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The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South
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The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South

by Stephanie Cole (Editor), Natalie J. Ring (Editor), Melissa Stein (Contribution by), Theda Perdue (Contribution by), Peter Wallenstein (Contribution by)

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Although the origins, application, and socio-historical implications of the Jim Crow system have been studied and debated for at least the last three-quarters of a century, nuanced understanding of this complex cultural construct is still evolving, according to Stephanie Cole and Natalie J. Ring, coeditors of The Folly of Jim


Although the origins, application, and socio-historical implications of the Jim Crow system have been studied and debated for at least the last three-quarters of a century, nuanced understanding of this complex cultural construct is still evolving, according to Stephanie Cole and Natalie J. Ring, coeditors of The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South. Indeed, they suggest, scholars may profit from a careful examination of previous assumptions and conclusions along the lines suggested by the studies in this important new collection.

Based on the March 2008 Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures at the University of Texas at Arlington, this forty-third volume in the prestigious series undertakes a close review of both the history and the historiography of the Jim Crow South. The studies in this collection incorporate important perspectives that have developed during the past two decades among scholars interested in gender and politics, the culture of resistance, and "the hegemonic function of ‘whiteness.’"

By asking fresh questions and critically examining long-held beliefs, the new studies contained in The Folly of Jim Crow will, ironically, reinforce at least one of the key observations made in C. Vann Woodward’s landmark 1955 study: In its idiosyncratic, contradictory, and multifaceted development and application, the career of Jim Crow was, indeed, strange. Further, as these studies demonstrate—and as alluded to in the title—it is folly to attempt to locate the genesis of the South’s institutional racial segregation in any single event, era, or policy. "Instead," as W. Fitzhugh Brundage notes in his introduction to the volume, "formal segregation evolved through an untidy process of experimentation and adaptation."

Editorial Reviews

Laura Edwards

"This remarkable collection of insightful essays takes the reader deep inside the Jim Crow South to reveal new elements in the history of segregation—its creation, its workings, the power relations it supported, and its legacy. The implications challenge us to rethink broad questions of racial inequality not just in the South, but also in the United States as a whole."--Laura F. Edwards, Professor of History, Duke University, author of The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South

Texas Books in Review

“The essays compiled in The Folly of Jim Crow are wonderfully written and well researched and provide important insight.”—Brandon Jett, Texas Books in Review

— Brandon Jett

Grace Elizabeth Hale

"Full of rich detail and sophisticated argument, The Folly of Jim Crow is the most important anthology on the history of segregation in the US South since Jumpin' Jim Crow (2000). Collectively, the essays here provide an essential revision on the history of the region"--Grace Elizabeth Hale, Professor of History and American Studies, University of Virginia

Texas Books in Review - Brandon Jett

“The essays compiled in The Folly of Jim Crow are wonderfully written and well researched and provide important insight.”—Brandon Jett, Texas Books in Review

Product Details

Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures, published for the University of Texas at , #43
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Folly of Jim Crow

Rethinking the Segregated South

By Stephanie Cole, Natalie J. Ring

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Texas at Arlington
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-661-7


Identity, Marriage, and Schools: Life along the Color Line/s in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson


In 1877, former "free persons of color" and former slaves alike lived in Virginia as citizens, with voting rights and access to segregated schooling. Rowena McPherson and George Stewart resided in Manchester, across the James River from Richmond, the recent capital of the Confederacy. Though they had married in Washington, DC, they found themselves arrested for the crime of "living in illicit intercourse." Despite their insistence that they were legally married, they were convicted and fined. The trial court determined that because he was white and she was not, their marriage had no validity, was actually a crime, and could supply them no shield against prosecution. They contested the ruling, and the case went to the Virginia Supreme Court.

According to a unanimous decision by the appeals court, under Virginia law Rowena McPherson was not, after all, "a negro" but a white person. Across the entire nineteenth century, before and after the Civil War and universal emancipation, the law of racial identity in Virginia categorized as "white" a person of less than one-fourth African descent. Rowena McPherson's father was white. (The court evidently took that as meaning he was 100 percent Caucasian, or at least not at all African.) Her maternal grandfather was also white. Thus she was at least three-quarters white. To be sure, that fraction would leave her nonwhite in the eyes of the law at that time and place. To be legally "white"—and thus free to marry George Stewart, and he her—she had to be less than one-quarter black.

