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The False Opportunity and Real Hope in Jim Crow’s America

What does it mean to be Jim Crowed? The answer touches the lives of generations of Black Americans, mine included.

Juke joints gave Black people a respite from the white man in the time of Jim Crow. Since the white man was not present or within earshot, the Black community was emboldened to talk back to “the Man” — a pejorative term for the white man. For example, James Cone tells the story in his revealing book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, about Alabamian bluesman Charles Edward “Cow Cow” Davenport, who belted, out of the earshot of white men, his 1927 song, the “Jim Crow Blues”:

I’m tired of being Jim Crowed, // Gonna leave Jim Crow town.  

What does it mean to be Jim Crowed? The answer touches the lives of generations of Black Americans, mine included.

The Jim Crowed Culture

“Jim Crow” became the label for racial segregation laws in the South that started at the end of Reconstruction (1877) and ended with the start of the Civil Rights Moment in the 1950s. The nomenclature, Jim Crow, was derived from a minstrel routine of white men in blackface, while depicting enslaved people dancing and singing. The routine creator’s was Jim Crow. The term Jim Crow became a symbol of segregation for African Americans due to its incarnation as an enforced racial hierarchical ideology. Jim Crow touted a racial apartheid buttressed by a “separate-but-equal” doctrine with accompanying policies to animate and maintain it. And thanks to the highest court of the land, this doctrine became legally enshrined in the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson.

Plaintiff Homer Plessy bought a train ticket from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana, and sat in the whites-only car. Refusing to move to the car where Black people sat, the police dragged Plessy from the train, and arrested him. He sued the railroad, arguing that segregation was illegal under the 14th Amendment, which, ratified in 1868, ensured equal protection for the formerly enslaved. However, the Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that “separate but equal” was all that was required of the railroad under the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The law guaranteed, according to legal historian Juan Williams in his book Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, all Americans the right to public accommodations but did not outlaw segregation.

This decision validated the system of segregation. Representing the day-to-day segregation of Black and white, cities, towns, and states passed statutes and ordinances that legitimized the Jim Crowed culture. Peppering this cultural landscape were Jim Crow schools, restaurants, churches, water fountains, and unions — all spaces where Black people were excluded by law and common practice.

Jim Crow Social Etiquette

Under Jim Crow, explains James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “You don’t act in a way to make white persons feel that you don’t know they are white.” Black people were expected to give utmost deference to white people by tipping their hats when they walked past them and by “standing upright and looking a white person in the eye,” he continues. Deference etiquette was not reciprocal as white people did not have to remove their hats even when they entered a Black family’s home. Most importantly, “these formal and informal norms were the heart of a system of racial apartheid in work and every other social institution,” as Kathryn Loscocco writes in Race and Work. For example, in South Carolina Black and white cotton-mill workers were prohibited from looking out the same window. Under this Jim Crowed culture, if a Black person’s body movement was perceived to be insufficiently deferential, that could prompt a beating or even death by lynching.

Lynching “events” occurred from 1880 to 1940; and these events, sometimes publicized days in advance, maintained the Jim Crow social order. “Lynching,” writes Cone, was the main weapon to “keep the race terrorized and to keep the nigger down.” The terror of lynchings, spatial restriction, political oppression, and economic deprivation framed the common experience of millions of African Americans in the first decades of the 20th century.

Daily Work Life Under Jim Crow

In this “separate-but-equal” culture, prior to the 1930s, the overall unemployment rate for Black Americans differed little from that of white Americans. That’s the good news; the bad news — Black Americans earned substantially less than white Americans. Nonetheless, the Jim Crow ideology created a racial hierarchy, which birthed an ugly offspring: occupational hierarchy. By transferring the race hierarchy into occupational settings and using white culture and courts to justify it, U.S. society cemented African-American men and women into low-paying and under-valued jobs.

It should be noted that some Black Americans  did attend college and ascend to the ranks of the middle class, and landed jobs as social workers, lawyers, and teachers. Some were inventors and obtained patents. However, Lisa Cook emphasizes that “hate-related violence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries depressed economic activity, as measured by patent activity, by one percent per year, or the equivalent of a year’s worth of total U.S. patent activity, among African Americans.” Specifically, “this violence would have implied a fall of 40 percent and greater volatility in output among most U.S. inventors during that period,” she writes. Some were scientists, like George Washington Carver; some served the judicial system, like Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed to the Supreme Court; some became academics like W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr.; some were accomplished entrepreneurs like Madam C. J. Walker; some were literary geniuses, like the poet Langston Hughes; some were physicians, like Dr. Charles Drew who developed ways to store blood plasma; and some became Olympians like Matthew “Mack” Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s older brother. Yet for most, this hierarchy determined that African Americans would continue working at the bottom of the social chain for years to come.

