Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation


Introduction: Following the end of the Civil War and adoption of the 13th Amendment, white southerners were not happy with the end of slavery and the prospect of living or working “equally” with blacks whom they considered inferior. To try and maintain the status quo, the majority of states and local communities passed “Jim Crow” laws that mandated “separate but equal” status for African Americans.  These laws authorized legal punishments for consorting with the opposite race.Jim Crow Laws were statutes and ordinances established between 1874 and 1975 to separate the white and black races in the American South. In theory, it was to create “separate but equal” treatment but in practice Jim Crow Laws condemned black citizens to inferior treatment and facilities. Education was segregated as were public facilities such as hotels and restaurants under Jim Crow Laws. In reality, Jim Crow laws led to treatment and accommodations that were almost always inferior to those provided to white Americans.


Sign for the “colored” waiting room at a bus station in Durham, North Carolina, 1940
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ppmsc 00199

The most important Jim Crow laws required that public schools, public facilities, e.g., water fountains, toilets, and public transportation, like trains and buses, have separate facilities for whites and blacks. These laws meant that black people were legally required to:

• attend separate schools and churches
• use public bathrooms marked “for colored only”
• eat in a separate section of a restaurant
• sit in the rear of a bus

Background: The term “Jim Crow” originally referred to a black character in an old song, and was the name of a popular dance in the 1820s. Around 1828, Thomas “Daddy” Rice developed a routine in which he blacked his face, dressed in old clothes, and sang and danced in imitation of an old and decrepit black man. Rice published the words to the song, “Jump, Jim Crow,” in 1830.  Beginning in the 1880s, the term “Jim Crow” saw wide usage as a reference to practices, laws or institutions that arise from or sanction, the physical separation of black people from white people. Jim Crow laws in various states required the segregation of races in such common areas as restaurants and theaters. The “separate but equal” standard established by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Fergurson (1896) lent high judicial support to segregation.

A Montgomery, Alabama ordinance compelled black residents to take seats apart from whites on municipal buses. At the time, the “separate but equal” standard applied, but the actual separation practiced by the Montgomery City Lines was hardly equal. Montgomery bus operators were supposed to separate their coaches into two sections: whites up front and blacks in back. As more whites boarded, the white section was assumed to extend toward the back. On paper, the bus company’s policy was that the middle of the bus became the limit if all the seats farther back were occupied. Nevertheless, that was not the everyday reality. During the early 1950s, a white person never had to stand on a Montgomery bus. In addition, it frequently occurred that blacks boarding the bus were forced to stand in the back if all seats were taken there, even if seats were available in the white section.

The Beginning of the End of Segregation


Rosa Parks is fingerprinted at a police station after her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama.
Photo: U.S. Embassy The Hague through Creative Commons

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Louise Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005), a resident of Montgomery, Alabama refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s demand that she relinquish her seat to a white man. She was arrested, fingerprinted, and incarcerated. When Parks agreed to have her case contested, it became a cause célèbre in the fight against Jim Crow laws. Her trial for this act of civil disobedience triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history, and launched Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the organizers of the boycott, to the forefront of the civil rights movement that fostered peaceful protests to Jim Crow laws.

During the early 1960s numerous civil rights demonstrations and protests were held, particularly in the south. On February 1, 1960, after shopping for school supplies in a Woolworth department store in Greensboro, N.C, four black freshmen from North Carolina A & T College asked to be served at the store’s segregated lunch counter. The basic plan of the sit-ins was that a group of students would go to a lunch counter and ask to be served. If they were, they would move on to the next lunch counter. If they were not served they would not move until they had been. If they were arrested, a new group would take their place. The students always remained nonviolent and respectful. By August 1961, the movement had attracted over 70,000 participants and resulted in more than 3,000 arrests.


John F. Kennedy addresses nation on Civil Rights
Photo: Public Domain

Building on the success of the “sit-ins,” another type of protest was planned using “Freedom Riders.” The Freedom Riders were a volunteer group of men and women, black and white, young and old (many from university and college campuses) across the country who boarded buses, trains and planes bound for the deep south to challenge outdated laws and practices and the region’s non-compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities.

These and other civil rights demonstrations moved President John F. Kennedy to send to Congress a civil rights bill on June 19, 1963. The proposed legislation offered federal protection to African Americans seeking to vote, to shop, to eat out, and to be educated on equal terms.