The case hinged on the racial ancestry of Rowena McPherson's maternal grandmother. If she had been fully African in ancestry, then McPherson was nonwhite, in fact "negro." But if not, McPherson qualified as "white." Testimony from the family declared that the maternal grandmother's mother—McPherson's great-grandmother—was a "brown skin woman," "half Indian." Thus the court concluded, "less than one-fourth" of Rowena McPherson's "blood" was "negro blood." And "if it be but one drop less, she is not a negro."

Evidently Rowena's mother was nonwhite under Virginia law. This mixed-race background might explain why the couple went to the nation's capital to wed rather than marry in Virginia. But as for Rowena, she was "not a negro."

This case from the 1870s can be seen as a post–Civil War manifestation of a pre–Civil War statute that historian Joshua D. Rothman terms Virginia's "not a negro" law. Despite the original arrests and outcome at trial, the state supreme court ruled that the couple had not married across the racial boundary provided under Virginia law and that the marriage therefore was valid. Saved by an unusual form of the "one drop" rule of racial identity, the pair was not guilty. A white man retained his patriarchal prerogative in selecting a wife, and he had no need to pay a hefty fine for the choice he, and his bride, had made.

The Virginia legislature had first taken action against various forms of interracial marriage as early as 1691, midway through the colonial era. The 1691 law had spoken with disgust of "that abominable mixture and spurious issue" that would increase unless white women were prevented from having sex with nonwhite men—in the assembly's words, "as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawful accompanying with one another."

Union victory in the Civil War brought at least three emancipations. First came a universal end to racial enslavement. Then, when the abolition of slavery seemed clearly inadequate by itself to set the terms of freedom, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the core of which, subsequently incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment, declared African Americans to be citizens and spoke of equal civil rights for all citizens. And in 1867, black men in most of the former Confederacy obtained the right to vote when Congress took further action to ensure ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. The postwar legal and constitutional changes applied to people of color regardless of whether they had been free before the war or had been emancipated only recently. Perhaps those changes freed white people, too, in their choice of a marriage partner, but in the early years that was by no means certain.

Beginning in the late 1860s, whites and people with other racial identities were free to marry across any color line—depending on how courts ruled—in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas but not in Indiana (after a trial-court affirmation was overturned), Georgia, or Virginia. In some states uncertainty persisted well into the 1870s, and Louisiana did not restore its statute against interracial marriage until 1894, when a case from that state involving racial identity, railway seating, and a man named Homer Plessy was making its way through the American court system.

Whatever the uncertainty elsewhere, at no time after 1691 in Virginia could white people marry people of color with legal impunity. But even there the rules changed over the years. Thus, in contrast to the 1691 law, Rowena McPherson's Indian forebears saved her, we might say, from consignment to a category of Virginia women from among whom a white man like George Stewart could not lawfully take a wife. But had the couple been arrested a couple of years later and found guilty of marrying in violation of a law passed in 1878, each would have been sentenced to the state penitentiary for at least two years and as many as five. And had their marriage taken place after 1910, when the boundary between white and nonwhite was moved from one-fourth black to one-sixteenth, her genealogy would have defined her as nonwhite and therefore unavailable for him to marry.

Even just in marriage and in a single state the meaning of "segregation" shifted. It also varied from one state to another, and it could differ from one site to another, such as education and marriage.

The Color Line in American History

Race always mattered in American society, politics, culture, and law—before as well as after universal emancipation, and before as well as after the Supreme Court ruling in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. What was one's racial identity? Who decided? What consequences flowed from the resulting classification? It is easy to project onto the past a sense derived from the "one-drop rule" of black racial identity and, in the bargain, to assume that it operated in the same way at all times, in all places, and in every situation. How the color line worked across the centuries was, however, not all of a piece. State law or local usage might establish a boundary, but where that boundary lay was very much a matter of history, varying by time and place and site.