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Jim Crow ideology created a racial hierarchy, which birthed an ugly offspring: occupational hierarchy. By transferring the race hierarchy into occupational settings and using white culture and courts to justify it, U.S. society cemented African-American men and women into low-paying and under-valued jobs.

Work Permitted by Master Crow

African Americans engaged in a variety of types of work under Jim Crow. Sharecropping, farming, laundering, physical work, and entrepreneurship were the most prevalent during this era.

Sharecropping: Slavery Continued

When slavery was outlawed, it was replaced with sharecropping. This, along with Jim Crow segregation, proved just as problematic. Just as slave labor was free, sharecropping afforded Southern plantation owners continued access to free labor through the exploitation of Black workers.

Following the Civil War, and intensifying after Reconstruction, a sharecropping system of indentured servitude emerged and perpetuated aspects of the outlawed slave system. After subtracting food and other “living costs” from their earnings, sharecroppers typically owed their plantation owners more than they made. Local sheriffs partnered with white merchants and plantation owners, preventing sharecroppers from seeking work elsewhere by arresting, assaulting, or even murdering those who attempted to leave. Despite these immense challenges, many Black families nonetheless did endeavor to own and farm their own land.


Driven by what W. E. B. DuBois called “land hunger,” many Black workers in the South, writes Vann R. Newkirk, “squirreled away money and went after every available and affordable plot they could, no matter how marginal or hopeless” and ventured into farming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 25,000 Black farm operators in 1910, an increase of almost 20 percent from 1900. However, this was never a secure foothold.

Black-owned farms were smaller and poorer than white-owned farms, and often more vulnerable to weather and technological and economic change. The Farm Security Administration (FSA), established under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1937, was formed to help small farmers. However, white administrators of the FSA denied loans to Black people. Black farmers saw their rejection rates increase after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. And from 1950 to 1975, half a million Black-owned farms across the country failed. By 1980, Black farmers were no longer overrepresented in agriculture.

Least Desirable and Backbreaking Work

To try to escape sharecropping and fear/mistreatment in the South, and to find work, African Americans began the “Great Migration,” moving from the rural South to cities in the industrialized North throughout the 20th century. In 1910, nearly 89 percent of African Americans lived in the 16 states constituting the three Southern census regions. By 1950, this proportion had fallen to 68 percent because of migration. Many found work, yet this was no panacea. Rather, the least desirable and backbreaking jobs were reserved for Black men and women. In St. Louis, according to Joseph Heathcott, “when Black men did find berths in the industrial economy, it was nearly always in marginal positions, as dray wagoneers, night-soil collectors, ditch diggers, blast furnace operators, cola and rag collectors, and riverfront roustabouts.”

Some African-American men worked for the railroad. However, explains Paul Taillon, “these workers faced tremendous hurdles to occupational advancement and encountered corporate policies restricting them to ‘Black-only’ positions involving the heaviest, least pleasant, and least-remunerative work. In the instance where they performed the same labor as whites, Black workers earned less for the same work.” To keep Black workers in these positions, unions excluded them from membership. While African-American men did gain a foothold in the industrial economy, they were also very vulnerable. As the Great Depression of the 1930s deepened, Black workers were the first to be fired, often paving the way for unemployed whites to get work.

Domestic Servants

When Southern Black women and men left their homes and families in search of better jobs to ensure better lives, they found few opportunities. Worse still, employers preferred immigrant groups to Black workers who were stigmatized by the ideology of slavery. When Black women did find employment, it was nearly always in domestic service or laundering. Of this low-paying, menial work, “30 percent, in 1900, were domestic servants.” These laundresses, hidden figures of the Civil Rights Movement, cleaned white homes. My maternal grandmother, Jane Braddock (known to us as “Mama Jane”), was a domestic servant; she cleaned the homes of well-to-do white residents around Kansas City, Missouri. The popular book and film The Help depicts these domestic servants assisting in the rearing of white kids.

