Post-racism America means moving past our history of Jim Crow laws and moving toward a united U.S. race relations. 

No Dog, Negros, Mexicans from Ferris State University Museum

Jim Crow Sign, United States, 1950s - 1960s

Jim Crow laws comprised a legal system that emerged from black codes  during slavery in both the North and the South. This body of law ruled the South and major parts of the North, East, Mid-West and West well into the Twentieth Century, including regions that had never hosted slavery. 

 Common signs let people know they were not welcome to participate equally in society.

In post-Jim Crow America, Brown v the Board of Education, Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Woolworth Sit-ins, the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights Movement, in general, eliminated the physical signs of segregation like the one above. In post-Jim Crow America, we seem anxious to move on. In that need to move on, we must be careful that we are not merely renaming a historical societal ill, an ill that has fundamentally remained unchanged, if not physically, psychologically. One of the largest repositories of historical memorabilia of segregation can be viewed at Ferris State University in the Jim Crow Museum, curated by David Pilgrim. These relics remind us of what Jim Crow did to our nation.

Printed signs are no longer needed to let someone know they cannot go inside. The lack of money does that job. Jim Crow–the gift that just keeps on giving–left his legacy on our nation. We continue to rearrange the pieces of the U.S. race relations puzzle in an effort to make the pieces fit. Although, the advances of some people are apparent, still the pieces of this complex puzzle do not come together in an orderly fashion for most African Americans and Latino Americans, the majority of whom live in segregated neighborhoods and attended segregated schools, as do their offspring, continuing the legacy of racism in post-Jim Crow America.

“We shall overcome,” said Lyndon Johnson, the first sitting U.S. president ever to make such a bold statement on national television. I heard Johnson when he said it and I was shocked along with the rest of the nation–black and white. Now, almost a half century later, I wonder what it will take for race relations in America to truly overcome? The first step a post-Jim Crow America must take is to acknowledge that racism still exists. Then, we must accept the effects of the past Jim Crow legacy, which used primary and secondary public education as a weapon to maintain racial status quo. The examination should include:

  • Psychological consequences of a nation segregated for centuries
  • Resulting multi-generational effects of  inferior education
  • Expanding gulf between the races in earning power

Calling a problem by a different name does not change the problem.

When I was growing up in Texas, there were separate schools, not only for African Americans, but also for the children of visiting Mexican laborers who worked in the cotton fields on surrounding former plantations. This was nearly a century after the plantation system had been left to starve for survival after emancipation of the slaves. Remedies for the lack of laborers required creative thinking on the parts of plantation owners and the government committed to their assistance. There were no more slaves and black sharecroppers had left the land seeking better jobs in the cities. What was needed was a fresh pool of cheap, uneducated, controllable labor, which was found just across the border.

California Farm Workers 1940s

In California, similar agricultural needs for workers have existed for decades and still are present today, causing discrimination against the state’s visiting, resident and citizen farm laborers from Mexico.

During the 1940s, many migrant farm workers and their children, moving from one agricultural location to another for jobs, lived in government sponsored camps near California’s numerous agricultural centers. Camp lifestyle most assuredly kept these farm-resident workers segregated from the mainstream California population and kept their children from attending school on a regular basis and receiving an adequate education. For people in this predicament, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech  eventually had a tremendous impact.

Racial discrimination was not reserved for black Americans and other Americans of color.

No Irish Need Apply, Boston 1915

No Irish, Boston 1915

White immigrants, such as the Catholics of Irish and Italian descent, faced discrimination in American cities from Protestant Americans. In many instances, incidents of violence were precipitated by job, business, social and political competition, or just plain intolerance of another’s religious and cultural differences.

Ethnic and racial tensions throughout history in American cities like Boston, Philadelphia  and New York City have led to violence between Italian, Irish and African Americans  and, thus, the assignment of the latest newcomers into a city’s culturally specific enclaves, designated by race, ethnicity, nationality, language or religion of people of the same or similar background or lifestyle. Many American cities are more segregated today than they were 100 years ago, with entire municipalities surrendered to African Americans and surrounded by white suburbs.

