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For a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, a quarter of all Americans lived under a system of legalized segregation called Jim Crow. Together with its rigidly enforced canon of racial "etiquette," these rules governed nearly every aspect of life—and outlined draconian punishments for infractions.
The purpose of Jim Crow was to keep African Americans subjugated at a level as close as possible to their former slave status. Exceeding even South Africa's notorious apartheid in the humiliation, degradation, and suffering it brought, Jim Crow left scars on the American psyche that are still felt today. American Nightmare examines and explains Jim Crow from its beginnings to its end: how it came into being, how it was lived, how it was justified, and how, at long last, it was overcome only a few short decades ago. Most importantly, this book reveals how a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom came to enact as law a pervasive system of inequality and virtual slavery.
Although America has finally consigned Jim Crow to the historical graveyard, Jerrold Packard shows why it is important that this scourge—and an understanding of how it happened—remain alive in the nation's collective memory.
"This book takes a broad, scholarly, but still readable look at Jim Crow—the system of laws and customs that confined blacks to second-class citizenship post-slavery and pre-civil rights." –Philadelphia Inquirer
"This is a clear, concise historical narrative of a draconian reality . . . Packard carefully places these facts in a firm historical context. Even when the material is familiar, he weaves it into a sturdy and often shocking American tapestry." –Publishers Weekly
"A 'must read' . . . Mr. Packard's book is a very powerful and unsettling story of our nation's century-long 'pogrom' by vengeful white Southerners against their black neighbors. Reading these pages, one is reminded just how brutal and widespread white supremacy was in the South, especially in Mississippi and Alabama." –Washington Times
"Credible and poignant history." –Kirkus Reviews
"This is an important documentation of an oft-forgotten piece of our history; an even-handed, well-crafted relating of Jim Crow's tragic southern reign, and his none-too-soon dethronement." – Jim Fraiser, Author of Mississippi River Country Tales and a former Assistant Attorney General, Mississippi Civil Litigation Division
Wendell Tandy didn't exist in flesh and blood but, as a metaphor, was as real as the Jim Crow he faced. What happened to Wendell was similar to what thousands of African-Americans endured, servicemen and servicewomen who, in countries not their own, fought a war against racism only to return to the same scourge at home.
It was December 1945, and the United States Army of Occupation in Berlin was sending Wendell Tandy back to Mississippi. For eighteen months First Lieutenant Wendell Lawrence Tandy III had served his country and had done so with notable valor. With so much valor, in fact, the army had given him a Distinguished Service Medal for obliterating a German tank in a maneuver his commanding officer had in the award citation described as ``heroic and damn near suicidal.'' Wendell had also picked up a Purple Heart in tribute to the meatball-size chunk of bone and gristle one of the panzer's smaller guns had blown out of his left thigh.
The slender and soft-voiced infantry officer had begun the last eighteen months of his army life by facing a cataract of German artillery shells hurled at him across Normandy's Omaha Beach. That ordeal was succeeded by a bloodily fought slog through France and Belgium and Germany, Hitler's Thousand Year empire breathing its last as the exhausted unit crawled through sniper fire in Leipzig. Three months later, on the same August day the Japanese were surrendering on the other side of the world and putting an end to the Pacific war, a colonel had pinned the DSM on Wendell's first-class blouse and a moment later handed him the silver insignia of a first lieutenant to replace his old gold bars. Happy to have gotten through the fighting in one piece, Wendell had ended up in Berlin, in charge of a minor portion of the boring duties of an occupying army.
But for every mile and every hour of his journey, another enemy, one wearing the same uniform as his own, had taunted the twenty-three-year-old lieutenant. This foe was pure American, and it came his way solely because of the color of his skin, which was a shade of gingery auburn. For Wendell, Jim Crow had been as much a part of army life as his K rations--and was, for that matter, in many ways indistinguishable from what he had survived growing up in Mississippi.
