I just finished reading the book Remembering Jim Crow, published in 2001. For those researching African-Americans, we spend a lot of time dealing with the complexity of slave research. I think we all need to pay more attention to the era of segregation.

Most of us remember this era or have parents alive who do. Reading the stories in this book, which included audio tapes, was heartbreaking.

Jim Crow was a caste system, and in many ways, being born black defined one’s place in the system. It defined the possibilities for one’s life.

Richard Wright wrote a powerful piece abut his experiences with Jim Crow.

Separate Fountains

Separate Fountains

Paternal Experiences

My father, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida shared his recollections of Jim Crow with me during several interviews:

“Jacksonville was a big city, and of course we lived on the East Side, in a black neighborhood. We never really encountered white people unless we had to go downtown. And we didn’t do that much.”

He discussed how it didn’t seem odd or strange because that’s just how it always was. The year my father left Florida to attend Howard University, the city erupted in violent racial protests and riots, marked today with a historical marker.

But there were also many wonderful stories of the community, even as poor and distressed as it was.

My father shared precious memories of his segregated Matthew W. Gilbert Junior-Senior High School, school of the legendary Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bob Hayes.

The bonds of friendship he formed there are still close to this day. He told me about the segregated beach where my grandparents owned a summer home, American Beach.

It was a place of refuge for blacks of the era, who were shut out of other beaches and pools.

Smiths at American Beach beach house

Smiths at American Beach beach house

Maternal Experiences

My mother on the other hand, had a very different experience. Her parents migrated to Dayton, Ohio from Tennessee when she was three years old.

There was no de jure segregation in Ohio, so all of my mother’s school years were integrated. Her Dayton neighborhood included blacks and many Eastern Europeans.

Collect the Memories

Have you written down your recollections of this painful and shameful period of our history?

Have you interviewed your parents and other relatives about their specific memories of school integration, Jim Crow laws and how it affected their lives?

This is likely to be a topic that we can collect memories for descendants who, like myself, were born after the worst of these times was over.

I discovered that there was a horrific lynching in Salisbury, Maryland in 1931, where my paternal grandmother lived at the time.

I would have liked to ask her about what that was like, though I can imagine the terror they must have felt.

The Consequences

Consider, using 20th century census records, how the vast majority of black people were relegated to the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying, manual labor jobs.

Men were either farmers, laborers, drivers, stevedores or factory workers. Only small numbers were semi-skilled or skilled workers, businessmen, doctors or teachers.

Women were maids and cooks and laundresses; a choice few became teachers or nurses. In other words, you were limited in what you could aspire to be if you were black.

I can’t imagine that, thankfully in my own lifetime, living now in a country with a black President.

I have noticed also that the experiences differ depending on where people lived. Big cities were different from rural areas.

Some of the people I interviewed had relatively peaceful experiences with school integration, unlike what happened in places like Little Rock.

Places that had larger populations of  black people tended to be the most committed to separation of the races.

That makes sense, in that the white community was more fearful and more likely to go to extreme links to enforce the existing social structure.

Birmingham, 1963

Birmingham, 1963

Think about Mississippi and Alabama, places with large percentages of African-Americans.

In your research, include interviews with local whites. I like to ask them what their experience was, what their feelings were as children seeing all of this, how it affected them growing up, etc.

It must have made no sense at all to little children. Of course, it shouldn’t make sense to adults.

Whites who joined in the battle to secure civil rights for black people earn some of my highest regard. They could see our shared humanity, even in the midst of all the hatred.

Resources for Study

1) The excellent documentary  “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow”

2) Duke University’s powerful collection of oral histories of Jim Crow, called “Behind the Veil”

3) the University of Virginia contains links to similar databases

4) You Tube Video on Jim Crow Remembrances

5) The Jim Crow museum at Ferris University is a must-see full of painful remainders

6) “Living with Jim Crow: African-American Women and Memories of the Segregated South,” by Ann Valk and Leslie Brown

7) Michelle Alexander has a powerful book called “The New Jim Crow

8) Examples of Jim Crow laws can be found at: the National Park Service  the Smithsonian’s Brown v. Board exhibit  American Radio Works

9) The Southern Poverty Law Center has a resource on Teaching Tolerance

10) A brief history can be found at the Library of Congress on Jim Crow

The struggles continue as Ferguson and other recent events teach us. I hope that we can all learn the lessons of the past, and approach each other with more love, compassion and understanding.


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