"Separate But Equal" - Segregation - 1877 to 1954

The official end of the Reconstruction period was 1877, when Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated in exchange for removing Federal troops from Democratic Southern states and ignoring the spread of white supremacy. Southern legislators began enacting the nation's first segregation laws, known as "Jim Crow" laws. The name "Jim Crow" was taken from a blackface minstrel routine written in 1830 by a white guy named Thomas "Daddy" Rice. Rice smeared burnt cork all over his face and flopped around singing "Jump Jim Crow," becoming one of the first successful minstrel performers who made his living off racist buffoonery and stereotypes.


"Jim Crow" laws were designed to divide and separate. By 1885, most Southern states had laws requiring separate schools for Black and white students, and by 1900 "persons of color" were required to be separated from white people in railroad cars, buses, schools, hotels, theaters, swimming pools, restaurants, barbershops, and many other establishments. To reiterate, 120 years ago it was ILLEGAL in the United States of America to be Black and even walk in to these buildings if white people were using them.


In 1890, one such law passed in Louisiana, which mandated "separate railway carriages for the white and colored races." A resistance to these laws was mounting, and in 1892, a man named Homer Adolph Plessy agreed to be the public face of resistance to this particular law. Plessy described himself as mixed race, being "seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood." Plessy bought a train ticket for a trip from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana and sat down in a whites-only car. The conductor insisted he move, and Plessy refused. He was arrested and taken to jail. Plessy was found guilty of violating the 1890 railroad segregation law. He filed a petition against the judge that convicted him, John Ferguson, stating that the law in question violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. His case rose to the Supreme Court and became the first major test of the 14th Amendment's assertion of full and equal citizenship to Black Americans. In May 1896, the Supreme Court rendered their decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The verdict declared "separate-but-equal" facilities were constitutional because the 14th amendment only applied to political rights like voting and jury duty, not "social rights" like sitting in a railroad car. The "equal" part was key to the Court's ruling, as Justice Henry Brown wrote, "We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy's] argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." The only person dissenting was Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former enslaver from Kentucky. He had previously opposed emancipation and civil rights but changed his mind when confronted with the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Harlan argued in his dissent that "the arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds." Because of this decision, segregation by race would continue to be the legal precedent in America until 1954.


In August 1908, a rumor spread through Springfield, Illinois that two white women had been assaulted by two different Black men on the same day. The Springfield Police arrested a homeless man named Joe James for one assault and a factory worker named George Richardson for the second. A mob of 3,000 white men gathered outside the courthouse, waiting for the accused men to be released so they could lynch them. The sheriff, Charles Werner, ordered firemen to respond to a fake fire near the area. While the mob was distracted with the news of the fire and the engines roaring by, Werner ordered that the two prisoners be transferred to a jail in a different town for their safety. When the ruse was discovered, the mob was enraged. They turned their ire toward the man who drove the prisoners out of town, a wealthy restauranteur named Harry Loper who served Black patrons at his establishment. The mob destroyed Loper's restaurant, throwing tables and chairs into the street, and flipped over his car, igniting the gas tank and setting it on fire. Sheriff Werner sent 10 militiamen to the scene. The 10 soldiers could not stop the mob (nor did they try), and the mob moved on to destroy a movie theater also owned by Loper, a pawn shop owned by a Jewish man. The mob took weapons from the pawn shop and stole weapons from any officers they encountered. By 11pm, the sound of gunfire was unceasing.

The mob turned their violence towards Black businesses, destroying a total of forty homes and 15 Black businesses including barbershops, bicycle shops, churches, and saloons. Six saloons were torn apart and burned after the mob drank all the liquor inside. They went to hotels, dragged out Black customers, and beat them in the streets. One Black man ran away from the mob into a hall where a political candidate was giving a speech. The candidate said he would shoot anyone who tried to harm the Black man, and someone in the crowd threw a brick at his head and knocked the candidate down, starting a brawl between the mob and the constituents in the hall. White people hung white clothing and "whites live here" signs from their windows for protection.

The mob grew to over 10,000 people and moved on to "The Badlands," a poor, all-Black neighborhood where they began to set homes on fire, occasionally forcing the occupants to stay inside. They prevented firefighters from reaching the burning homes and slashed the hoses of any who made it in. Scott Burton was in his home with his family, and at 2:30am mob members gathered outside his home screaming they would kill all of them. Burton fired a single warning shot over the crowd, and they broke inside and beat him with bottles and axes. They dragged him outside to a tree near the barbershop he owned and hanged him. The mob shot his body 30 times and allowed children to swing him back and forth. They then burned down his barbershop. The state's governor later suggested Burton was responsible for his own death by angering the mob with his warning shot. Elsewhere in the city as Burton was being killed, the state and federal militia finally arrived and began firing at the mob to disperse them, against the orders of Sheriff Werner.

The next day, a total of 3700 troops were in the city along with around 10,000 white tourists who had come to see what all the fuss was about. Many surviving Black citizens had fled to fields adjacent to the city. A new mob formed from white citizens and tourists and headed to the home of William Donnegan. Donnegan was 80 years-old, and a very prominent Black citizen. He had been married to an Irish-German woman for 30 years, owned his own home and several businesses, lived in a white neighborhood, was once a friend of Abraham Lincoln, and formerly worked the Underground Railroad. His family had called for help much earlier but the sheriff ignored their calls. The mob entered Donnegan's home immediately and fired their guns. His family escaped through a back exit, but Donnegan had severe rheumatoid arthritis and could not follow them. The mob ripped him from his home and threw bricks and stones at him. He stood up through the bricks and beatings, but finally fell when someone slashed his throat with a razor. The mob dragged him across the street to a school yard- just two blocks away from the governor's mansion- and hung him with a clothesline. They tried to walk back to his house to set it on fire, but militiamen finally arrived and chased them away. Donnegan was alive when the militia arrived, he died the next morning at St. John's hospital.