In Berlin, the greater part of Wendell's time had been spent living--sleeping, eating, working--with fellow blacks in segregated barracks that had not long before housed a regiment of Waffen troops. It had not, of course, been merely happenstance that his unit consisted entirely of black soldiers. That was the way it was in 1945 in just about every corner of the U.S. army. As an officer, Wendell nonetheless often interacted with white troops, though few of them seemed entirely unmindful of his color. In fact, a good many of them occasionally voiced the petty racial innuendos that were second nature to the greater part of white soldiery. Still, a few, especially the Yankees or the Westerners, treated him as just another GI, sometimes even ungrudgingly acknowledging his rank and deferring to his officer's status.
Though the officers' club was off-limits to Wendell for simply hanging out, just as it was to every other black officer, he was nonetheless required to attend the club's official weekly gathering. These officers' calls included a sit-down dinner, where he dined with white officers on what were the first occasions in his life that he had eaten at the same table with anyone other than blacks. He took it for granted that officers who got up and moved when he joined a table were, likely as not, Southerners. Everyone expected Southern soldiers, both officers and men, to bring their back-home race prejudice into the army with them, and the army fully accommodated such expectations. Beyond these dinners, few other social or recreational opportunities were extended to the handful of black officers in Berlin, and Wendell understood that nothing was to be gained by dwelling on this reality.
Sick of looking at and, especially, smelling the wasteland that had once been a splendid and orderly metropolis, Wendell gladly signed out of Berlin on December 5, his orders directing him to final out-processing at home in Jackson, Mississippi. The European part of his long journey back to the States would end at Le Havre, on the Channel coast, and that meant he'd get to go through Paris, the transportation to the French capital by duty train, a U.S.-requisitioned French locomotive pulling a few battered German carriages, heading west through a devastated landscape on the last remaining set of the defunct Reich's still-usable tracks.
Like just about everything else involving the army and race, Wendell found that the duty train, too, was segregated, the white officers and men provided with coaches, sleeping cars, and a dining car, while black enlisted men were quartered in a single separate carriage, in which together they sat, ate, and slept--the latter sitting up--arrangements befitting the status of black troops and the customs of Jim Crow. Wendell's commissioned status complicated these matters. Though military protocol frowned on any of its handful of black officers sleeping in an open coach with enlisted men, it nonetheless yielded to the white officers' refusal to share their own accommodations with any blacks, even fellow officers. To get around the impasse, Wendell and the one other black officer on the train found themselves assigned a compartment at the rear of the white officers' sleeping carriage, a closed-off four-foot-by-seven-foot space in which they were expected to remain, unseen to white American eyes, for the entire sixty-hour journey from Berlin to Paris. Visits to the "colored" latrine meant stepping out of their compartment directly into the passageway connecting the coach to the all-black enlisted coach behind. As for eating, a German steward would wordlessly bring boxed meals to their cubicle.
His itinerary gave Wendell seven hours to spend in Paris before his next train--a French one, and civilian--left for Le Havre. These brief hours in the City of Light represented the first of his life during which he had been entirely free of Jim Crow. For an almost-whole day, he met no white man's glance hardened by contempt, no signs telling him a toilet or a water fountain or a caf;aae was barred to people of his color. A waiter seated him at a table smack in the middle of French diners, white French diners, and, except for difficulties with language, served him with precisely the same Gallic self-importance he begrudged the other patrons. Later that afternoon, a shop assistant had smiled when she'd sold him perfume as a gift for his mother and, when he'd departed, had thanked him in poor English but with a respect the exact likes of which he had never been shown by a white countryman of his own. Expressing admiration for the United States, a fellow browser in a bookshop proffered an unexpected and gravely formal handshake to the young American dressed in the uniform of an officer, a bid Wendell knew would be unimaginable from any Mississippian wearing a white skin.
The train that would take him to embarkation in Le Havre unsurprisingly overflowed with American troops. But it wasn't an American train, and he was free to take any seat of his choosing, still another first for Wendell, to sit where he wanted, without reference to his own country's racial etiquette. He spotted a pair of empty seats and took the one by the window. Before he had his army blouse unbuttoned, an elderly Frenchman asked if the aisle seat was unoccupied.
