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Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation

Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation


Introduction: Immediately following the Civil War and adoption of the 13th Amendment, most states of the former Confederacy adopted Black Codes, laws modeled on former slave laws. These laws were intended to limit the new freedom of emancipated African Americans by restricting their movement and by forcing them into a labor economy based on low wages and debt. Vagrancy laws allowed blacks to be arrested for minor infractions. A system of penal labor known as convict leasing was established at this time. Black men convicted for vagrancy would be used as unpaid laborers, and thus effectively re-enslaved.

Convict labor at the State Lime Grinding Plant, Virginia
Convict labor at the State Lime Grinding Plant, Virginia
Virginia; Its Agricultural and Industrial Resources, 1914

The Black Codes outraged public opinion in the North and resulted in Congress placing the former Confederate states under Army occupation during Reconstruction. Nevertheless, many laws restricting the freedom of African Americans remained on the books for years. The Black Codes laid the foundation for the system of laws and customs supporting a system of white supremacy that would be known as Jim Crow.

The majority of states and local communities passed “Jim Crow” laws that mandated “separate but equal” status for African Americans.  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
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, a minstrel show performer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice developed a routine in which he blacked his face, sang and danced in imitation of an old black man in ragged clothes. By the early 1830s, Rice’s character became tremendously popular, and eventually gave its name to a stereotypical negative view of African Americans as uneducated, shiftless, and dishonest.

Beginning in the 1880s, the term Jim Crow was used as a reference to practices, laws or institutions related to 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) supported racial segregation for public facilities across the nation.

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.
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, 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 manager refused, and the young men remained seated until closing time. The next day, the protesters returned with 15 other students, and the third day with 300. Before long the idea of nonviolent sit-in protests spread across the country.

ohn F. Kennedy addresses nation on Civil Rights
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 activists: men and women, black and white (many from university and college campuses) who roade interstate buses into the deep south to challenge the region’s non-compliance with U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia) that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored most Freedom Rides, but some were also organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

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.

Eventually, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act made racial segregation and discrimination illegal. The impact of the long history of Jim Crow, however, continues to be felt and assessed in the United States.

For further reading:

Blackmon, D. A. (2008), Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Brown, N. L. M., & Stentiford, B. M. (Eds). (2014). Jim Crow: A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

Editorial Board(2018)Documenting ‘Slavery by Another Name’ in Texas. An African-American burial ground recently unearthed in Texas reveals details about an ugly chapter in the history of the American South. The New York Times, April 13, 2018. Retrieved from

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI.  Virtual tour. From website, “The Museum uses objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote a more just society.”

Kruesi, K. (2022 October 20). Slavery is on the ballot for voters in 5 US states. Associated Press News

Slavery by Another Name. (Documentary film)

Morrison, A. (2020 December 2). US lawmakers unveil anti-slavery constitutional amendment. Associated Press News.

Virginia Writers Project. (1940) The Negro in Virginia. New York: Hastings House. (See especially Chapter XXII, Black Laws).

Woodward, C. V. (1966). The Strange Career of Jim Crow. (2nd rev. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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33 Replies to “Jim Crow Laws and Racial Segregation”

  1. How did Jim Crow laws affect black business owners? Were they allowed to operate in white areas? Also Nativ4e-Americans. Cou;ld they only own businesses in the reservations during Jim Crow period? Writing a book. N4eed info urgently. Thank you so much.

    • This is an important question and a much more involved question than can be answered here. Jim Crow laws had a great impact of economic activity in African American communities. You might start researching the history of African American businesses and black entrepreneurs during Jim Crow by looking at the bibliography in this Wikipedia article, this Smithsonian piece, or this story posted by the Harvard Business School. You might investigate the National Negro Business League (founded in 1900) too. The work of Juliet E. K. Walker may be of interest to you.

      • Thank you so much for the information you provided. It helped me a great deal. I love reading these pieces of such black spirit in such difficult times. To know that there were black entrepreneurs that rose to great heights despite all the obstacles is very inspiring.

  2. This information should be reposted to ensure it is never lost. So much history can be forgotten if it isn’t kept where it can be seen. All this needs to be heard. I will share this link as far as my reach can go. Thank You.

    • Jim Crow laws were legal because they were laws passed by state legislatures and communities that were empowered to make laws. They were legal because they were the law until the courts declared them unconstitutional.

    • I suspect fear may be an indicator. Consider, you have these humans, angry humans that were once treated like animals and were slaves. Then, they gain freedom from their indenture. While it was completely racist at the time, Jim Crow laws went into effect to “suppress” good black people from ever really getting out from under the thumb of the white man – even if not a slave.

      The whole affair is distasteful overall.

      The way I see it, you have a human heart ? You must be a human, part of the HUMAN RACE. There is no other distinction nor reason to downplay others.

  3. 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.

    • 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

  4. 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

  5. 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.

    • 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 “” Good hunting, Jack Hansan

  6. […] 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) […]

    • 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

  7. 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!!!

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