The first Jim Crow laws
Early effects of the Fifteenth Amendment
The purpose of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was to give African American male citizens the right to vote. Ratification by Southern states was, in most cases, a condition of their readmission to Congress. As a result, all the former Confederate states except Tennessee ratified the amendment within a few months. However, Tennessee, already readmitted to the Union (1866), refused to ratify, in part because the state had passed a law in 1867 allowing blacks to vote. In fact, Tennessee did not ratify the 15th Amendment until more than a century later, on April 2, 1997. Most of the other Southern states were much more tightly constrained by Federal Reconstruction restrictions, so they complied quickly, and the amendment passed into law on February 3, 1870.
Tennessee’s first statewide election to include black voters took place in 1867. That September voters in Nashville elected an African American to the Board of Aldermen, but he was not permitted to take his seat because Tennessee law still prohibited blacks from holding office. A year later, in September 1868, the state ban having been overturned, one of Mayor A. E. Alden’s ten newly-elected aldermen and at least five of the twenty members of the Nashville City Council were black. By early 1868 Southern lawmakers of both races were working together in constitutional conventions, the first political meetings in U.S. history to include significant numbers of black men. Later that same year, two African American delegates to the Republican National Convention voted for U.S. Grant, and a former slave, Oscar J. Dunn, was elected governor of Louisiana.
This well-known cartoon from Reconstruction shows two white men threatening an apprehensive African American holding a voting ticket. The caption reads, “OF COURSE HE WANTS TO VOTE THE DEMOCRATIC TICKET!” The second line says, “Democratic ‘Reformer.’ ‘You’re as free as air, ain’t you? Say you are, or I’ll blow yer black head off!” (Tennessee State Library and Archives)
In November 1872 Nashville barber Sampson W. Keeble
became the first African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, serving one term (1873-1874). Tennessee is often credited with the first Jim Crow* law (1881), which ordered segregation in train cars. In fact, the state had passed a similar law, Chapter 130
of the Acts of Tennessee, even earlier – in 1875, the year after Sampson Keeble’s House term ended. Chapter 130 permitted discrimination in public places, from hotels and theaters to trains and streetcars. Even earlier (1871) Georgia had established the first poll taxes. [See below.]
Subsequent Jim Crow laws throughout the South enforced segregation in nearly all public facilities – buses, restaurants, and public libraries; public parks and waiting rooms; and, as time passed, bathrooms, telephone booths, and drinking fountains, to say nothing of schools. Although the expression “separate but equal” was commonly used well into the 20th century, such facilities were rarely equal: colored waiting rooms were not heated, bathrooms and drinking fountains were not maintained, and African American schools had to deal with inferior laboratory, athletic, and classroom facilities, often using hand-me-down or outdated textbooks.
As the 1870s wore on, white Democrats took back the political power they had surrendered during Reconstruction, and Northern reformers turned their attention to the large number of European immigrants arriving on American shores. Southern blacks were left to their own devices in a changing political climate. Nevertheless, despite growing tensions between the races, the lives of black citizens showed improvement. According to historian Leon Litwack, during the ten to twelve years leading up to 1890, African American school enrollment and literacy rose by more than 40 percent, while African American land holdings tripled. Tennessee voters elected twelve men of color to the General Assembly between 1880 and 1888. The growth of African American colleges and universities like Howard, Morehouse, and Tuskegee Institute prepared a growing number of scholars for professional occupations. Nashville alone had Fisk University (1866), Roger Williams University (1866), Central Tennessee College (formed from Walden University in 1867), Meharry Medical College (1876), and eventually the Agricultural and Industrial Normal School (1912), which is today’s Tennessee State University.
As black Americans became better educated and found themselves in improved situations, white political leaders continued to look for ways to limit African American political power. In 1887 Representative Styles L. Hutchins, one of the last black legislators to serve in the Tennessee House before 1965, introduced a bill repealing a Chattanooga city charter amendment requiring voters to pay a poll tax. Surprisingly the bill faced no challenges – white legislators evidently failed to realize the potential power of poll taxes to weaken black voting strength. They had caught on, though, by the following term: the 46th General Assembly (1889-1890), which had no African American members, enacted a statewide poll tax as the first of several measures designed to disfranchise black voters.
In an era when a salary of $25 a month supported an entire family, having to pay a fee of $1 or $2 was a significant deterrent to many poor voters of both races. Georgia’s first poll tax, signed into law in 1871 and expanded in 1877, had sidelined half the state’s black voters by 1888. Alabama, although nearly half its population was black, was unable to elect any African American legislators after 1876. Every state belonging to the former Confederacy required some sort of poll tax by 1904. Such taxes continued into the 1960s, until they were finally prohibited by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Grandfather Clause
Few people realize that the term “Grandfather Clause” came from a Jim Crow law and referred to actual grandfathers. It was part of an 1898 Louisiana law
that permitted men to register for the vote only if they had voted on or before January 1, 1867 (i.e., before blacks were eligible to vote), or if they happened to be the son or grandson of someone who had voted in 1867. Since the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not ratified until February 17, 1870, few African Americans in the entire country would have qualified.
These laws prohibited someone from voting unless he owned property. Many former slaves, now reduced to sharecroppers, could not earn enough to buy the small farms on which they lived and worked. A throw-back to the earliest years of the nation when only wealthy landowners were permitted to vote, such laws also served to disfranchise many white voters, as did laws requiring voters to read English. [See more on this subject under “Literacy Tests,” below.]