To capitalize on the growing public support for the civil rights movement and to put pressure Congress to adopt civil rights legislation, a coalition of the major civil rights groups was formed to plan and organize a large national demonstration in the nation’s capital. The hope was to enlist a hundred thousand people to come to attend a March on Washington DC.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2011). Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/jim-crow-laws-andracial-segregation/


27 Responses to Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation

  1. Gary Smith says:

    Can anyone tell me if Greyhound buses had toilets in the buses in 1960? If so, did they have one for “colored” and one for “white” ? If they only had one toilet in the bus, could only the whites use it? Thanks!!!

  2. Sam says:

    The laws listed were great! Maybe more info on specific, straight foward laws.

  3. Sam says:

    I loved this source because it gave you specific laws. Maybe some more laws.

  4. sonnia says:

    all i need to know is when the jim crows law protest began and ended. i need help. please

    • jhansan says:

      After the Civil War Southern states enacted Jim Crow Laws. For example,the State of Tennessee enacted 20 Jim Crow laws between 1866 and 1955, including six requiring school segregation, four which outlawed miscegenation, three which segregated railroads, two requiring segregation for public accommodations, and one which mandated segregation on streetcars. The 1869 law declared that no citizen could be excluded from the University of Tennessee because of race or color but then mandated that instructional facilities for black students be separate from those used by white students. You will have to search for dates other Jim Crow Laws were enacted. Thank you, Jack Hansan

  5. […] Around 1828, Thomas “Daddy” Rice developed a routine in which he blacked his face, dressed in old clothes, and sang and danced in imitation of an old and decrepit black man. Rice published the words to the song, “Jump, Jim Crow,” in 1830. In the 1880s, the term “Jim Crow” (by now a derisive slang for a black man) saw wide usage as a reference to practices, laws or institutions that arise from or sanction, the physical separation of black people from white people.(1) […]

  6. qwerty says:

    I need information about segregation in restaurants, schools(education), and buses. Thanks

  7. taylor says:

    this is a very good source for jim crow laws especially for school research projects

  8. […] overruled because of that. One of these cases introduced the ‘separate but equal’ policy, and racial segregation began. Black people, and all colored people, could not share many facilities, like schools, water […]

  9. admin says:

    WF: The best answer is to Google MLA style book. Jack Hansan

  10. David W says:

    Last night I watched the movie “Race” about Jesse Owens. Early in the movie, there is a scene showing Owens boarding a bus in Cleveland, Ohio and sitting in the segregated section at the rear of the bus. I know that this was the practice of bus and railroad companies serving southern states, but did northern intercity carriers also segregate accommodations during the 1930s? I tried, unsuccessfully, researching this on the Internet.

    Thanks, in advance, for any information you can provide.

    • admin says:

      Dear David: Like you, I did not realize there was such segregation policies in effect in Northern States. I will look into it when I have the opportunity. In the meantime, you might find some more information on the web site “www.blackpast.org.” Good hunting, Jack Hansan

  11. admin says:

    Dear Taniyah Davis: The SWH Project is not the source for what you requested. My suggestion is you Google the matter you want to explore further and follow the leads provided. Regards, Jack Hansan

  12. admin says:

    My best suggestion is to “Google” the subject and do the research for what you are seeking. Best wishes, JEH

  13. lilla says:

    im in school and have to do the jim crow laws which i think is really sad

  14. James Lee Roy Allison Jr says:

    Was this just in the south? How about the north, or the west?

    • jhansan says:

      As described in the article the creation of “Jim Crow” legislation and policies were a product of the Southern states defeated in the Civil War. While it is possible there were similar practices of discrimination in isolation on minorities in other states, such as Native Americans and recent immigrants,those practices do not fit the definition of Jim Crow racial discrimination. For more information, I suggest you search the files of BlackPast or Google “history of racial discrimination”. Best wishes, Jack Hansan

  15. cvaSM Nxv mdv says:

    thanks this has been proven very helpful thatnks for the tme nd efort tht yo pt n ths pper

  16. Jackie Kaplan says:

    As mentioned, racial segregation was required in southern states in laws enacted thru 1890. The north did not have such laws, though trains from New York to the south had segregated seating even as they left New York. Most fine restaurant and hotels in the north would not serve blacks, even though it wasn’t required by law. And I don’t believe air travel was ever segregated, even purely within the south, as the laws were developed before air travel and not many blacks (or even whites) could afford air travel.

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