On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads. For some fifty years, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the principle of racial segregation. Across the country, laws mandated separate accommodations on buses and trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools.
The Court’s majority opinion denied that legalized segregation connoted inferiority. However, in a dissenting opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that segregation in public facilities smacked of servitude and abridged the principle of equality under the law.
In a speech delivered in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1886 and later published as The Black Laws, legislator Benjamin W. Arnett described life in segregated Ohio:
I have traveled in this free country for twenty hours without anything to eat; not because I had no money to pay for it, but because I was colored. Other passengers of a lighter hue had breakfast, dinner and supper. In traveling we are thrown in “jim crow” cars, denied the privilege of buying a berth in the sleeping coach.
This foe of my race stands at the school house door and separates the children, by reason of ‘color,’ and denies to those who have a visible admixture of African blood in them the blessings of a graded school and equal privileges… We call upon all friends of ‘Equal Rights’ to assist in this struggle to secure the blessings of untrammeled liberty for ourselves and posterity.
The Black Laws. Hon. B. W. Arnett of Greene County in the Ohio House of Representative, March 10, 1886. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Journal, 1886. African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
By the 1930s, the practice of racial segregation was widespread and vigorously maintained. When devastating floods hit Arkansas in 1937, for example, white refugees and black refugees were cared for in separate relief facilities. A series of Farm Security Administration photographs documenting the flood demonstrates the pervasive nature of segregation.
After hearing arguments by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court overruled the Plessy decision on May 17, 1954. In Brown v. the Board of Education, a unanimous Court adopted Justice Harlan’s position that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
- Search African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907 on segregation to locate primary source material pertaining to segregation. The Time Line of African American History lists significant dates in African-American history.
- Search on keywords such as fugitive or names such as Wendell Phillips in Slaves and the Courts, 1740 to 1860 to read more about the experiences of African and African-American slaves in the American colonies and the United States. Read, for example, Dred Scott vs. John F. A. Sandford.
- Search the collection a Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives on the terms colored, white, black or negro to find additional photographs documenting the era of segregation.
- The Supreme Court Opinions for both the Plessy (1896) and Brown (1954) cases are available online at FindLaw External.
Tour selected Library of Congress online exhibitions:
- African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture
- African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship
- With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty
The following online research tools provide additional resources on African Americans and segregation, black laws, and the Jim Crow era.