Based on interviews collected by the Behind the Veil Project at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, this remarkable book presents for the first time the most extensive oral history ever compiled of African American life under segregation.
Men and women from all walks of life tell how their most ordinary activities were subjected to profound and unrelenting racial oppression. Yet Remembering Jim Crow is also a testament to how black southerners fought back against systemic racismbuilding churches and schools, raising children, running businesses, and struggling for respect in a society that denied them the most basic rights. The result is a powerful story of individual and community survival.
Praise for Remembering Jim Crow
“A ‘landmark book.’” Publisher’s Weekly, “The Year in Books”
“This is not just an oral history for the South but for us all. It is a sobering reminder of the mistakes this nation has made, a hopeful reflection on how far we have come.” The Kansas City Star
“A shivering dose of reality and inspiring stories of everyday resistance.” Library Journal
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|Publisher:||New Press, The|
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Jim Crow was not merely about the physical separation of blacks and whites. Nor was segregation strictly about laws, despite historians' tendency to fix upon such legal landmarks as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In order to maintain dominance, whites needed more than the statutes and signs that specified "whites" and "blacks" only; they had to assert and reiterate black inferiority with every word and gesture, in every aspect of both public and private life. Noted theologian Howard Thurman dissected the "anatomy" of segregation with chilling precision in his classic 1965 book, The Luminous Darkness. A white supremacist society must not only "array all the forces of legislation and law enforcement," he wrote; "it must falsify the facts of history, tamper with the insights of religion and religious doctrine, editorialize and slant news and the printed word. On top of that it must keep separate schools, separate churches, separate graveyards, and separate public accommodations — all this in order to freeze the place of the Negro in society and guarantee his basic immobility." Yet this was "but a partial indication of the high estimate" that the white South placed upon African Americans. "Once again, to state it categorically," Thurman concludes, "the measure of a man's estimate of your strength is the kind of weapons he feels that he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place."
As the interviews in this chapter — and indeed most of the interviews in this volume — suggest, the arsenal of weapons white southerners felt it necessary to use against black southerners was truly prodigious. In firsthand recollections stretching back to the early twentieth century, Behind the Veil informants tell stories of rapes and beatings, of houses burned to the ground and land stolen, of harrowing escapes in the middle of the night to evade lynch mobs or to avoid the slower, grinding death of perpetual poverty and indebtedness on southern tenant farms. Even informant Arthur Searles's offhand comment about needing a pass to travel in Baker County, Georgia, is revealing. Passes had been common in the slave South and were used extensively in South Africa during apartheid, but the idea that an American citizen might need one to travel in his own home state in the post–World War II era seems outrageous, and in fact passes were not typical after slavery ended. Yet, Searles had been given one. He had seen the mutilated body of a Baker County lynching victim, and he knew how desperately white southerners wanted not only to keep blacks in a fixed position socially, but also to control their movements. Above all, he, like others of his generation, knew at some level that white control over black bodies and therefore black labor was key to southern agriculture and to the region's slowly industrializing economy. Thus, whites rarely hesitated to use force against African Americans who threatened to destabilize labor arrangements or who tried to "steal away," escaping from debt and abuse on tenant farms in much the same way that slaves had escaped from bondage a generation or two earlier. The legacy of whites' drive for social stability and control includes both the broken bodies of lynching victims and the grim wariness of men and women like Arthur Searles.
While a number of the stories in this chapter are about lynching and other forms of racial violence, informants also tell of moments that were less dramatic but nonetheless humiliating. "You could shop," Theresa Lyons of Durham, North Carolina, suggests, "but if you walked up and a white person walked up later, they waited on the white person first. I mean, it was just a known that you weren't going to get waited on. Even when I knew that [something] was it, no matter how bad I wanted it, I wouldn't buy it. I would leave."
For African Americans such as Lyons and Searles, life in the Jim Crow South was a process of navigating treacherous waters. Just as any stretch of ocean might offer smooth sailing on any given day, individual white southerners might be friendly and even helpful at times. However, they might also be unaccountably hostile and prejudiced. Thus, blacks had to remain ever vigilant in case storms of white fury should suddenly begin to blow.