From Paris to Le Havre the two men talked, tentatively as the train pulled out of the Gare du Nord, but as the French countryside overcame the clutter of Paris, the conversation grew animated as the elder's halting but correct English warmed up. Wendell told the Frenchman about Jackson and his mother's cooking and about how much he missed his Mississippi home. And he told him, too, about Omaha Beach and his run-in with the panzer and the friends he had lost. The Frenchman in turn showed Wendell a prewar snapshot of his own family, including his two sons, one a pilot killed in the 1940 invasion, the other a resistant shot in Lyons a few weeks before D day by a German firing squad. Skin color seemed inconsequential, nowhere in the conversation needing to be mentioned or in any way acknowledged. At Le Havre, the idyll ended.
The converted troop ship was, decidedly, not French. And just as the army's script demanded, Jim Crow kicked back in the moment Wendell entered the pier shed. Directed to the gangplank "reserved" for Negroes, Wendell presented his embarkation orders to a black NCO and a white boarding officer, the unmistakable disdain in the latter's face and tone of voice a foretaste of the next seven days at sea.
Like the Berlin duty train, the ship, too, was segregated, painstakingly so. Quarters for black troops were aft, a symbolically rich location that Wendell knew hadn't arisen accidentally. Black officer quarters were laid out around the curve of the hull and consisted of small four-man cabins that at least afforded a semi-privacy nonexistent in the enlisted men's large open bays covering what had once been the converted liner's third-class dining room. At every point where corridors and companionways connected the "colored" areas to the far larger white areas, foot-square chained signs blocked traffic between the two: there was no mistaking the curt military lingo announcing Off Limits to Colored Personnel on Wendell's side, Off Limits to White Personnel on the other.
For Wendell, the voyage passed in a fog of tedious days and sleepless nights interposed with spells of vomiting brought on by seasickness that was aggravated by the heavy, greasy, and monotonous rations. The army evidently assumed black men were uniformly raised on boiled meat and greens, some mutation of which was served at almost every one of the twice-daily meals. Normal army procedure, extended where possible to black officers, meant that Wendell's duties consisted of little beyond supervising black work details as the enlisted men laid into twelve-hour fatigue shifts. The high point of the voyage came at the end. As the ship skimmed past the Statue of Liberty, Wendell wordlessly breathed in the symbol of freedom from his vantage point in the black exercise space on the poop deck. A struggling winter sun was just coming up as the liner-turned-troopship swung into its Hudson River pier.
After wrapping up three hours of paperwork at the military pier, Wendell set off to spend a day and a night in the city before entraining for Mississippi. He walked out of the quay onto West Street, hailed a black-driven taxi, and told the cabby he needed a hotel room. The driver recommended the Theresa, on 125th Street in Harlem, and explained to his fare that even though most of the midtown hotels didn't take colored trade some "bighearted" clerk might afford a room to a bona fide black officer--but then added that he'd face a lot less hassle and be a lot happier putting up with his own folks. Getting into the subject, the cabby advised that by confining his eating to Harlem, Wendell would also avoid much of the petty grief that'd be sure to come his way in most of midtown's white restaurants. Wendell agreed to the hotel and tucked away the advice about restaurants for later.
The Theresa--racially integrated only five years earlier--was a time-scarred but still impressive building, and it sat at the busiest corner of the greatest African-American neighborhood in the country, squarely in the center of America's black soul. But judging by the crowd streaming in and out its doors, it also looked to be discouragingly jammed. Filling the lobby was a melange of prosperous-looking blacks and whites as well as colorfully dressed types who might have been Malays or Hindus or almost anything else peopling the international entrepot New York had become since the war had altered the city's face. Fortunately for Wendell, the desk clerk found him a room after glancing deferentially at the officer's insignia that was still far from common on black servicemen.
