“The Jim Crow Era” is a Misleading Misnomer
The New York Times has been running a series of profiles on historic figures who did not get obituaries on its pages in their own time, but who deserve(d) that recognition and attention. One profile is of Homer Plessy, the defendant in “Plessy Vs Fergusson”, the horrible Supreme Court decision of 1890 that gave free license to states to re-establish race-based laws of segregation despite the existence of the 14th amendment (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/31/obituaries/homer-plessy-overlooked-black-history-month.html) . I appreciate the goals of the series, and most of the information in that article, but I winced at what I believe to be a common misnomer.
By promulgating the use of the phrase “the Jim Crow Era” to refer predominantly to the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1st half of the twentieth century in American history, textbook authors and other historians both present and preserve the utterly false notions that “Jim Crow” segregationist laws were both a relatively recently development and one centered wholly in the formerly Confederate Southern states, post the Civil War.
This narrative falls apart entirely when one understands that Black Codes and Black Laws have existed as long as the Union itself, affecting the nation’s capital even when it was situated in Philadelphia in the late 1700s, and that “Jim Crow” laws were perpetuated in both North and South prior to the Civil War.
One note-worthy episode of “Jim Crow” enforcement was the forceful expulsion of the former slave Frederick Douglass from the Eastern Railroad in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1841, when he refused to leave the company of his fellow (white) abolitionist orators traveling to Dover, New Hampshire and be seated in the Negro car, as dictated by law. Douglass, a strong man, held onto his seat in protest of his removal — the bolts gave way before his grip, so seat and man were thrown off the train together. *
Douglass was also affected by such segregation when booking passage from Boston to England (he was denied a cabin and had to travel in Steerage), on steamboats, and on other trains as he toured from the East Coast to Indiana on abolitionist speaking tours. The Black Laws of Ohio were especially notorious, and Douglass was badly beaten there while on one of his lecturing tours.
When I first read James Loewen’s 2006 text, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, I was caught up in his investigation of how many communities enacted exclusionary policies in the North after the Civil war. I now realize that any understanding of this phenomenon that he could have expressed was severely limited by the time window of his attention. Jim Crow attitudes did not infest the North after the Civil War. They were already firmly entrenched — if anything, Reconstruction was an anomaly, “Jim Crow” the dominant narrative and legal environment. White people of the American North tend to be ignorant about many aspects of slavery and segregation — this is one error in our awareness it should be easy to correct. Black Codes were used to “Jim Crow” people in the North and the South, from the 1700s through the 1960s.
* Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight. 2018, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York.