One of the primary reasons for white flight after the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled Jim Crow school systems across the nation was public education. Although white parents were willing to surrender their homes, their old neighborhoods and their friends in the city, they were not willing to surrender their children to integrated classrooms. And the situation only got worse after busing students out of their neighborhoods became the method of achieving school racial balance. Remember, these were the same parents who allowed their children to ride a school bus twice as far past black schools to white schools before Brown. So, you see, it wasn’t busing at all that caused the furor. To which schools and neighborhoods the children were being bused caused the loudest political uproar. Supreme court justices have come and gone off the court, others got sick and died. Decades later, the school integration is a situation that is still unsolved to this day.

Historically, cities and school districts used Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation. Today, segregated neighborhoods and schools may have more to do with differences in income levels. In cities like Detroit, residents preserve school status quo by fleeing the city to expensive neighborhoods just outside the city limits. Segregation can be maintained by these economic tactics, which also reduce the tax base for inner-city schools. Deficiencies in inner-city education are followed by chronically low incomes and institutional poverty. In cities with a substantially reduced white student population the public school system is principally made up of black and brown students, a situation that does not address the original hypothesis of integration of an ever-growing population of non-white students into classrooms with the now absent white students.

As long as America can point to certain images in the media that represent upwardly mobile people of color, America can pat herself on the back for racial progress. After all, we have a black president, Barack Obama; the largest grossing Hollywood actor is Samuel L. Jackson, a black man; and named by People Magazine the most beautiful woman in the world, Jennifer Lopez, is brown; all of whom, by the way, would be classified as colored by Jim Crow standards and treated as black. But what about the millions who cannot emerge from the ghetto, inner-city, projects–or whatever name we are calling racial enclaves in these days of post-Jim Crow America?

Hughestown Borough Pa. Coal Co., Photo: Lewis Hine

1900 PA Child Coal Miners

Impoverished immigrant families in the early  1900s lived in homogenous neighborhoods where their children usually attended inferior schools or no school at all. Until these families were able ro move up financially, immigrant children were forced by economics to work in sweat shops, coal mines an other industry to help feed their families.

Until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, there were no child-labor laws to protect school-age children from employment exploitation and poor education. Enacted at the end of the Great Depression, the new law set standards for the education of white students, but left in place low educational standards for black, brown and other non-white students.

In early American history and into the twentieth century, the desire and expectation of immigrants was to learn English, educate their children and assimilate into the larger American culture. This dream of assimilation, of course, was not attainable for all who came or were already in the United States. For many African Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans and other immigrants with significant differences from the mainstream, the possibility of assimilation was impossible. Although some individuals, who could, did assimilate into the larger population. And, later, their children ignored racial identification with their ethnic roots. It must be noted that some ethnic groups, historically and currently, have avoided or have not been allowed to assimilate and, thus, retained their own languages and customs.

Leo Frank Lynching Photo, Marietta, Georgia, Leo Frank Lynching Photo, Library of Congress

Leo Frank Lynching Photo

Leo Frank, a Marietta, Georgia, Jewish manufacturing superintendent, whom some say was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a school-aged girl who worked in his factory in 1913, may have been a victim of racism and envy of his success. Frank was dragged from his jail cell in 1915, where he had spent two years appealing his conviction. He was  lynched by a mob.

Although Leo Frank is the only documented case of a Jewish person being lynched in American history, it does not mean Frank’s was the only such lynching, and certainly not the only discrimination against the Jewish community. This lack of documentation only means that no other lynching of a Jewish person is on record. Some lynchings, like Frank’s, were conducted to send a message to a community or to retaliate for an invented offense that usually involved a white female or officer of the law.