Within thirty minutes Wendell had stowed his bags in his cubbyhole quarters and was back out on the sidewalk. On the near-freezing but cloudless December day, for the first time in two years he finally drew a first genuinely deep lungful of American air. That it was Harlem air made it sweeter, for these few square miles were the freest, most welcoming place in the entire nation for men and women of color. The simple truth was that for black Americans in white America, Harlem came about as close as it got to freedom from the stench of Jim Crow.
Yet even here, on streets crowded with purposeful-looking black people, true freedom for those who shared Wendell's African heritage remained nearly as much illusion as reality. Even if this young Mississippian thought he had landed in paradise, Harlem's residents well understood that a few blocks away from the sheen of 125th Street lay a different reality, one in which overcrowding and unemployment and untreated illnesses ranked Harlem among the most squalid slums in America, a city within a city where the vast majority of the restaurants and hotels and stores were white-owned and where African-American customers were banned by many of those businesses--even, and most famously, by the world- renowned nightclubs and theaters that permitted only white trade to enjoy their black entertainment.
Before looking at the rest of New York, one item of business remained for Wendell to attend to, namely buying a train ticket to Jackson. So a second cab ride took him back to midtown's Pennsylvania Station. Via the next morning's Pontchartrain, the crack New York to New Orleans express, he reserved coach accommodations to Jackson. The ticket clerk had told him the purchase of sleeping space would be a waste of his money, explaining that even those blacks who had bought valid sleeper tickets in the North were often barred use of them after Baltimore, where legal Jim Crow took effect. Wendell would certainly have preferred his own compartment but deferred to reality. The white clerk, clearly sympathetic to a soldier in uniform, finally advised him to buy enough food to get himself to his destination because he'd get hungry after Baltimore, in which city African-American access not only to Pullmans ended, but where admission of persons of color to the dining car became difficult and, more often than not, impossible.
Disheartened but still eager to drink in this astonishing city for the few hours he had left to see it, Wendell walked out of Penn Station and headed straight down Thirty-fourth Street into the heart of the metropolis. Even though he was hungry, he wasn't sure of Northern race etiquette and, remembering the cabby's advice, decided to skip the white restaurants that liberally dotted the midtown streets. Instead, he bought a paper-wrapped baked potato from a vendor's cart and took it to the park behind the big library on Forty-second Street to eat it. Afterward he walked up Fifth Avenue, looking into the treasure-laden windows of the classy shops. On the busy street he couldn't help brushing past white women who dexterously stepped out of his way as they clutched their purses extra-carefully while shooting him looks that implied astonishment that he should be wearing an officer's uniform.
Later in the afternoon he was back in Harlem, where he happily roamed the broad avenues, occasionally turning onto the quieter side streets and everywhere scrutinizing the scores of Negro businesses and storefront churches, peering up at the stoops of brownstone apartments, returning the glances of passersby. Wendell broke off his wandering long enough to eat dinner in a big neon-lit restaurant on Lenox Avenue. His fellow diners were all black, the only reality he'd ever known at home and one he found comforting even in New York.
The Pontchartrain's departure was scheduled for eight-thirty the next morning. So Wendell was up at 6 a.m. and checked out of the Theresa thirty minutes later. For breakfast he bought a bag of pastries at the bakery down the block from the hotel, where he also got himself a big bagful of cookies for the train. A taxi delivered him to the station in plenty of time to stop at the tobacco counter and pick up half a dozen of his favored Hershey's bars, added sustenance against the expected Jim Crow hunger.
Grinding out of Penn Station, the Pontchartrain's coaches remained unsegregated. Wendell thought the passenger mix looked to be about three-quarters white, the remainder mostly native blacks and a few dark-skinned foreigners. Except for the aisle seat next to his own, his car was completely full as the train started to move. As it picked up speed, a white woman wearing a preposterous feathered hat appeared at the end of the coach. Passing Wendell's seat, she hesitated for a moment, looked embarrassingly pained, and walked on. A moment later the conductor was leaning over Wendell. In a cross between asking and ordering, he explained that some "seat rearranging" was necessary. Wendell found himself moved to a seat next to a white man that until a moment before had held a white woman, the latter now being directed to Wendell's former seat--next to the feather-topped white woman, who still looked pained but now slightly less so.
