But the States Gave Us Jim Crow

The Supreme Court recently dismantled federal protection for a safe abortion, and remanded that power to the states. The states gave America Black Code Laws and after Reconstruction, they gave America Jim Crow.

Dear Reader, thank you for dropping in if you are new. If you are a return reader, thank you much for your patience and your time. You have taken time from your day to devote to reading my thoughts, and I do not take that lightly.

Now, for those of you who are returning, you know how I do. I can be terribly inconsistent, because, you know, Monday happens. But I have not posted this week with reason. The recent Supreme Court decision to dismantle federal protection for abortion rights had me back in the historical archives, back in my African American Studies teaching material, and back into my obsession with Ida Bell Wells. It has taken me time to sift through the material, look up dates for accuracy, and confirm what I am thinking. I find it absolutely amazing that the Supreme Court justices would be ignorant of the fact that the states gave America Black Code and Jim Crow.

Jim Crow downloaded from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University. This is an invaluable teaching resource. Please visit digitally: https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/who/index.htm

Having looked over some of the features of the law, I find it hypocritical that the one Supreme Court justice married to someone of an opposite race (I can’t call his name. I am trying to avoid a headache right now. Just saying his name and seeing his face spark a migraine for me!), opened the door for states to review gay marriage, but was conspicuously silent on interracial marriage. Interracial marriage was argued before the Supreme Court in 1967. Read the specifics of the case here: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1966/395

Before I continue with the blog, I would like to distinguish between two sets of discriminating laws. The Black Code laws, though similar, were not the Jim Crow laws that most of us are familiar with by now. Think of them as a precursor or “prequel” if you will, to Jim Crow. Black Code laws were enacted by Southern states immediately after the Civil War in reaction and retaliation to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. They were passed at the state level, with Mississippi and South Carolina being the first two states to pass such a set of laws. The aim of the Black Code laws was the maintain a feudal-like plantation, agricultural economy in the South and guarantee cultural/social/legal white supremacy. Though the Black Code laws varied widely from state-to-state, here are just a few common ones:

  1. Black people could not own firearms.

2. Black people could not testify in court against white people.

3. Black people could not marry white people.

4. Black people could be charged with vagrancy.

Some other laws (and again, this may not have been true for every state) state that Black people could not participate in certain professions, and Black people had to have “proof” of employment (and employment meant working on somebody’s plantation as a sharecropper) when they moved about. Without this “proof,” Black people would be arrested and put into the penitentiary under a vagrancy charge. The proof and the sentence varied by state. These laws were codified in state law, ratified in their Constitutions, and enforced by the police and the extra-legal domestic terror group, the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee by ex-Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest. The laws were championed and the Ku Klux Klan welcomed. In fact, a film that is taught all over the world as a cinematic breakthrough, was a veritable love song to the Ku Klux Klan. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film celebrating the Klan, did not just sweep the South: it captured the attention of the whole nation and was even shown in the White House. It is still available for free in its entirety.


Now, we are all taught in school that the federal government had to send in troops in order to straighten the South out and combat the Klan. Um, this is not the whole story. The NATIONWIDE acceptance of Griffith’s movie should clue us into this. The federal government, at first, did nothing about the Black Code laws and the South’s reactionary stance to federal laws. Of course, Black people resisted in various ways. Technically speaking, Reconstruction began in 1865 legislatively. But United States troops were ordered back into the South after what is known as the world’s worst anti-racist massacre occurred in a major city. On May 1, 1866 Memphis, Tennessee erupted into a three-day race riot that required federal troops to quell.

A popular image of the riots in Harper’s Weekly.

What began as a conflict between Black and white soldiers eventually spread throughout the city. White Memphians began to target Black civilians in their communities, and several Black women were raped (I do not put a specific number here, because historians can guess, but no one really knows how many Black women were assaulted at this time). Keep in mind, this riot follows the Ft. Pillow Massacre, in which 300 soldiers, many of them Black, were gunned down by Confederate soldiers rather than treated as prisoners of war. The order was issued by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Fort Pillow is only 40 miles north of Memphis.

At the time of the riot, Memphis mayor John Park refused to order federal assistance. United States Army Commander, George Stoneman, ordered the troops. At the time, a report was ordered by Congress, but what can any of us say of “accurate” reporting at the time. The report blamed Memphis’ Irish policemen and ignored the role white citizens in Memphis played in discriminating against Black people daily and destroying their property and taking lives during the riot.

Now, this has been a long digression, Reader. For those of you who are new to me, hang in there. For my repeat readers, you all know that I’m going to bring things together in a few short paragraphs.

It was this riot and others similar to it, that prompted federal troops to the South. In my humble opinion as an amateur historian and African American Studies professor, Reconstruction began with the shed blood of African American civilians at the hands of angry, white mobs who honestly believed that their rights and humanities and economic opportunities would be lessened if they peaceably recognized the humanities, rights, and economic aspirations of others. Rebellion against the Black Code Laws by African Americans threatened the socio-economic order of things, and white Southerners were not above using violence to restore that order.

Here is a clear-cut visual from the Opelousas, Louisiana riot of 1868:

Please read more about the riot here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-deadliest-massacre-reconstruction-era-louisiana-180970420/

These riots happened throughout the South and did not end with the re-introduction of federal troops to the region. Whenever and wherever Black people began to make socio-economic gains, in spite of the Black Code laws that attempted to restrict their political rights and earning power, there was a massacre that was labeled as a “riot” by sensationalist journalists and insurance companies.

Reader, that brings me to Jim Crow and Ida Bell Wells. Now, most of us learn in school that Jim Crow laws were codified federal via the Supreme Court decision of 1896 in the case, Plessy vs. Ferguson. However, in 1883, Ida B. Wells was on a train from Memphis to Woodstock, Tennessee. She was asked to leave the “Ladies’ Car” and sit in the car designated for Black people, which was a Smokers’ Car. Because Wells was a lady (a very beautiful one, if I may say so) who did not smoke and there were no other ladies in the “Colored car,” Wells refused to move. The conductor tried to physically remove her. Wells fought this man. It took the assistance of two other men to remove Wells from that car. They put Wells off of the train and tore the sleeve on her frock.

At the time, there were no legal Jim Crow cars in Memphis. Wells immediately hired an attorney and filed suit against the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad Company. She won her case plus $500 in damages. The railroad took the case to the state supreme court where the ruling was reversed and Wells was ordered to pay court costs. The legal briefing is available to the public here: https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/ida-b-wells-and-anti-lynching-activism/sources/1113

Wells’ case, filed in 1883, is the first nationally-recognized case that challenged the states for individual rights for African Americans. And what did the states give us? The states gave the world’s youngest democracy Jim Crow. It was codified into federal law 13 years after Wells’ case garnered national publicity. At the time, Wells was a young woman, just 21. She did not understand why her case garnered so much attention. At the time, she seemed to express more frustration at her Black attorney, who was bribed by the railroad and disappointed in the lack of widespread support that she thought the Black community should have given her. After firing her first attorney, she hired a white one, a former Union soldier. Wells’ case may have been the first one to contain the phrase, “separate but equal.”

Wells did not write about the magnitude of her case until she set out to write her autobiography several decades later. Human rights were given to the states and the states gave us Jim Crow. Currently, historians and academics still teach Plessy while failing to explore the implications of Wells’ case. Did the state of Tennessee, using Wells’ case, set the national precedent for Jim Crow? We don’t know.

This comes directly from my obsession with Ida B. Wells. I have taught A Red Record, but I have not taught this case. I hope to explore it further one day.



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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.