Anti-Italian Lynching New Orleans 1891

Anti-Italian Lynching New Orleans 1891

Much earlier than the 1915 Leo Frank lynching,  racial tensions in another southern city had already played out violently in one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history.

In 1891, the New Orleans anti-Italian lynching involved 11 immigrants accused of involvement in the death of a policeman. Being from Southern Italy, these men had dark skin, making them  easy targets for discrimination, on the rise by white supremacy groups after the Civil War. In addition to skin color, the southern Italians’ accents and customs made their assimilation into the larger U.S. population slower and more difficult at first. However, as their numbers grew, language no long a barrier, improved education, increased entry into the professions and more cash, assimilation eventually  became possible for this largest single group of Europeans to come to America.  

The 1891 New Orleans Lynching and U.S.-Italian Relations (Studies in Southern Italian and Italian-American Culture) by Sheryl L. Postman provides a detailed account of the incident leading up to the lynchings, the aftermath of those mass murders and the impact of the lynchings on U.S. and Italian diplomatic relations.

There were differences in the way Jim Crow operated across the nation.

List of Sunny Nash Race Relations Blogger Posts 

It must be stated that not all white Americans agreed with the practice of Jim Crow, as indicated in the large number of white proponents for the abolition of slavery before the Civil War, education of former slaves through the Justin Morrill Land Grant College Acts, and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s. There were towns in the North and South that defied racism by affording its black and brown citizens as many rights and liberties as the laws of the United States recognized for them.

Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow Laws

President Theodore Roosevelt (TR), at least some point in his life, was not one of those people who believed that African Americans deserved equality. Like others of his vintage and economic background, TR was an elitist who also held whites of lesser means in low esteem. TR’s attitude toward class was entirely acceptable during the period of his lifetime.

In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying: “As a race…the [blacks] are altogether inferior to the whites…[and] can never rise to a very high place…I do not believe that the average Negro…is as yet in any way fit to take care of himself and others…If he were…there would be no Negro race problems.” (from In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro [1965], edited by Milton Meltzer.

No Indians or Dogs Allowed

No Indians or Dogs Allowed by Nicholas Galanin photographs and neon Pratt ...

In my book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, I write about Jim Crow laws that affected me and the history of my people, including my part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama. The 1891 anti-Italian lynchings in New Orleans occurred when Bigmama was one year old in the neighboring state of Texas, where her own part-Native American and part-African American family was enduring its own brand of racial discrimination.

Bigmama was my mother’s mother. Both women knew Jim Crow laws intimately and had to develop great mothering skills in order to raise their children under the constraints of bigotry and legal oppression. The 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision enacted separate but equal in every aspect of American life–birth in separate hospitals, education in separate schools, riding in separate sections of buses and trains, entering through separate doors and burial in separate cemeteries.

“If your skin was dark, you were classified as colored,” Bigmama said. “Colored  was the same as black. And you could not go in the front door, live where you want, work where you want, go to school where you want or marry who you want. It had only a little to do with race. It had everything to do with color, unless you were a white Negro trying to pass as a white person. In that case, you were still black even if your skin was white because everybody knows there is no such thing as a white Negro.”

Bigmama was six years old in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v Ferguson  that created the framework to institutionalize racism for generations to come. It must not be forgotten, though, that separate but equal was the first court decision that mentioned equality in racial terms. This ruling, which made plain there existed a difference in the way people of darker skin were served, educated and treated by the government, proved to be a double-edged sword that would cut Jim Crow laws down to size one day.

  • One edge of the Plessy sword gave the government permission to create two sets of everything, one of which could be of far less quality than the other.
  • The second edge of the Plessy sword was an actual acknowledgment of inequality that would prove useful in future attacks on Jim Crow through the courts. 

Bigmama grew up under Jim Crow law. She was old enough to remember the way life was before the 1896 separate but equal ruling changed her life and left her people–both Native American and African American–without legal recourse for the discrimination that would be heaped upon them by their government for many decades to come. 