The tornado-like winds of Jim Crow didn't take long to arrive, legally kicking in as the train crossed the Pennsylvania-Maryland line. In Pennsylvania, black people had been, at least in theory, ordinary citizens; entering Maryland, they ceased being ordinary and became, with the unlimited majesty of Maryland's race laws, second-class citizens. Accordingly, during its Baltimore stopover the Pontchartrain's carriages were rearranged to square with the demands of racial segregation. From here to home, Wendell would either sit behind movable screens in a colored section of a white car or in a coach wholly "reserved" for people whose race was, like his own, second-class.
When he crossed that boundary--the so-called Mason and Dixon Line--more than seating arrangements changed for Wendell. Civility toward blacks on the part of the train's personnel mutated into insolence, with conductors sometimes even calling blacks "nigger," an indignity directed at any African-American for deportment deemed by whites the least demanding, or "uppity." By Southern states' law, train conductors possessed many of the same powers as police officers, and few hesitated to use them in the furtherance of Jim Crow. Wendell now found that the main waiting rooms in stations were off-limits to him, coloreds being required to keep themselves to segregated and almost always shabbily inferior areas. Station restaurants below the Mason and Dixon Line served only whites, though some of the larger ones came equipped with an inconspicuous pass-through window or rear platform from which blacks were allowed to buy food to be taken away and eaten elsewhere, which was to say away from whites. The tobacco or magazine shops were routinely located in the white areas, and a dash across a white lobby to buy a pack of cigarettes could, for Wendell, end in arrest--or, worse, a policeman's club brought down on his head.
From the moment he entered Maryland, Wendell would have one small chance of obtaining food on the train itself. If an agreeable dining-car porter were to permit two or three tables to be sectioned off behind a screen or a curtain at the end of the diner, African-Americans would be fed. Even though the law required "equal" dining facilities for whites and blacks, the railroad companies negated such "protections" by invoking the omnibus put-off of "wartime shortage," an excuse for stiffing blacks used long after the war itself had come to an end. Sometimes blacks were allowed to eat either at the end of the regular meal service, which meant after the last whites had vacated the car, or at "first call"--for breakfast that translated into 5:30 a.m.--ensuring they would be out of the way when white passengers dined at the more reasonable hours.
Crossing the Carolinas and Georgia and Alabama, Wendell finished off the last of the cookies from Harlem and followed them with his supply of Hershey's bars, the sugary sustenance preferable to hazarding the humiliation of groveling for a curtained-off seat in the diner. The further the Pontchartrain sped toward its destination, the deeper it penetrated the Old South and the more crowded Wendell's Jim Crow car became. But even though fully half the nation's blacks lived in these eleven southeastern states, the railroads refused to provide anything like equal or proportionate space or facilities for them.
Since it was close to Christmas and its crowds of holiday travelers, at no point in the trip did Wendell profit from the luxury of an empty seat next to his own. He consequently found himself forced to sleep upright in an old and thinly upholstered chair, and each station stop easily jolted him out of his intermittent dozing. Early on the second morning of the journey he awakened under a brightly lit train shed, a large sign hanging from its rafters proclaiming, Birmingham--The Magic City. Looking out his window and into those of a motionless dining car on the adjoining track, he saw dozens of men, all dressed in gray uniforms, sitting at cloth-covered tables where black waiters were politely serving them. The uniforms were the same Wendell had seen from Normandy to Berlin. The breakfasting German war prisoners were too busy feeding themselves to glance across the narrow platform into the window of their former enemy.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had named Wendell's state the most segregated in America, a recognition most white Mississippians esteemed. Likely the only consolation this lent Mississippi's black citizens--about half of the entire population--was that discrimination elsewhere must be at least a fraction less forbidding. White Mississippians arrogantly bragged that the state's bare-knuckled racial climate "differed more from North Carolina's than North Carolina's differed from Ohio's." And from the executive mansion in its capital city, Governor Theodore G. Bilbo had not long before jubilantly proclaimed for anyone who didn't know that "the best way to keep a nigger away from a white primary is to see him the night before." Not all white Mississippians favored Bilbo's implied violence, but their silence made the vast majority complicit in the governor's attitude.
