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

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.

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