No matter where the boundary, the classification of individuals was often a matter deeply contested. Was the particular law of race constitutional? How (as in the case of Rowena McPherson) did it apply to the person in question? Was it appropriate that there be any such boundary, no matter how implemented or by whom? All three questions arose in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Historians looking back on the "age of segregation" in the South have often addressed the ways in which the 1896 ruling in Plessy relates to the emergence of racial segregation. The classic formulation, by historian C. Vann Woodward in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, interrogated the timing of segregation ordinances and statutes primarily as they related to transportation—railway lines, streetcars, steamboats—and concluded that they had emerged with full force only around the turn of the century and that, because they had not been a part of the scene forever, they might be more susceptible of removal than had been suspected by proponents of progressive change on the racial front. The Strange Career of Jim Crow—first published in 1955, the year of the second of the Supreme Court's two rulings in Brown v. Board of Education—has been in print ever since. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked upon it with great favor, as it encouraged mightily the notion that segregation, though deeply ingrained in the South, might be amenable to change.

Since the publication of Woodward's book, the assumption has been that segregation is best understood as having originated with Plessy in 1896, or about that time, and ended in the decade that began with the Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In reconsidering these parameters, this essay inquires about a predominantly public matter, education, and a considerably private one, marriage. Brown v. Board, widely seen as the end of the age of segregation, certainly marked the end of the constitutionality of segregation in public schools. In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States concluded: "In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Specifically regarding Plessy, which by then had long served as the major precedent in segregation, the Court declared: "Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected."

Before we proceed, we should offer a set of distinctions that was not part of the discourse of the Civil Rights Movement, nor has it been particularly visible in modern historiographical discussions of the twentieth-century South. That people in the modern era have tended to lump all manner of rights together is entirely understandable, but the practice was by no means the norm in the late nineteenth century. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, in speaking of basic rights to be assured the former slaves of the South, spoke of civil rights in the sense of the right to purchase land and make contracts, not the right to go to school (let alone with whites) or to vote. As early as 1867 the politics of Reconstruction had brought black men the right to vote in every state of the former Confederacy, and in 1870 their right to vote was enshrined in the Fifteenth Amendment. Questions of segregation in schoolrooms and on streetcars related to a different order of "rights." The Court majority in Plessy v. Ferguson simply assumed the kind of rights that had been outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and then went on to declare, with these contemporary distinctions expressly in mind: "The distinction between laws interfering with the political equality of the negro"—which, it said, had not been permitted—"and those requiring the separation of the two races in schools, theatres and railway carriages has been frequently drawn by this court." Thus the roles, rights, and restrictions that are the principal focus of this essay lie in a realm that, especially for white southerners and even for national policy makers, was configured quite differently than more recent understandings would suggest.

At the very time covered by the conventional conception of the "era of segregation" in the South, millions of newcomers to the United States—mostly outside the South—were striving to gain full admission to their new society. Their efforts brought a different but related set of questions of rights and relations. In Working toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White, historian David R. Roediger has inquired of these newcomers, and of the world into which they entered, how they were seen by most native whites, whether as "white" or not, and how their trek through the half-century between the 1890s and the 1940s related to American conceptions of race. Their ability to make their way to an assumed "whiteness" that had scarcely been in evidence a mere generation before might be seen as consistent with Woodward's sense of the plasticity of "race," but from Roediger's perspective the presence of people who remained "nonwhite" facilitated the social promotion and incorporation of the newcomers from Europe.

Roediger's work, like Woodward's, is a monument to heroic political, moral, and historiographical repositioning. Critiquing other recent works on ethnic or racial history in the North, Roediger says of one in particular that although the author "assumes at times that the key sites of racial transformation are legal and intellectual," we should "think of whitening as a process in social history in which countless quotidian activities" shaped both "popular and expert understandings of the race of new immigrants."