Resilient Entrepreneurs

Some Blacks’ entrepreneurial activity began with the purchase of their freedom from slavery, such as Frederick Douglass, who bought his freedom, and Free Frank, who established a successful mining and manufacturing business, managed his owner’s farm and established his own, and eventually made enough money to purchase his wife’s and then his own freedom. In the early 20th century, national leaders such as DuBois and Booker T. Washington urged a kind of ethnic entrepreneurship, encouraging the development and patronage of Black-owned businesses in an effort to combat the economic forces that kept many Black people from achieving their potential.

My paternal grandfather, Henry Bobo, a WWII vet who owned and operated his own bricklayer business, provided services to prosperous whites in Kansas City, Kansas. While my grandfather was working, Willa Mae, his wife and my grandmother, standing a mere 4 feet, 11 inches, often protested a downtown convenience store for not integrating its lunch counter.

A spirit of entrepreneurship among Black Americans spread and blossomed in many areas and industries across the country. Author Mary Beth Mathews, a scholar of religion in the South, records how Edmund H. Ironside founded the Dallas Colored Bible Institute in the mid-1920s to train Black men for the ministry.

The famed Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is another shining example of entrepreneurship. In 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa was a thriving business and cultural community. Enterprising Black citizens had taken the opportunity offered by Tulsa’s oil boom and created an area that was unapologetically Black. The streets were lined with suited Black patrons, banks, theaters, libraries, newspapers, hotels, hospitals, nightclubs, and a better school system than those in nearby white districts. This bustling business district also served as an antithesis to the culturally scripted Jim Crow lie that portrayed Black people as lazy and less than human, and whites as morally superior.

Sadly, in 16 hours, this once vibrant district was destroyed by mobs of jealous and angry white men, in what has been called the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

The sheer number and variety of Black-owned businesses in the post-Civil War South speaks volumes to the creativity, resiliency, intelligence, and work ethic of Black men and women. With the advent of Jim Crow laws, Black-owned businesses catered to “their own” and flourished. Despite legal sanctions, despite violence, despite being prohibited from learning to read or write or gather together, the number of Black-owned businesses doubled between 1900 and 1914. Christened the “Golden Years of Black Capitalism,” between 1919 and 1929, there were over 70,000 Black-owned firms, including barbershops and beauty parlors, laundries, funeral parlors, newspapers, and banks.

Under the thumb of Jim Crow, every facet of life was truly a grind for those gifted with melanin-rich skin. Jim Crow laws were developed and enforced locally, but the federal government added reinforcement. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s New Deal instituted a bundle of white advantages, solidifying racial residential segregation and education disparities that would reverberate for generations. Racial segregation was sustained by real estate agents’ steerage, banks’ redlining practices, and neighborhood associations’ restrictive covenants. Such practices squelched the opportunity for African Americans to develop wealth via homeownership.

Yet, Black communities could count on one inclusive institution for a respite from their Jim Crow blues: the Black church.

A Refuge Against Jim Crow and an Urgent Call

During Jim Crow, the Black Church was a community where Blacks could expect to be treated with dignity and respect, and served as a refuge from the indignities of living in a Jim Crow culture. Then as now, with her emphasis on lived-out Christianity, the Black church played and continues to play a huge role for African Americans’ resiliency, creativity, and stubborn hopefulness.

Mathews, in her 2017 book Doctrine and Race, also notes how the Black church, serving as a symbol of defiance, is also “an interstitial space in which to critique and contest America’s racial dominations.” A relentless commitment to racial justice and equity remains atop her agenda because although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed Jim Crow laws, remnants of these laws linger in our criminal justice system, in housing, and in the workplace. The Black church is not solo in her effort to strive for justice and occupational equity. She collaborates with such partners as the Urban League and the NAACP, as these organizations continue to press for racial and occupational justice. The Black church also desires to partner with her white brothers and sisters in this work. In the words of a colleague, the Black church earnestly desires the white church to learn, lament, and launch to reform existing
racist institutions.

The Black church believes the lyrics of “We Shall Overcome”: we shall overcome; deep in our heart, we do believe. However, overcoming will require all members of the church to use their privilege, power, and purse for the common good. How might this look? A financially well-resourced church might consider underwriting the college expenses of an academically qualified African-American student.  A church resourced with health care professionals might consider offering health screening for those with no or meager health care coverage. A church well-resourced with car mechanics could offer car maintenance services to those who cannot pay the exorbitant service costs at a car dealership. The ways to use one’s purse, privilege, and power are endless with a large measure of Holy Spirit-enabled imagination for the common good — the most good for all people.

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