Gliding into the Jackson station, Wendell was too exhilarated to think about the underside of the place in which he had grown up. Leaning out over his car's open platform, his eyes and those of his parents met. After leaping down the steps and embracing first his mother and then his father, the young lieutenant threw his bag over his shoulder--blacks routinely carried their own luggage for the simple reason that porters weren't allowed to serve them--as his parents happily placed their arms around his waist and led him down the platform, toward the waiting-room entrance prominently marked For Colored Only, and through it to the busy street.
A few steps more and the family was at the bus stop, where the three Tandys automatically joined the Negro waiting line. Separating black riders from those with white skins was a steel railing, extending back about five feet from the curb, whose purpose was to make sure the two queues did not merge, which might, of course, lead to the impermissible touching of white skin by black. Whites habitually ignored blacks on the other side of the railing, but Wendell's uniform excited notice from two or three of the whites, whose surly scowls precisely spelled out their disgust for what they regarded as an "uppity nigra" who had gotten too far above himself with his fancy silver lieutenant's bars. Wendell knew most whites fundamentally saw him as more than anything else a sexual predator, and he was quietly pleased at the contrary notions his obvious education and unmistakable commission elicited from whites.
When the Farish Street bus arrived, the one headed for the Tandys' neighborhood, the driver stopped precisely where the open front door would permit those in the white queue to board first. When the handful of white riders had gotten on the bus, the colored riders were allowed to step up to the fare box. There they deposited their dimes and immediately stepped back down to reboard by the rear door. Wendell knew anything like a "sassy" look from a Negro was enough to motivate the white driver--there were, of course, no black drivers in Jackson or, for that matter, anywhere else in the South--to pull away before the paid-up customer could make it to the back door.
The Tandys did make it, and Wendell spotted the last three empty seats--two together and one directly behind it--on the Colored side of the adjustable overhead sign dividing the races. Wendell and his father sat together, Mrs. Tandy in the seat behind. Here they faced yet another potential humiliation: riders in these forward-most colored seats would be the first ordered to move back if more whites got on than there were seats available to them in the white section. Which is what happened to the Tandys three stops after leaving the train station. Two young white girls, faced with a full white section, returned to the driver and quietly but unambiguously claimed their rights.
Without hesitation, the driver half-turned toward the rear of the bus and curtly barked to the affected blacks, "You niggers in those first seats gotta move back." That the rest of the black section was full was immaterial. Wendell and his father stood and moved toward the rear, then the teenagers slid the movable Jim Crow sign back a seat's length on its rail and quickly sank into the seats that had a moment before been occupied by the Tandy men. The uniformed lieutenant and his sixty-six-year-old father stood the remainder of the journey while the teenage girls hunched down in their newly won seats and began giggling about something not known to the Tandys.
Even if he hadn't grown up in this city, Wendell would have had no trouble recognizing the approach of the black neighborhood: paved sidewalk turned to dirt path where the white homes petered out and his own colored district began. When Mrs. Tandy arose as the family's corner approached, she told her son that their friends had for days been eagerly awaiting the chance to welcome back the neighborhood's war hero. Wendell smiled, but asked if they could keep the hellos short so he could treat the two of them to a quiet restaurant dinner to mark his homecoming.
