The Lasting Injustice of Jim Crow Part 3 of 5
Welcome to part three of the five part Denver Urban Spectrum series: “Our 400 Year American Sojourn” A Chronicle of Pain, Suffering, Struggle, Resistance and Ultimate Triumph. In parts one and two, Alfonzo Porter and Ruby Jones scribed magnificently about 1619-Emancipation and Reconstruction, respectively. Ushering in the next chronicle of our history is the Jim Crow era. An era best defined by pain, suffering and struggle.
The “separate but equal” narrative that is synonymous with the Jim Crow era of American history is only part of the story. The Jim Crow era and the racial segregation that underpinned it was not just designed to make African Americans feel inferior but the objective of was to legally strip away our humanity in every quantifiable way imaginable.
Jim Crow was a racial caste system, which operated primarily in the southern United States between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It represented the legalization of Black oppression. In the south Jim Crow laws were a continuation of what was once known as the “Black Codes.” The codes were post-Civil War laws designed with the intent to restrict the rights, freedom and economic independence of African-Americans.
The term “Jim Crow” derived from pathetic minstrel show performer Thomas D. Rice and his character “Jim Crow” which he performed routinely across the south in a popular song-and-dance act called “Jump Jim Crow.” Rice would don blackface and gavotte about like a buffoon to the delight of White audiences in the United States as well as overseas. Because of his performances, Rice obtained a significant amount of popularity domestically, especially in the south where his comedic pejorative, “Jim Crow” went from being tongue and cheek to the law of the land.
Plessy v. Ferguson
In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed the “Separate Car Act,” which required separate accommodations for Blacks and Whites on railroads, including separate railway cars
Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the case, was seven-eighths White andone-eighthBlack, and had the appearance of a White man. On June 7, 1892, he purchased a first-class ticket for a trip between New Orleans and Covington, La., Plessy took possession of a vacant seat in a White-only car. He was arrested and imprisoned; Plessy was brought to trial in a New Orleans court and convicted of violating the 1890 law. He then filed a petition against the judge in that trial, John H. Ferguson, at the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that the segregation law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from denying “to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” as well as the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery.
The court ruled that, while the object of the Fourteenth Amendment was to create “absolute equality of the two races before the law,” such equality extended only so far as political and civil rights (e.g., voting and serving on juries), not “social rights” (e.g., sitting in a railway car one chooses).
The Plessy v. Ferguson verdict enshrined the doctrine of “separate but equal” as a constitutional justification for segregation, ensuring the survival of the Jim Crow south for the next half-century.
The lasting vestiges of the Jim Crow era included numerous images of well-kept segregated restaurants, hospitals, and schools with “Whites Only” signs plastered everywhere. These photographs were often juxtaposed against “Colored Only” signs that hung above pictures of by comparison and were little more than spigots and shacks. While viewing the images is painful in and of itself, rarely do we ask how those structures came to be. Like most things in America, they were built on the backs of African Americans. It is a well-known but seldom discussedfact that Black people rebuilt the postwar south through convict leasing.
Convict leasing was a system that allowed private companies to lease felony prisoners from the state for a fee. “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War” by author Douglas A. Blackmon describes the practice:
“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the biddingofWhite masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”
Between 1866 and 1928, every Southern state in America practiced convict leasing.
A minor or fabricated charge could cost an individual life in prison. Approximately 90 percent of all leased prisoners were black men; three percent were black women. They built railroads, cut sugarcane, made bricks and mined coal. Convict leasing had an extremely clear financial incentive. Author and professor Talitha LeFlouriaestimates that on a national level, states that did not utilize the convict lease system earned only 32 percent of their overall expenses, while those that did exploit convict labor earned 267 percent.
The African American convicts often suffered indignities that were not much different from slaves. They were beaten, raped and literally worked to death. Oftentimes once the “prisoner” died, they were buried in a shadow grave, disregarded like the piece of property the state considered them to be. As of 2018, they are still finding bodies of leased (enslaved) convicts, like the Sugar Land 95.
In February 2018, the Fort Bend Independent School District was ramping up construction of a career and technical education center in Sugar Land, TX.
While doing backhoe work, a construction worker unearthed what appeared to be human remains. During the next few months, the remains of 95 people were exhumed. An examination of the remains determined they were more likely Black convict leasing victims because the site was also once a Plantation as well.
