Friday, July 12, 2013

"Jim Crow" Law Origins

Though the author below cites Tennessee's 1881 legislation as the first of the "Jim Crow" type, New York in 1821            enfranchised all adult white male citizens, but kept black men in a politically subordinate caste with a $250 property-holding requirement for voting.  Leading this initiative was future president Martin Van Buren who argued that "democracy only made sense with racial exclusion."  Van Buren ran for president again in 1848 on the Free Soil party ticket, which desired white racial exclusivity in the western territories.

Bernhard Thuersam, Director

Cape Fear Historical Institute

"Documenting Cape Fear People, Places and History"

"Jim Crow" Law Origins:

"The practice of requiring by legislative enactment that Negroes use railroad coaches or compartments separate from this for whites, commonly referred to as "Jim Crow" legislation, did not become general in the South until the            closing decade of the nineteenth century.

Earlier, however, in 1881, the legislature of Tennessee enacted a law requiring railroads to provide separate cars or compartments for the use of Negroes.  By this abortive statute – for so it proved to be – Tennessee acquired a somewhat undeserved notoriety, at least in one college textbook, as the originator of "Jim Crow" legislation.

Moreover, the purpose of this law and the circumstances surrounding its enactment were strikingly different from what is generally believed to be the origin of this type of discriminatory legislation.  It is often assumed that prior to the passage of the "Jim Crow" laws no effective racial discrimination existed on railroad trains.

The alleged "Jim Crow" law of 1881 was enacted by a legislature in which one house was controlled by the Republican party and which included four Negro members. Only two Negro members voted against the measure; the other two did not vote.

The bill was signed without hesitation by the first Republican governor of the State elected after the overthrow of the Radical [Republican] regime.  The apparent anomaly of Republican support is explained by the fact that the bill was considered by white [legislature] members to be a concession to Negroes – a consolation prize designed to assuage somewhat the sting caused by the failure of the four Negro legislators to secure the repeal of a more seriously discriminatory statute passed in 1875.

[An 1880 Federal circuit court reviewed a case involving] a Negro woman, alleged to have been a "notorious and public courtesan, addicted to the use of profane language and offensive conduct in public places." She had been forced to move from the ladies' car to the smoking car, which was crowded with passengers, mostly immigrants traveling on cheap rates. [The railroad company] based its case on the reputation rather than the color of the plaintiff.

With regard to trains carrying three or more passenger cars it appears that the railroads attempted, at least, to pay lip service to the Tennessee law…..they usually provided what was called the "colored" first class car, to which Negroes of both sexes with first class tickets were assigned but which was also available for the use of white persons.. [Though] not exclusively for the use of Negroes, they were sometimes referred to as "Jim Crow" cars.

The innovation of the modern "Jim Crow" car was not the result of the Tennessee law of 1881 but of Supreme Court approval of a Mississippi statute of March 2, 1888 [requiring separate but equal facilities].  [The Court held the Mississippi law as constitutional, with Kentuckian and Justice] John M. Harlan dissenting, on March 3, 1890 . . . [deciding] that the opinion of the Mississippi Supreme Court that the law applied only to intrastate commerce must be accepted as conclusive.  It also held that the law was no more a burden on interstate commerce than requiring certain accommodations at depots or enforcing stops at street crossings.

(The Origin of the First "Jim Crow" Law, Stanley J. Folmsbee, Journal of Southern History, Volume XV, Number 2, May, 1949, pp. 235-237; 243-244)