It is unknown how many Black citizens lost their lives and livelihoods during this hideous race riot. Including Mr. Burton and Mr. Donnegan, at least seven Black residents were killed. Five white men were also killed- all by other white mob members or by the state militia. It is estimated that 2,000 of the city's 2,700 Black citizens fled and became refugees. Most were denied any assistance from those in neighboring towns, such as Buffalo, Jacksonville, Peoria, and Sterling. Police would gather at train stations to prevent refugees from exiting the trains.

After the riot, Mabel Hallam, the accuser in the second assault case, admitted that she made up the allegations that George Richardson had raped her. All charges against him were dropped.

Six months after the riots, in February 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded, largely in response to the Springfield Race Riots by a group including W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey, and Ida B. Wells. The purpose of the organization was to ensure the "political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights" for all persons.


The "Great Migration" from 1910 to 1920 saw some 300,000 Black people moving from the South to the North. In 1915, severe weather disasters put many Black farmers out of work, and Northern factories needed cheap labor as World War I caused a dramatic decrease in immigration.


The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem was meant to be an upper-middle class white neighborhood in the 1880s. In the early 1900s, several middle-class Black families moved into the neighborhood. Overdevelopment had led to empty buildings, so despite calls from white neighbors to stop Black citizens from moving in, the landlords in the area were happy to have them. White people in the area moved out, and more Black families moved in. The 1920s were the time of the Harlem Renaissance. A cultural revolution took place, and the first major works released from Harlem during this time were poetry and literature. Harlem Shadows, Cane, The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, There is Confusion, and God's Trombones were all released by 1924. Magazines were created, including The Crisis and Opportunity. Jazz music was transformed in Harlem speakeasies. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Walker, and Cab Calloway all regularly performed in Harlem. The Savoy opened in 1927, in integrated ballroom with two bandstands that blasted jazz and had people dancing past midnight. It became fashionable for white people to experience Black culture and nightlife, but some didn't want to actually socialize with them, so clubs like the Cotton Club opened in response, which was for Black performers and white patrons. Important Black artists and performers with roots in Harlem include Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Aaron Douglas, and Augusta Savage. The end of the Harlem Renaissance coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. By 1935, many middle class Harlem residents had moved out to find work, and were replaced by refugees from the South who needed public assistance. The Harlem Race Riot of 1935 broke out after a 16 year-old Black-Puerto Rican boy from Harlem was caught stealing a penknife from a dime store across the street from the Apollo Theater. The owner of the store called the police, and by the time the arrived a crowd had gathered outside. The shopkeeper asked the police to let the boy go because he was afraid of the crowd. The police agreed and the boy left through the store's back entrance. The crowd was not informed of this, and a rumor spread that the boy had been killed by the police. More than 10,000 people took to the streets in protest, and rage and frustration boiled over into rioting and looting. 3 dead, 100 injured, and 125 arrests were the result of the two day riot.


Most Americans suffered during the Great Depression, but like so many other instances in our history it was much harder to be Black. Black people were not allowed into unions, so they were the last hired and the first fired. They dealt with redlining policies (they were only allowed to rent and buy homes in certain neighborhoods that white people didn't want to live in), and far higher rents. In addition to being kept from steady employment and housing, streets, playgrounds, schools, and other public facilities were badly neglected in Black neighborhoods.


During World War II, over 2.5 million Black men willingly registered for the draft. Many Black women signed up to volunteer, but the army only allowed 48 nurses to enlist. Black soldiers were segregated, but earned high honors for bravery and served with distinction. Doris Miller was the first Black man to receive the honor of the Navy Cross, which he earned by voluntarily manning an anti-aircraft gun during the attack of Pearl Harbor even though no one had ever shown him how to use it.


In the early 1950s, the NAACP had already filed many lawsuits challenging school segregation on behalf of clients across the South. They had won three cases, in which individual students were admitted to schools, but the Court declined to reconsider the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and "separate but equal" remained the law of the land. The most famous school segregation case was brought against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas with a plaintiff named Oliver Brown. In 1951, Brown's 7 year-old daughter, Linda, had been denied entry to the all-white elementary school near her home. Linda had to walk six blocks to catch a bus to her school, when the all-white school was seven blocks from her home. In the lawsuit, Brown alleged that school segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which asserts that no state can "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The U.S. District Court of Kansas agreed, and said segregation had a "detrimental effect upon the colored children," but the doctrine of "separate but equal" was upheld. Brown's case was combined with four others and rose to the Supreme Court under the name Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Thurgood Marshall was the chief attorney for the plaintiffs and the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (Thirteen years later he would become the first Black Supreme Court justice.) The sitting Chief Justice, Fred Vinson, indicated he would uphold the Plessy verdict, but he died in 1953. President Dwight Eisenhower replaced him with Earl Warren, the then governor of California. Warren succeeded in pulling a unanimous verdict against school segregation in 1954. In the decision, he wrote, "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place, as segregated schools are inherently unequal." The court ruled that the plaintiffs, and millions of other Black children, were being deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Although this decision did not end segregation on its own, it was a powerful motivator and helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement.


Desegregation was met with hostility and many times violence, as we will see over the next few years leading up to the third Civil Rights Act of 1964.




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