Because they had to fight racist people as well as institutions the struggle of blacks against racial oppression was never so impersonal as a seaman's struggle against the elements. Instead, living Jim Crow meant confronting bitter truths about human nature, including the arbitrary unpredictability of alleged white "friends" suddenly becoming mortal enemies. Among the most poignant of these realities emerged when African American children came to understand that blacks and whites were different in the eyes of their society. Often, the circumstances that led up to this realization were mundane, but the realization itself could be devastating. Walking to school, going to the store, playing on rural farms and city sidewalks, black children confronted racial differences in the taunts of white children, in the degrading treatment of black adults, and in their own observations of who was better off than whom. Under such circumstances, "you just automatically grow up inferior," as Charles Gratton of Birmingham, Alabama, laments, "and you had the feeling that white people were better than you." Yet, parents and other black adults worked hard to counteract such lessons. Employing a variety of childrearing strategies, they encouraged black youths to maintain their self-respect regardless of white attitudes.
Children's experiences also varied. Those who lived in or near cities often remember the physical signs of segregation — placards above water fountains, separate platforms at the train station, the often-shifting terrain of racial separation on the street car or bus. In the rural South, children's memories of learning about racial difference are sometimes more subtle (rural children played together) and sometimes brutally stark (in the countryside, white violence tended to be even less restrained). The stories of boys and girls also differ. Ferdie Walker's memory of white policemen exposing themselves to her at a Fort Worth bus stop is but one case in point.
Even after age and experience had taught them the roles Jim Crow required them to perform, adult blacks regularly encountered new limitations on their freedom. Every visit to the doctor, every effort to get a job or buy land, much less register to vote, could result in a further restriction, an additional humiliation arbitrarily imposed. African Americans' efforts to meet even basic needs such as health care could take them into minefields of white recalcitrance, as the testimonies of Milton Quigless and G. K. Butterfield suggest. Henry Hooten found that white southerners' prejudices went with them even across the Atlantic during World War II. And, in 1958, Walter Cavers uncovered the bitter truth that a seemingly straightforward car accident, for which he was not at fault, could result in terrible consequences.
For many Behind the Veil informants, a deep personal knowledge of American race relations at their worst has resulted in a sense of obligation to pass on an understanding of Jim Crow's bitter truths to subsequent generations.
Chapter 1 ends with long narratives by Willie Harrell and Ann Pointer, both of whom describe African American life in the plantation South in the pre–World War II era and both of whom clearly feel they have important stories to tell. As these final two excerpts suggest, the history that Behind the Veil informants self-consciously narrate is a history with a purpose. "I'm telling you," Ann Pointer insists to the young man conducting her 1994 interview, "it sound funny to you because you never have been subject to nothing like this, but that's what I want to tell you: how horrible it is when everything you do, the [white] man's got to approve it."
Young children in every era interrogate the world around them as they come of age. During the years of segregation, African American children, encountering the puzzling realities of Jim Crow, looked to their parents and elders for answers to questions such as: "Why can't I drink out of the water fountain?" "Why can't we try on clothes at this store?" Or: "Why do we have to move out of the way when white folks come walking down the street?"
Explaining the laws of segregation and the practices of racial "etiquette" was a constant and extraordinarily difficult task for African American parents. How could they teach children the rules they had to follow in order to survive without damaging their self-esteem? Ralph Thompson, who grew up on a tenant farm in the Memphis area in the late 1930s and early 1940s, describes his parents' efforts to explain segregation and racism to him and his siblings.
They talked to us a little bit about that, but as [things] happened. They might respond to things. I can remember the insurance man coming over there one day and called my mother "Auntie." And she looked at him and said, "Don't you call me 'Auntie.' I'm not your 'Auntie.'" I can remember that. His name was Mr. Watson, and this was back in the forties. You could just see little things like that and how they responded, how they would respond to embarrassing things. They tried to keep you away from things that would be embarrassing when they couldn't fight back. For instance, going in a grocery store or something like that. If we went downtown and they had the colored drinking fountain and white drinking fountain — in looking back, my sister [and I] talk about it now — my mother would always tell us to drink water before we left home. So we didn't get caught into drinking water out. Little things like that. Things like going in a store and you can't try the clothes on. When I got up to about 12, 14, 15 years old, and I'd go to Thom McAn to buy shoes, if I had a $20 bill, they would check that $20 bill like it was counterfeit. I couldn't walk in a Thom McAn shoe store and buy a pair of shoes because they didn't want to take my money. They would treat me like this is counterfeit, and they'd look at it. I'm serious. You don't know how that hurt to do that. You go to a store, and you're standing there and a white person walks up, and they'll wait on that white person and just make you stand. So my parents kind of kept us away from that and they wouldn't let us do certain things.
When you look back at it, you can tell why — because they couldn't defend [us]. So they tried to shield us from it by sending us or taking us in a different direction, and whatever was going on, they tried to keep it away from us, so to speak. My daddy, if it was a white person around talking to him in some kind of business format, he would move away from us or tell us to go play or something. I guess that was to protect us from something that might be said to him that he wasn't able to defend. If they were talking about planting or settling up or something like that. He very seldom would do anything like that around us. He would go outside or somewhere else.
