Jim Crow Laws: Separate But Not Equal

Jim Crow laws were established following the American Civil War to restrict the rights and freedoms of Black people, which were heavily enforced in the South.

Jul 21, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
colored waiting room jim crow laws
Colored waiting room sign at a bus station in Durham, North Carolina by Jack Delano, 1940, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


After slavery was abolished, white supremacists looked for other ways to suppress the rights and freedoms of African Americans by enforcing a series of codes and laws. Jim Crow laws were enforced in all Southern states after the 13th Amendment was ratified to prevent Black people from exercising their rights and freedoms.


Jim Crow laws kept whites and Black people separated in all public facilities and sometimes neighborhoods. The laws remained heavily intact in the South throughout the Civil Rights Movement until the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Life Before Jim Crow

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Sketch of the celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington DC by Frederick Dielman, 1866, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Before the existence of Jim Crow laws, slave codes were enforced before slavery was abolished. These codes outlined rules and regulations that deemed any Black persons as property and were to be treated as such. Slavery was officially abolished upon the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. However, African Americans were still viewed as highly inferior by white supremacists.


There were several ways in which white supremacists essentially found loopholes in the state and federal government system to treat African Americans very poorly. Black codes were enforced following the 13th Amendment, which consisted of various laws to restrict the rights of African Americans.


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An example of black codes involved vagrancy laws. Under vagrancy laws, African Americans were required to be employed and have a permanent residence, or else they could be fined or arrested. If one could not pay the fines, they were subject to pay off the fines through cheap labor.


Black codes did not disappear but rather evolved into Jim Crow laws. As President Lincoln established the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment was ratified, African Americans were given a chance to live with more freedoms. However, these freedoms were very restricted based upon laws that white supremacists created in an effort to continuously remind African Americans that they were believed to be inferior to the white man.


Origins of Jim Crow

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Etching of Jim Crow character published by Hodgson, circa 1835, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The term “Jim Crow” was originally used as a racial slur to describe Black people. Jim Crow first appeared in 1828, when a short skit performer named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice dressed in blackface to create a highly offensive stereotype of Black people. Rice dressed in ragged clothing and used burnt cork to darken his face for his skits. He mainly performed in New York, but once his Jim Crow skits caught wind, he traveled to major cities across the country to perform. This led Jim Crow to become a very popularized racial slur.


A decade after Rice’s first skit as Jim Crow, other performers began using the character in their skits. However, Jim Crow began to fade as a racial slur by the late 1800s due to theater plays becoming less popular with the invention of motion pictures. Instead, it became the common term used to describe black codes.


Jim Crow laws were formally defined as the codified system that oppressed Black people, which were enforced by local and state authorities through segregation. “White only” and “Colored only” signs were posted on public facilities, such as restrooms, restaurants, stores, water fountains, barbershops, and churches. “Colored only” facilities were almost always less accommodating and not well-kept. Some areas did not even offer “colored only” facilities. Many neighborhoods and residencies in the South were also segregated, allowing only either white or Black persons to live in the area.


US Supreme Court Upheld Segregation

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Judgment of the US Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, via National Archives Catalog


Although the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery and the 14th and 15th Amendments granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote, the US Supreme Court upheld segregation and other state laws. Upon the Plessy v. Ferguson US Supreme Court ruling in 1896, segregation was considered constitutional as long as Black people had equal accommodations.


The case made its way to the Supreme Court after Homer Plessy, a Louisiana man who was one-eighth Black, sat in the “whites only” section of a train car. He was arrested for refusing to give up his seat. Since there was a “colored only” section of the train, the judge ruled that Plessy’s rights had not been violated. After the Plessy v. Ferguson case, states began to take advantage of the ruling by creating more segregated areas and facilities.


What Life Was Like Under Jim Crow Laws

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“Colored only” theatre sign in Waco, Texas by Russell Lee, 1939, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


As soon as federal legislatures granted African Americans more freedoms, states started to adopt Jim Crow laws in order to continue racial divides. Even though African Americans were granted the right to vote, they were subject to literacy tests and poll taxes in an effort to discourage them from voting. Enslaved people were not allowed to go to school, and it was an extremely rare occurrence for slave owners to teach enslaved people how to read or write. Therefore, passing the literacy tests was made nearly impossible for African Americans.


Some examples of Jim Crow laws in the South included: African Americans and whites were not allowed to play or associate with each other in games, interracial marriages were voided, Black children were not allowed to attend white schools, and Black people were only allowed to use public facilities labeled “colored-only.” African Americans were also not allowed in certain communities. Property owners created restrictive covenants which prohibited African Americans from buying or renting property within specific property lines and areas.


Jim Crow laws were heavily enforced more so in the South compared to northern states. African Americans were continuously victims of violence by whites, including law enforcement. If African Americans did not obey Jim Crow laws, they were often severely beaten and arrested. Life was far from easy, as it was a constant struggle of oppression that instilled fear and anger into Black people for the inhumane mistreatment they faced.


Effects of Jim Crow Laws

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Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington DC by Herbert A. French, 1926, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Upon the abolishment of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first appeared in 1866. The KKK originally started out as a club, which later evolved into a larger terrorist organization. Members of the KKK were white supremacists who used scare tactics and extreme violence against African Americans.


KKK groups and rallies reappeared in the early decades of the 1900s when Jim Crow laws were implemented. By the 1920s, there were millions of members across the country, some of which were state politicians. The KKK was responsible for numerous lynchings and murders of Black people, destruction of property, and other hate crimes.


One of the most significant effects of Jim Crow laws was the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970. In an effort to get away from the violence that ensued in the South, more than five million Black people relocated to other regions in the US northern and midwestern states that were less oppressive than the South and presented African Americans with better opportunities. However, racial violence and segregation were still present in these states.


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Harlem Renaissance jazz musicians, via Georgia State University


As a result of the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance began in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance was a rich cultural movement that celebrated the arts. Harlem, New York, was the foundation of the movement. Notable African American intellectuals, artists, musicians, and writers emerged, including Langston Hughes, Ivie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and many others. This explosion of the arts in Harlem and other major cities offered African Americans a time of creative expression and thinking they had not been able to experience before on such a large scale.


Fighting Back Against Segregation

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Civil rights march in Washington state, circa 1962, via Washington Secretary of State Digital Archives


Although the Civil Rights Movement started in 1954 after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, civil rights efforts were made decades beforehand. Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was one of the first civil rights organizations to appear. More organizations began to emerge starting in the 1940s.


Civil rights protests and campaigns became more common in the mid-20th century as Black people began to fight back against Jim Crow laws. The protests and campaigns encompassed the efforts to demand justice, freedom, and equal rights. As more people came together, the civil rights agenda became stronger.


Successes Following the Abolishment of Jim Crow Laws

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law by Cecil Stoughton, via United States House of Representatives: History, Art, & Archives


Jim Crow laws were officially abolished when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were signed into law. Compared to the 14th and 15th Amendments, these laws did not give any leeway for states to come up with legal ways to keep segregation. More laws followed over the next few decades to reinforce equal rights, such as the amendments of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, 1975, and 1982 and the Fair Housing Act (1968), Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, and Civil Rights Act of 1991.


After enslaved peoples were freed, it took 100 years for African Americans to gain human and civil rights. Jim Crow laws were arguably one of the biggest obstacles of oppression that Black people overcame in the 20th century. Racial discrimination continued even after laws were put in place and is still very present to this day. The circumstances are different, but racial tensions heighten whenever racism and corruption in the legal system are unveiled.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.