U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Introducing Jim Crow

In the post-Civil War United States, prejudice against the freed slaves would grow throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the middle years of the 20th.

Prejudice had been held in check somewhat after the war by the presence of Federal troops in the former Confederate States. However, in resolving the disputed presidential election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican Governor of Ohio, agreed to withdraw the troops in exchange for the southern electoral votes he needed to secure victory despite the fact that Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York had won the popular vote. The Democratic Party agreed to this compromise because it gave their southern counterparts control of the levers of State government (the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln was hated throughout the southern States until the late 1960s).

Historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in the mid-1950s:

The phase that began in 1877 was inaugurated by the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, the abandonment of the Negro as a ward of the nation, the giving up of the attempt to guarantee the freedman his civil and political equality, and the acquiescence of the rest of the country in the South's demand that the whole problem be left to the disposition of the dominant Southern white people. What the new status of the Negro would be was not at once apparent, nor were the Southern white people themselves so united on that subject at first as has been generally assumed . . . .

The public symbols and constant reminders of his inferior position were the segregation statutes, or "Jim Crow" laws. They constituted the most elaborate and formal expression of sovereign white opinion upon the subject. In bulk and detail as well as in effectiveness of enforcement the segregation codes were comparable with the black codes of the old regime, though the laxity that mitigated the harshness of the black codes was replaced by a rigidity that was more typical of the segregation code. That code lent the sanction of law to a racial ostracism that extended to churches and schools, to housing and jobs, to eating and drinking, Whether by law or by custom, that ostracism eventually extended to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. [Woodward, C. Vann, The Strange Career of Jim Crow , A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press, 14th Printing, 1965, p. 6-8]

(Professor Peter Irons explained the origins of the term "Jim Crow":

The term itself had it origins in the 1830s, beginning with the minstrel show of Thomas "Daddy" Rice, a white man who blackened his face with burnt cork, dressed in rags, and danced and sang in a caricature of blacks. He called this part of his show "Jump Jim Crow," after a crippled black slave who belonged to a white man named Crow. White audiences loved the demeaning portrayal of a grinning, shuffling black man, and the term quickly entered the language. During the 1840s, abolitionist newspapers adopted the term to describe the segregated railroad cars in northern states. [Irons, Peter, Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision , Penguin Books, 2004, p. 12])

Fighting against the Jim Crow public transportation rules would be a key element in fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans:

After the fall of the Confederacy many white people of the South, and some in the North as well, showed a strong disposition to regard the newly liberated freedmen in the same way they had the despised free Negro before the war and to subject them to the same treatment. One result was that railroads, steamboats, and other carriers in the South began to deny Negroes the use of first-class accommodations. Passenger trains of that period, even the better ones, commonly had only two coaches, one usually called the "ladies' car," to which white men who paid the price were also admitted, and the other the "smoking car" or "gentlemen's car." They were in effect first and second-class accommodations. On the smaller railroads the second car was likely to be an old car or even a freight car. Smoke, tobacco juice, and profanity did not increase the attractiveness of second-class travel. The great bulk of freedmen and the majority of whites could rarely afford first-class accommodations anyway, but those Negroes who could were regularly denied them. [Strange Career , p. xiv]

Immediately after the war, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas tried to limit racial mixing. In Mississippi, African-Americans were not allowed to ride in first-class passenger cars. Florida excluded African-Americans from cars reserved for whites, while also prohibiting whites from accommodations set aside for African-Americans. It did not require the railroads to provide separate cars, and allowed the races to mix in the smoking car. Texas required separate cars for freedmen.

Reconstruction legislatures that took office shortly after the war quickly repealed these laws, although common practice continued to limit racial mixing. [Strange Career , p. xv]

Following the departure of Federal troops in 1877, segregationists regained control of State legislatures. In what Woodward considered one of the earliest Jim Crow laws, Tennessee enacted a law in 1881 that required railroad companies in the State "to 'furnish separate cars, or portions of cars cut off by partitioned walls' in which Negro passengers who paid for first-class accommodations could have the same facilities enjoyed by whites who paid the same fare." This law was seen by white legislators as a concession because many railroads were informally segregating the races with separate "colored" cars. [Strange Career , p. xvi]

Although racial mixing was common as late as the 1870s, a series of Supreme Court rulings beginning in the 1870s further undermined Federal legal protections for African-Americans. In rulings from 1873 to 1875, the Supreme Court "drastically curtailed the privileges and immunities recognized as being under federal protection." In 1883, the court concluded that the 14th Amendment gave Congress power to restrain the States, but not individuals from acts of racial discrimination and segregation. (The 14th Amendment prohibited the States from infringing on the right of any citizen to the pursuit of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law, or the equal protection of its laws.) [Strange Career , p. 53]

The extent of the change in direction was reflected in rulings on common carriers, such as railroads:

Having ruled in a previous case (Hall v. de Cuir , 1877) that a state could not prohibit segregation, the Court in 1890 (Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad v. Mississippi) ruled that a state could constitutionally require segregation on carriers. [Strange Career , p. 54, italics in original]

As these legal changes occurred, the States acted:

The first genuine Jim Crow law requiring railroads to carry Negroes in separate cars or behind partitions was adopted by Florida in 1887. Mississippi followed this example in 1888; Texas in 1889; Louisiana in 1890; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee in 1891; and Kentucky in 1892. The Carolinas and Virginia did not fall into line until the last three years of the century.

Negroes watched with despair while the legal foundations for the Jim Crow system were laid and the walls of segregation mounted around them. [Woodward, C. Vann, "The Birth of Jim Crow," American Heritage , April 1964, p. 52]

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000