Crow that segregated the races in all areas of public life. Woodward pointed out numerous instances during and after Reconstruction when blacks had access to public accommodations. Woodward’s research suggested that segregation might be eradicated through simple changes in public policies, reversing those that had created it in the not-so-distant past.

Woodward’s book spawned a number of other studies both challenging and modifying his thesis. Many of these appeared as the South waged massive resistance to combat the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, suggesting the depth of white racism and the difficulty of overcoming it. In North of Slavery (1961), Leon Litwack found that even before the Civil War free northern Negroes encountered segregation in schools and public accommodations, the kind of discrimination they would face in the South after slavery. Accordingly, segregation had a longer pedigree than Woodward had argued, and it transcended the South and operated nationwide. Joel Williamson’s After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861-1877 (1965) examined race relations in the Palmetto State and found Woodward’s interpretation wanting. Williamson concluded that freed blacks encountered segregation soon after emancipation. He asserted that specific laws were not necessary to keep the races apart because segregation was maintained de facto. He discovered that most white South Carolinians did not accept racial equality and intended to adopt segregation as soon as blacks gained their freedom from slavery.

Howard N. Rabinowitz did not focus so much on the timing of segregation as on its form. In Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (1978), Rabinowitz argued that racial segregation appeared as a substitute for racial exclusion. Thus, in the post-emancipation South freed blacks gained access for the first time to public facilities such as public transportation and health and welfare services. Accordingly, segregation should not be perceived as a punitive measure but as a means of extending services, albeit separate and unequal, to African Americans.

To summarize, historians generally agree that de facto segregation both preceded and accompanied de jure segregation, but that racial interaction in public spheres was less rigid than it became after the 1890s. Whatever its form, however, Jim Crow was always separate and never equal; it constituted a means for reinforcing black subordination and white supremacy. Whatever the exact beginning of segregation, southern whites shared a broad consensus for preserving it. It required a mass, black-led, Civil Rights Movement, combined with the power and renewed willingness of the national government, to overthrow Jim Crow.

Steven F. Lawson was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1987-88. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University and is currently Professor of History at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Dr. Lawson is author of Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (1976), which won the Phi Alpha Theta prize for best first book; In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965-1982 (1985); Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle (2003); and Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941 (3rd ed., 2009).

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Lawson, Steven F. “Segregation.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.


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