Plessy v. Ferguson was a critical development in African American history. The court’s separate-but-equal doctrine provided Southern states with constitutional cover as they passed a profusion of segregation ordinances during the first few decades of the new century.
Jim Crow Era
It marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era, a period bounded by the 1896 ruling and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. During these years, legal segregation and disenfranchisement defined the parameters of Black citizenship and circumscribed African Americans’ unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The story of Jim Crow begins with the political movement that swept across the South during the last quarter of the 19th century. This movement, which Plessy affirmed, laid the groundwork for white supremacist rule in the South.
Control on Black Labor
Jim Crow, like slavery, was about power—the power to control Black workers. Abolition robbed white Southerners of the tools they had relied on to keep Black labor yoked to the land. But it did not disabuse them of their enslaver’s mentality, which fed their sense of entitlement to what Black workers produced.
Thus, they developed a variety of mechanisms for controlling Black workers. Sharecropping quickly emerged as one of the most effective tools in their arsenal. Over time, sharecropping looked more and more like debt peonage, which involved employers compelling workers to pay off a debt by working until the debt was cleared. Although debt peonage had been outlawed by Congress in 1867, by the time the Supreme Court handed down the Plessy ruling, it was widespread in the South.
Many Black men, women, and children were arrested on bogus charges, such as abusive language, reckless eyeballing, trespassing, and vagrancy, and convicted by corrupt justices-of-the-peace who were working in concert with local police. The fine for the alleged crime might be small, perhaps $1.50, but court costs and fees were exorbitant, often totaling more than $50, which was well beyond most everybody’s means.
To recover what they charged, county and state officials leased those they had just convicted—sold them, really—to employers in the market for inexpensive, disposable Black labor. While the cost of leasing a prisoner was cheap, convict leasing was big business. Starting in the 1880s, it created a financial windfall for local and state governments.
Once leased, African Americans had to work off the cost of their purchase, a term that could last many months or even years. But living conditions in convict labor camps were dreadful, and working conditions were even worse. Survival was a matter of chance. About 25% of the nearly 750 county prisoners who wound up in Birmingham mines between 1894 and 1896 died. By all accounts, convict leasing was just a different kind of slavery.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Segregating in All Walks of Life
Segregation was another mechanism that white Southerners used to control Black workers. But they didn’t invent it; they adopted it from the North. New York City segregated streetcars in the 1850s, compelling Black riders to move to the rear of public conveyances and give up their seats to white passengers or suffer discourteous treatment at the hands of conductors and passengers, and possibly arrest by the police.
Boston segregated public schools even earlier than that. And Ohio passed laws in 1807 to regulate the behavior of free Blacks that presaged the Black Codes that Southern states tried to implement after the Civil War.
But white Southerners took racial segregation to the extreme. Not only did they separate Blacks and whites on streetcars and at schools, but also at hospitals, job sites, parks, stores, jails, restrooms, churches, and even cemeteries.
Segregation, though, was never about separating the races just for the sake of keeping Black people and white people apart. If that was the goal, it failed miserably, because the color line was extremely porous.
Whites routinely adjusted the color line to avoid inconveniencing themselves. Although train depots had separate waiting rooms for Black and white ticketholders, a Black woman caring for a white child could sit in the more spacious and comfortable whites-only holding area without garnering a second glance so long as her white charge was with her.
In this instance, the color line was bent so white families, specifically white women, would not have to suffer the inconvenience of being without their Black domestic worker while waiting for a train to arrive.
Regulating Black Behavior
Segregation helped control Black labor by regulating Black behavior. Despite what the Supreme Court said in Plessy, segregation did confer a badge of inferiority. By stigmatizing Blackness, it justified discriminatory treatment.
If African Americans didn’t deserve to ride in the same railroad car, eat at the same lunch counter, or attend the same school, then they didn’t deserve equal pay or a fair share of what a crop sold for at market.
White Southerners protected the new social system of segregation and the new debt-based labor arrangements by disenfranchising African Americans. Starting with Mississippi in 1890, every state in the former Confederacy over the next 20 years rewrote its state constitution to include provisions that stripped African Americans of the vote.
To get around the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbade denying people the right to vote because of their race, white lawmakers used race-neutral language to hide their intent.
The impact of disenfranchisement was felt immediately. One year before Alabama’s new constitution, Lowndes County, Alabama, had more than 5,000 Black registered voters. Five years later, the county had only 57.
African Americans lost their say in who represented them, making it possible for all manner of racially discriminatory laws to be passed. They also lost the right to sit on juries because courthouse officials used voter registration rolls to create lists of potential jurors.
Common Questions about Jim Crow Laws for the African Americans
The Jim Crow era refers to the period bounded by the 1896 ruling and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. During these years, legal segregation and disenfranchisement defined the parameters of Black citizenship and circumscribed African Americans’ unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Convict leasing was just a different kind of slavery where Black people were arrested on bogus charges and sold off as disposable labor. Once leased, African Americans had to work off the cost of their purchase, a term that could last many months or even years.
White Southerners disenfranchised the African Americans to protect the new social system of segregation and the new debt-based labor arrangements.