24 November 2014

Jim Crow America: A Documentary History
Catherine M. Lewis and J. Richard Lewis, eds.
University of Arkansas Press 2009
234 pp
Annotated Bibliography and Index

If slavery was the most pernicious chapter in American history, then Jim Crow is a close second. Defined as the legal, extralegal and customary separation of the black and white races, the system of Jim Crow successfully returned much of the United States, especially the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, back to slavery. It meant the loss of citizenship rights for African Americans, and was accompanied by crushing poverty and terrible hopelessness. A dual society allowed whites to retain financial, emotional and physical control over African Americans and was used to prop up the doctrine of white supremacy.

It has been virtually impossible to trace the origins of the term, but historians do know that it was popularized by a white entertainer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice who acted in minstrel shows, a popular form of entertainment in the early nineteenth century. Rice used makeup to darken his skin and exaggerate his features. Dressed in ragged clothing and speaking in slave dialect, he sang a song he published in 1832 called Jump Jim Crow, and lampooned blacks in general and slaves in particular. By the late nineteenth century the term was used to describe the suffocating racial prejudice and discrimination aimed at African Americans.

Jim Crow America is a collection of primary sources accompanied by a fine essay on the history of the practice. Each entry is preceded by a short explanation of its background and historical significance. The Lewis’s also remind us that the term has been used for almost two hundred years, and has meant different things at different times. They also point out that Jim Crow laws were not invented by southerners, who after all, depended so much on slavery that there was no way they could physically separate themselves from blacks; rather, it was northerners who had little intimate contact with blacks and worked to ensure that separation of the races would continue.

On the front cover of Jim Crow America is the infamous photo of G. W. McLaurin, an African American student who applied to the University of Oklahoma. Forced by the federal courts to admit McLaurin, officials of the University at first seated him in an anteroom apart from his fellow students. He was also given a separate table from which to study in the library, and a separate space in the University’s cafeteria. The photograph is a terrific rebuke to those who claim that prejudice and discrimination against blacks was a long time ago and should just be forgotten.

The book is divided into five sections: inventing, building, living, resisting and dismantling Jim Crow. The primary sources included legal briefs, cartoons, essays, and letters, and a number of them have never been published. Of course, some documents are too crucial to the study of race in America to have been left out, and we find them her, such as the briefs from Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857); Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), and Brown v. Board of Education (1955), commonly known as Brown II. There are other gems, too, such as the lyrics to “Jump Jim Crow,” “Segregation in the North,” an essay W. E. B. DuBois wrote for the Crisis magazine, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; “The Confession of a Great Whiteman and Leader,” Marcus Garvey’s response to a speech at a Washington dinner attended by William Jennings Bryan, and a white supremacist cartoon entitled “The Negro, The Ape,” published around 1957 by National Citizens Protective Association of St. Louis, Missouri.

One of the most fascinating entries is an essay written by Cecilia Eggleston, an alumnae of Howard University and social worker in New York City. Entitled “What a Negro Mother Faces,” and published in The Forum and Century in August, 1938, it is a poignant essay on whether black women should bring into the world children who will then be subjected to the vagaries and hostility of white racism. Ms. Eggleston’s essay is all the more shocking because she was a devout Roman Catholic and the readership of The Forum and Century was predominantly white!

Scholars of this time period will find the book quite useful because of its wide range of sources, some of which have never been in print as mentioned previously. Professors and teachers who wish to explore Jim Crow in their classrooms will welcome timeline, discussion questions and sample assignments included. Jim Crow America is an important and worthy addition to any library.

Dr. Marilyn K. Howard has joined the staff of the Free Press as our book critic. Dr. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.