“How can a neighborhood school be integrated when the neighborhood itself is segregated?” Bigmama asked as she watched the television news in 1967 during the controversial Detroit school desegregation crisis. “That’s the North,” she said. “They should be farther along than they are.”

Bigmama died in 1972, the same year that our town graduated its first fully integrated high school class. That was 18 years after Brown v the Board of Education outlawed segregation in U.S. public schools. But segregation didn’t stop in 1954 with Brown or in 1972 in other parts of the country where courts were still arguing with certain communities that wanted to continue de facto school segregation under the Jim Crow cloak of white flight to suburbs where parents could maintain white neighborhood schools or send their children to private or parochial schools.

List of Sunny Nash Race Relations Blogger Posts 

A Harvard Study, copyrighted in 2006, shows public schools in some parts of the country to have been more segregated in 2006 than they were in 1991, 15 years before the study. This finding supports the notion of de facto segregation, which often follows residential patterns. Black and brown students, whose families are trapped economically in the inner-city, are most likely to attend segregated public schools, where education funding has dwindled and schools have slipped down on the academic achievement scale.

Although the signs representing segregation have been pulled down and thrown away, and the original laws are erased from the books, all Americans still must be on the watch for the ugly return of discrimination in some other innocent appearing form as we mount a final triumph over post-Jim Crow racism.

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Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash

Sunny Nash

In my book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, I write about my life with Bigmama during the Civil Rights Movement. The book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as a resource for understanding race relations in America. This distinction and my journalism experience give me the latitude to write with authority about issues of race, ethnicity, culture and civil rights, ranging from slavery to post-blackness, the subject of music journalist Toure’s new book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What it Means to be Black Now, and everything in between.

For more than ten years, I wrote newspaper articles for major dailies that were also syndicated columns about race relations, ethnicity and civil rights history, based on my life, featuring my grandmother. These articles became the basis for my book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, which earned me a California Artist Fellowship & Award in 2003. Many of these articles have been referenced and published in other distinguished works.

From the article, UHV Pair’s History Book Wins Carpenter Prize, about the book, Texas Through Women’s Eyes: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Judith McArthur and Harold Smith, in which I was referenced: Sunny Nash, a leading author on race relations in the U.S., said she has found the book relevant to discussions in more areas than Texas women’s history.  ‘I believe previous attempts to recognize the 20th-century contributions of Texas women laid the groundwork of curiosity,” Nash said. “’But it was the actual research by Judith McArthur and Harold Smith that produced ‘Texas Through Women’s Eyes,’ giving us a captivating and sometimes ultra-private glimpse into the lives of these women, and helps us to understand them and ourselves in a deeper way.’”

From my book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, in the essay, Cousin Hudge, the Traveling Fiddler:

“Did your father give you the Indian name that Uncle George calls you?” I asked Bigmama, staring at her for a long time, while she decided not to tell me anything more. How well I knew that look.

“We’re going to leave this old talk alone, now.” She seemed to snap back from somewhere far away. “You don’t need to know that old slaverytime prairie business. I didn’t teach it to my children, and I’m not telling you. The old way is gone. Knowing about it can’t help you in this world.”

“But Bigmama.” I knew begging wouldn’t help but I tried anyway.

“Folks are scared of the word, Comanche!”  She scolded. “They hate anybody they believe got one drop of that blood. Safer to be African than Comanche!”

I shivered.

“Now let it rest,” she said.

“That’s why you hate it when Uncle George calls you by your other name,” I whispered.

Subsiding into aloofness, she seemed to forget I was even there. Bigmama wouldn’t have been more alone on a mountaintop in the wind. I didn’t mind allowing her to escape. I’d found myself doing the same thing when something annoyed or bored me…

 Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s

~Thank You~

© 2011 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Sunny Nash on Zimbio

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