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[Detail] Soldier and Two Women.

Historical Comprehension: Jim Crow Laws

In the late nineteenth century, states established laws to segregate the services that they provided to white and African-American citizens. One of these Jim Crow laws (borrowing their name from a black character on the minstrel stage) was New Orleans' 1890 legislation that required separate railroad cars for black passengers and white passengers.

Homer Plessy, a light-skinned African American, was arrested for refusing to ride in the car designated for blacks. In 1896, Plessy took his case to the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. The court ruled against him and set the precedent that "separate but equal" accommodations for both races were constitutional. This decision led to legalized segregation in a variety of public services and contributed to a growing racial divide, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation.

A search on Jim Crow provides a number of newspaper articles that emphasize the harsh reality that separate services were not always equal. Articles from the 1891 Cleveland Gazette such as "Challenging Jim Crow" and "New Orleans Citizen Committee Fund to Fight Jim Crow Cars" offer a glimpse of the plans that went into the court challenge of the Louisiana separate car law. The 1895 editorial, "The 'Jim Crow' Car" describes a similar situation on rail cars in Georgia:

White men, and Negroes too, come in and smoke, spit, curse and drink whisky in the face of our wives, sisters and mothers, and there is no means of redress. If a self-respecting colored man offers a protest to the conductor against such treatment, that high official tells him: "If you are not satisfied with the accommodation you are getting, just get off and walk." If the Negro says anything more he is likely to be mobbed, put off the train, and possibly lynched. And all of this in the face of the fact that the Negro pays the same fare that the white people pay, and may be as decently dressed and as well behaved as any person in the car.

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  • What is the difference between the expectations of "separate but equal" accommodations and the reality of such a situation?
  • Would a conductor have been likely to treat complaints from white passengers by telling them they can get out and walk?
  • Where is the threat of being mobbed or lynched coming from?

A 1907 article from the Cleveland Journal entitled, "Inter-State Commerce Commission and Jim Crow" reported that the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled that "the railroad ‘has unduly and unjustly discriminated in some particulars against colored passengers' and orders that . . . similar accommodations shall be provided for Negro passengers paying a similar fare."

  • What was the basis for this decision?
  • Does this ruling affect the significance of the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson?
  • The reporter argues "discrimination may be resorted to at any time, anywhere, providing 'just as good' is furnished." What kind of discrimination exists even when equal accomadations are provided?