A "celebration" for Jackson's blacks was very different from what it was for the city's whites. Celebrating for African-Americans generally meant doing so at home, the reasons for which were uncomplicated: blacks were barred from setting foot in any of the city's white restaurants or white cafes or white soda fountains or white cafeterias--anyplace, in fact, that served white people food or drink. No black could enter a white bar or a white nightclub or a white dancehall or a white bowling alley or a white skating rink or a white public park or a white auditorium or a white golf course or a white swimming beach or a white public lending library or--God forbid most of all--a white church. Of the city's downtown movie theaters, only two allowed access to blacks--and in both of these blacks were permitted only in the balcony, what whites called the buzzard roosts, or nigger galleries, and to which entry was gained through a side door, or an alley door, followed by a steep climb by way of open steel steps to the top of the theater. When an especially popular picture was showing, when more whites wanted to see the movie than there were first-floor seats, the management simply opened the roost to whites and turned away blacks.
Delighted with their son's surprise offer, Wendell's parents allowed as how they would enjoy a restaurant dinner. On what Mr. Tandy earned as a schoolteacher in a colored school, which was about three-fifths of what a white teacher was paid for teaching in the city's far better equipped and staffed white schools, Mr. Tandy had rarely been able to give his family such a luxury.
The South's taboo on a white person and a black person eating together was, excepting only interracial sex, the most potent precept of Jim Crow. But, fortunately, the Tandys' community possessed its own commercial heart, albeit a small heart. Farish Street provided Jackson's blacks the kind of downtown that the "real" downtown a few blocks away gave the city's whites. Though entirely enclosed by the larger and far more elaborate Anglo-Saxon city in which blacks were almost wholly excluded except as menials and servants, this African-American community provided the Tandys with a happy place to celebrate their son's return home from war.
A short walk through the Christmas-tree-scented night air delivered the family to a street that gave them the unique joy of moving freely among their fellow human beings. Free from an "etiquette" that never-endingly alluded to the inferiority that black skin represented to white Americans, the Tandys walked together as ordinary human beings, passing other ordinary human beings, not having to step aside for white pedestrians, free to enter any store or cafe or theater, and enter in dignity, and where, uniquely in the entire city, they would hear themselves addressed as "mister" or "missus" instead of "boy" or "auntie" or "you" or simply "nigger." For Wendell, the journey from Berlin to Jackson ended in the only reality he had ever known. It was 1945, and life wasn't going to change much for a long time. Not, in fact, until another entire generation had grown up enduring America's own apartheid.
The remainder of this book will describe how America got itself into this situation--how, and why, this nation's people built such a structure. Jim Crow really happened. Americans really lived like this imagined Wendell Tandy, who stands for so many others. Under the standard of white supremacy, for the greater part of four centuries blacks endured all this--and much more that was far, far worse. What follows is why it happened, how it came to be, how we justified it, and how we finally ended it.
The origin of the term Jim Crow lies in the early-nineteenth-century minstrel show, a form of popular stage entertainment that can be thought of as the predecessor to vaudeville. Minstrelsy consisted of white song-and-dance performers crudely mimicking African-American dance steps and rhythms, generally for the enjoyment it gave to white audiences while demeaning the blacks whom the white entertainers tried to resemble by covering their faces with burnt cork. One of the earliest and most famous minstrels was Thomas "Daddy" Rice, who devised a strutting dance character supposedly suggesting a prancing crow, and the character thus came to be called Jim Crow, an act for which Rice gained nationwide fame.
How the vaudeville character called Jim Crow came to be the general term for American racial segregation and discrimination is not known. But at some point in the nineteenth century, the term ceased to have anything to do with minstrelsy (whose popularity had by the end of the nineteenth century greatly waned), instead signifying what it meant throughout the twentieth century, namely the legal, quasi-legal, or customary practice of disfranchising, physically segregating, barring, and discriminating against black Americans, virtually the sole practitioners of such practices being white Americans.
The full range of the Jim Crow of this book is, admittedly, difficult to define with precision. Think of it, though, as being a little like pornography. That, too, can be hard to define, but as Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once remarked, you know it when you see it.
Posted August 12, 2011
No text was provided for this review.