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Segregation in the US.

Up till the 20th century, segregation existed and was legalized in the United States. Believing that black and white people were incapable of co-existing, separate housing, education, services and even public spaces were set aside for people of color. 

The rationale behind segregation comes from the enslavement of black people in the history of the United States. When the slaves were all set free under the Thirteenth Amendment, the abolitionists were divided over what should happen to the slaves. Some said that the slaves should be returned to their home countries, and the effort was initially funded by Congress. However, it did not work out, and the United States continued to the next plan: legalized segregation. 

In 1865, the “Black Code” laws began to circulate, starting around the South. These laws established where black people could work and live, assigning them jobs of cheap labor. From there, the Jim Crow laws came about, mandating official segregation of the blacks from the rest of the population. The nation was split – whether it was schools, housing, public transport, pools, parks, jails, theaters, waiting rooms, hospitals or cemeteries, the blacks were designated a separate space from the whites. Black colleges were established, including Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Hampton Institute in Virginia was created in 1869 as a school for black youth, where white teachers would teach blacks to be subservient to whites. 

Jim Crow Laws

The Jim Crow Laws – named after a black minstrel show character, seen as a derogatory term for African Americans – existed for around a century until 1968. Under the laws, African Americans were banned from voting, were only allowed to hold select low-class jobs and were restricted in the education they could receive, among other rules. Jim Crow laws were ruled as constitutional by the Supreme Court in a number of court cases and the penalty for defying them was arrest, fines and jail time, as well as violence and death inflicted by the white community. 

From the start of their abolition, black citizens were severely disadvantaged. Many of the police and judges were former Confederate soldiers, ensuring that the Jim Crow laws applied in every case. Black people were also not represented in the legal system at all, as they were not allowed to work in such jobs. As such, the all-white jury would often rule against black people, subjecting them to longer, harsher sentences than whites. 

Black people were also often sent to labor camps, where they were essentially treated as slaves and made to work hard labor. Many black prisoners spent the rest of their lives in these labor camps, with some never living out their entire sentence. 

Segregation went to a point where, in some states, black and white students had to use different textbooks. In Atlanta, black people had to use a different Bible to swear on. Prostitutes were segregated according to race in New Orleans. It was common to see “white only” signs posted all over the South. Additionally, it was forbidden for white and black people to intermarry or live in the same house. 

Violence Against Black People

Even though the Jim Crow laws were oppressive and stacked against the black people, many African Americans actually rose up to positions of leadership so they could better voice their opposition against the laws. As the African Americans thrived despite their circumstances, some winning elections to Southern state governments and even to Congress, white people in the South felt threatened and sought to restore white supremacy to how it was before.

During the Reconstruction era, many African Americans faced danger in their everyday lives, very notably in the South. They would be attacked, tortured or lynched by bands of violent white people. Black families were forced off their lands and black schools were vandalized and destroyed. 

White groups sprang up during this time, the most infamous one being the Ku Klux Klan. Some others included the Knights of the White Camelia and the White Brotherhood. These white people, many of them Confederate veterans, formed secret societies bent on making life difficult for the black people and Republican supporters. They terrorized black communities and attacked black legislators. 

Segregation in Properties

The Public Works Administration sought to build housing for people displaced by the Great Depression. However, its efforts were largely focused on rebuilding homes for white families in white communities. Only a small number of houses were built for black families, and even then, these were situated in segregated black communities. 

Most of the segregated black communities were poor neighborhoods due to the limited opportunities and restrictions black people faced. The Public Works Administration also tore down some integrated communities and replaced them with segregated communities on the basis that black families would bring down property values. 

In the 1930s, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created “red-lined” maps with red perimeters marking the areas that were considered bad risks for mortgages. These red-marked areas were largely black neighborhoods. The practice, stretching until the 1970s, only made the wealth inequality worse by restricting access to loans for the mostly black residents of the red-lined neighborhoods. 

Notable Black Activists

It did not take long for the black people to step up and oppose segregation laws. Some spoke out openly, while others acted in their own quiet ways to make a stand. These are just some of the many notable black people who stood up for their rights.  

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was a Memphis teacher who became a prominent activist against the Jim Crow laws and segregation when she refused to leave a “white only” first-class train car. After being forcibly removed by the conductor, she sued the railroad and initially won the case, only to have the decision reversed by a higher court. She took to writing and published many articles regarding segregation and sexual harassment in schools in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, which she co-owned. Wells faced harassment and death threats over her controversial newspaper, forcing her to move further up north, where she continued fighting for black civil rights. 

Isaiah Montgomery

A former slave, Isaiah Montgomery began a business with his father, Ben Montgomery, after the American Civil War. His father had long dreamed of establishing an independent black colony, but died before he could do so. The younger Montgomery worked towards his father’s dreams, turning to a separatist approach as he believed that white and black people could not live in harmony. In 1887, he founded the town of Mound Bayou in Mississippi with the goal of protecting the rights of freedmen and keeping their work and lives free from white supremacy. Montgomery recruited other black former slaves to establish this settlement as an independent black-only town. The town was set up with several amenities such as schools, a library, a hospital, a bank, three cotton gins and a sawmill. Mound Bayou is still around today and has an almost entirely black population. 

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin had high ambitions and dreamed of becoming the president of the United States. At the age of 15, Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in an incident that occurred nine months prior to the more well-known one involving Rosa Parks. When pressured by the police to give up her seat, Colvin argued that it was her constitutional right. She was inspired by historical activists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Although Colvin’s case was not given much media attention due to other circumstancesSegregation in US, she is still recognized as one of the few who paved the way for civil rights. 

Author: Kelly Felder


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