Although this type of ballot is in wide use today, in the late 1800s distribution of secret ballots was not carefully monitored, and the system was frequently used to defraud poor, illiterate, or foreign-born voters. Ballots might be printed with different colors of ink, on different colors of paper, or with a wide variety of markings that made them easy to identify. Voters picked up their ballots from any one of a number of different sources – party leaders or poll workers could distribute them, or, as occurred in one infamous election in Tennessee (1867), ballots might even be available at the local saloons. It was, of course, impossible to tell who had cast a particular ballot, so unscrupulous poll workers could withdraw certain voters’ ballots from the ballot box and stuff it with others, radically changing the outcome of an election.
Another way of controlling votes, the “White Primary,” occurred predominantly in Texas. After the Supreme Court rejected several previous plans to prevent black voters from participating in primary elections, leaders of the Texas Democratic Party decreed that party membership was limited to whites. The Supreme Court let this plan stand, ruling that the Democratic Party was a private organization and thus not in violation of the 14th and 15th amendments, which applied only to states. Thus, since the Democratic Party thoroughly dominated state politics, whoever won the primary also won the election, and African American voters were smoothly eliminated from the political process.
Another insidious method of eliminating African American votes was the use of literacy tests. Surviving copies of these tests indicate that they were designed to cause the test taker to fail. One commonly used test asked the voter to explain complex passages from the United States Constitution; another test asked confusing, ambiguous questions that could be interpreted in a number of ways, so that every answer could be judged as wrong; some tests were so long, no one could finish them in the allotted time. Some voting places offered “help” – a Tennessee law made it possible for illiterate voters to obtain help marking their ballots . . . if they had voted in 1857! Thus black voters were not permitted to receive help, while illiterate white voters were protected, at least for a while.
Perhaps the most effective way to understand how complex the tests were is to take them yourself. Our sincerest gratitude to Bruce Hartford and to the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (http://crmvet.org) for permission to use the voter applications and literacy tests on this website.
A large tree is silhouetted against a darkening sky. (Photo by Kathy Lauder)
African American communities were terrorized by the KKK and other nightriders: a pandemic of lynchings created an atmosphere of fear for decades. Journalist Richard Lacayo called lynching in the American South “a semiofficial institution of racial terror.” In the 1890s an average of 187 lynchings occurred every year, particularly (but not only) in the South. Journalist Ida B. Wells, who traveled across America speaking out against these illicit mob executions, compiled a list of “reasons” given for particular lynchings, many based on perceived insults, of “not knowing one’s place,” rather than on actual crimes: “insubordination, talking disrespectfully, striking a white man, slapping a white boy, writing an insulting letter, a personal debt of fifty cents, a funeral bill of ten dollars, organizing share-croppers, being too prosperous.” The most commonly stated reason for lynching was rape, although few rapes were ever actually proven.
Lynchings were widely viewed as social events. Rather than hiding their identities, members of lynch mobs lined up to have their photographs taken in front of the battered corpses of victims, and many people brought their children along. So many postcards of lynchings were sent through the U.S. mails that an outraged Postmaster General banned them in 1908. Sometimes onlookers arrived in trains reserved for the occasion; newspapers advertised the dates and places of upcoming lynchings. It was a rare lynching that was a mere hanging or burning. Victims were usually tortured first, sometimes for hours, and spectators frequently took souvenirs, both before and after death. The Tuskegee Institute has recorded the lynchings of 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites between 1882 and 1968. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon F. Litwack claims the number of African Americans lynched during that period was at least 4,742. It was a devastating form of social control.
Legal challenges to segregation failed for many years.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1875, which prohibited discrimination against African Americans on public transportation or in buildings or events that were open to the public, was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883. The Court ruled that the 14th Amendment did not apply to discrimination by individual citizens.
The case of Plessy v. Ferguson
(1896), which also went to the Supreme Court, was an important case challenging the segregated streetcar law. Homer Plessy, only 1/8 black, looked like a white man. When he deliberately sat in the white section of a streetcar and was arrested, his lawyer said such segregation denied Plessy’s rights under the 13th and 14th amendments, hammering on the point that mixed-race individuals made segregation laws meaningless and unenforceable. The Court ignored his argument, ruling that racial segregation was legal as long as segregated facilities were comparable – “separate but equal.” The sole dissenting justice was John Marshall Harlan, who wrote, “In view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”
In a Mississippi case two years later (Williams v. Mississippi
, 1898), the state supreme court ruled that poll taxes and literacy tests were legal.
*“Jim Crow” laws were named for a popular character in antebellum minstrel shows. His name is thought to have come from the expression “black as a crow.” The character was portrayed by a white actor who blackened his face with burnt cork, wore ragged clothing, and performed a song-and-dance act that used exaggerated accent, pitch, and movements in a malicious parody that audiences seemed to find hilarious.
Civil Rights Movement Veterans Organization. http://www.crmvet.org/
“Direct Disenfranchisement,” Race, Voting Rights, and Segregation, University of Michigan. http://www.umich.edu/~lawrace/disenfranchise1.htm
“Disfranchising Laws,” The Tennessee Encyclopedia, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012. http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=380
The Fifteenth Amendment Site. http://15thamendment.harpweek.com/HubPages/CommentaryPage.asp?Commentary=03Ratification
History Matters, George Mason University. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5352
The History of Jim Crow. http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/creating2.htm
“Jim Crow Laws Denied Blacks Dignity, Vote,” Jackson Sun
Kousser, J. Morgan. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.
Lacayo, Richard. “Blood at the Root,” Time
, April 2, 2000.
Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890
. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1996.