Unfortunately, the story of the Sugar Land 95 is not an outlier. The southern United States are filed with unmarried graves, populated with the remains of what were once beautiful, Black people. Writing this section of the piece made my heart and eyes weep with deep sorrow because if history has taught us anything, it is that society views Black people as nameless, faceless and disposable. The only thing those so-called convicts were guilty of, was being Black in America – which ultimately cost them their lives.
“Black Wall Street” & “Rosewood”
One of the hallmarks ofJim Crow era was the physical oppression of White people viewed it as their God given duty to keep “Blacks in their place” using violent action. The physical oppression was part of a multi-pronged attack to ensure socioeconomic suppression amongst the African American community. In a capitalist society economic independence, especially by a minority group represents a threat to those in power. During the Jim Crow era, White people were willing to scorch the nation to keep Blacks from economic independence.
Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District was once dubbed the “Black Wall Street” in the early1900’s. The centerpiece of that district was Greenwood Avenue, a 35-square block district lined with hotels, restaurants, barbershops, and early 200 businesses total – all Black owned and operated, and financially independent from White society. That changed dramatically during Memorial Day weekend in 1921. A race riot erupted, one of the most violent and destructive in American history. The entire community was burned to the ground in two days’ time. An estimated 300 African Americans lost their lives in the riots and about another 10,000 were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property ($32 million in 2019).
Two years later in 1923, the same thing happened in Rosewood, Florida. The events of the tragedy that occurred in Rosewood were made into a 1997 feature film by John Singleton. Rosewood, just like Tulsa was a thriving, self-sufficient, African-American community until the first week of January 1923, a “dispute” led to a race riot and the town of Rosewood was burned to the ground. An estimated 100-150 Black people lost their lives and homes, the ones who did survive sought refuge in other nearby cities.
While too broad to explore here, there was also the Red
Summer of 1919 where several race riots erupted in Chicago and Washington DC destroying several prominent, thriving African-American communities in the process.
Jim Crow lives on
“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is an inherent power system built into racism and segregation. Jim Crow laws codified and made institutionalized racism and discrimination acceptable. While Jim Crow laws have been repealed, the tentacles from the oppressive system that was Jim Crow, still has its hooks deep into many elements of the African American experience.
Recently a college admissions scandal rocked mainstream America, rich White people had the audacity to use their resources to bribe, lie and cheat their offspring into prestigious universities. What the mainstream media neglected to report is how Black kids have been deprived since the Jim Crow era from equal academic opportunities, because of Redlining.
Established in New York during the1930’s, redlining was (is) a discriminatory pattern of disinvestment and obstructive lending practices that act as an impediment to home ownership in certain neighborhoods, often neighborhoods populated by African Americans and other minorities. The term came from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). Property appraisers would draw a red line on a map around less than ideal neighborhoods, a warning that the area should be avoided.
Banks used the concept to deny loans to homeowners and would-be homeowners who lived in these neighborhoods. This in turn resulted in neighborhood economic decline and the withholding of maintenance and upkeep services. Since the federal government sponsored HOLC, the damaging impact of Redlining was felt across the United States. The decimating effects of which, continue to undermine the development of the Black communities from both a housing and educational perspective. Since the funding of public schools is tied in part to local property taxes, homes in Redlined communities are at an instant disadvantage because they are undervalued.
A recent study by the Brookings Institute shows that homes in Black neighborhoods are, on average, have values 25 percent lower than homes in White neighborhoods, even if the homes have similar characteristics and the neighborhoods have similar amenities, crime rates and resources.
Furthermore, a 2019 study byEdbuild, a nonprofit organization that focuses on fairness in the funding of public schools, documented that public schools serving minority students receive $23 billion less in funding than schools that serve students a majority of White students. The study also highlighted the fact that the average minority school district receives $2,226 less per student than a White school district. Even though Redlining was banned five decades ago, the punitive effects of the practice still disproportionately affect African Americans and our youth.
This piece has been difficult to write for a variety of reasons. I could write from now until the moment I draw my final breath and never completely articulate the breadth and damage done to the African American community from Jim Crow laws. The era was a multiphase physical and socio-economic attack; from housing to education to economic independence. Jim Crow laws sought to dehumanize, disenfranchise and immobilize Black people in America. But it didn’t work, undeterred by obstacles, and through pain unparalleled the African Americans of that era soldiered on, coping and adapting to survive.
Whether it be 1619 or 2019 every era of our sojourn is threaded together by our collective resilience.