But just being called a "nigger," I can't remember no adult person calling him one. I remember kids did it, but I don't remember any adults doing us like that. I can remember at the drugstore, some evenings we would stop in there and get ice cream, and the pharmacist was real nice to us. He could scoop the ice cream up. He'd scoop it up and he could throw it up in the air and catch it with the cone, and that was kind of entertaining. We'd come through there in the afternoon. If we bought ice cream, he'd do that for us. In this particular drugstore he didn't put any stools at his counter. When you look back I guess he said I'll treat you as fair as I can and if I don't put the stools here, I don't have to worry about nobody sitting down. You get your ice cream. You have to move on. And looking back at it now that's what it seemed like. I can remember that guy.
A few years older than Ralph Thompson, Lillian Smith grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1930s. She, too, describes how her elders approached the task of instructing children in the laws and practices of Jim Crow.
The main thing, the theme throughout, was that we're living in a segregated society. I didn't understand segregation until I was maybe nine or ten years old, when I was reading and I could see the signs saying "colored" and "white." You couldn't drink at a water fountain even though you were shopping in the same store that people of any other nationality were shopping in. We would ask questions about that and [my parents and grandparents] said: "You would get arrested." So, when that word was used, any time you saw "white" and "colored," unless you wanted to be arrested and be in jail, you didn't dare. So that was the dividing line, and that lesson was really laid down solidly when we were, I would say, between seven and nine.
Naturally, you would ask, "Why?" The question would always come back that we were living in a country that had segregated laws, and [we were] called "colored" people at that time. See, the signs said "colored." You were not looked upon as having full rights that all other citizens should have. We should be treated differently. That was what the sign was. And then, of course, they started talking about slavery. So from about age seven on, they started giving us information about slavery — before I even read about it in a book. Because in our culture, [which] was our racial group, what most of us knew about slavery was handed down from word of mouth, from family members or friends or neighbors or whatever, and maybe a lot of it never was written. Most of that was black storytelling, but with a message to let you know what to avoid and how to respond and behave. Because, see, the working word there was "behavior." You have to watch your behavior.
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Charles Gratton (b. 1932) Birmingham, Alabama; 1940s [2:17]
Charles Gratton was born in 1932 and grew up in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. Asked when he first became aware of segregation, he describes how he was "programmed" in the bitter truths of Jim Crow.
Actually, when I got old enough to know myself, to really know I existed. I mean, I was born into this thing and raised in it. I can remember very close in my mind [times] when my mother would send me to this grocery store that was approximately a mile away, which was the only grocery store in Norwood. She would give me instructions before I'd leave home and tell me, "Son, now you go on up to this store and get this or that for me. If you pass any white people on your way, you get off the sidewalk. Give them the sidewalk. You move over. Don't challenge white people." So I was just brought up in that environment.
They also had a park. It was about a block from where I was born and raised and where I lived, and it was known as the white people's park. They had a tennis court there and nice park trees, and blacks wasn't allowed in that park. I mean we just couldn't go there. You know, it's just one of those things.
Some days I would be sick, and I could hear the schoolchildren playing during their lunch hour down at Norwood Elementary School, which was all white, and that's what really stuck in my mind. I'd say, "It's a shame that I have to walk so far to school every day." When I'd hear those schoolchildren playing, I'd say, "Here I am a block and a half from the elementary school, and I've got to walk six or seven miles to school every day."
Even now, I can almost hear those kids, those white kids down at this elementary school playing, and the noise and laughing and playing, and I'm at home sick basically from the exposure of walking those six and seven miles to school every day. Whether it was raining or not, I had to go. So those are some of the memories that I have of my childhood growing up over at Norwood.
I don't know if I ever just specifically came out and asked that question [of why things were the way they were], but it was one of those things where you had been programmed all along, ever since you got old enough to know right from wrong. To challenge white people just was the wrong thing to do. You just automatically grow up inferior, and you had the feeling that white people were better than you. It just really wasn't any question asked then about why. I mean, that was white people things. That was a white people school, and I just didn't feel that I had any right to go there. It basically never entered my mind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Remembering Jim Crow"
Copyright © 2001 Center for Documentary Studies for the Behind the Veil Project.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
ONE Bitter Truths,
TWO Heritage and Memory,
THREE Families and Communities,
FOUR Lessons Well Learned,
SIX Resistance and Political Struggles,
APPENDIX Informant Biographical Information,
Suggestions for Further Reading,