Certainly we ought not to assume that the doctrine handed down in a US Supreme Court ruling, whether Plessy or Brown, tells us what was everywhere happening on the ground. And yet opinions from appellate courts are often a rich source of material that addresses precisely what was happening. We see the law not only framed but also implemented, and we see where prosecutions take place and where people resist the application of the law. State legislators and appellate court judges alike take actions and make decisions that shape the world within which the rest of society must work. Making those decisions is one thing; applying them in society's workplace is quite another. The materials in this essay zoom in on illustrative individuals and their stories to reveal how "race" worked on the ground.

In that light, the case that Homer Plessy took to the Supreme Court from Louisiana in the 1890s is an excellent place to look for the juncture of racial classification and legal segregation. The 1900 census pegged him as "mulatto," not "black," and all seem to have agreed that his features and coloration were such that the conductor probably would not have ordered him to the black car had he not announced his racial identity. But the law directed that railway cars be segregated, empowered railway employees to determine racial identity, and required employees and passengers to comply with the segregation statute.

Plessy's attorneys cited the many ways in which race was defined in the various states as evidence of the artificiality of such efforts and of the caprice embodied in laws based on such a foundation. Their opponents argued that states traditionally had exercised discretion both in defining racial differences and in legislating on the basis of those differences. The Court sided with Plessy's opponents, nonetheless taking the position that, even though racial categories in general were sufficiently certain to be used, Plessy's own racial identity was by no means certain. In other words the Supreme Court recognized the arbitrariness of the racial classification without which the case before it could never have arisen. In the final paragraph of its opinion, the Court observed: "It is true that the question of the proportion of colored blood necessary to constitute a colored person, as distinguished from a white person, is one upon which there is a difference of opinion in the different States." Noting that it might be "a question of importance whether, under the laws of Louisiana, the petitioner belongs to the white or colored race," the Court declared that such questions must, however, be "determined under the laws of each State" and not by the Supreme Court.

Only because the Court assumed that states had authority to assign racial identity could the matter of legislative discretion to segregate railway cars arise. Indeed, only because a state had determined that there ought to be a racial boundary, and then had set it somewhere—or when legislators were considering whether to define a racial boundary—was it possible to worry about the authority to send a student to a "white" school or a "colored" one, to assign a passenger to a "white" car or a "colored" one, or to tell two people that their planning to marry, or their having married, was unacceptable under the law because they did not share a racial identity.

A few years after Plessy the new State of Oklahoma set its ground rules for marriage and education. Its 1907 constitution distinguished between "persons of African descent" and the "white race," a category comprising "all other persons." The constitution itself applied these terms in providing for segregated public schools, and a statute enacted in the first legislative session applied it to marriage. Everyone in Oklahoma, then, was either "of African descent" or "not of African descent." Nobody in one group could marry anyone in the other, any more than the two groups could lawfully attend public schools at any level together. Therefore it might be said that, to the extent that Indians in Oklahoma were not bound by the rules governing black southerners, they lived outside the Jim Crow South. Then again, under Oklahoma law, mixed-race black-white or black-red people were consigned to the black side of the racial divide even while some of their blood kin held a "white" racial identity with its prerogatives—or penalties. Notable among court cases regarding both the validity of a marriage, and the ability under that marriage to inherit from a deceased spouse who had left no will, is one from the 1920s that involved Myrtle Segro and James Grayson, each reportedly three-fourths Native American. Normally she would have inherited a half-share of his estate, but other heirs contested her claim, bringing the fourth grandparent of each into play. Reported to be one-fourth Caucasian, while Grayson was one-fourth African American, Segro found herself identified as an illegitimate widow, denied title to any land he had owned.

To Nationalize a Uniform Law of Race and Marriage—or Not

Oklahoma was an early adopter of the one-drop rule of black racial identity in the law of marriage. Texas had already enacted such a rule, but not until the 1920s would Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia follow suit. Nor did Oklahoma lead the way in constitutionalizing its legal definition of the races. Mississippi had done that as early as 1890. Most states, however, neither established the one-drop rule in marriage nor put into the state constitution whatever line of demarcation had been adopted for that state. However, one notable effort from this period would have done both for the entire nation.


Excerpted from The Folly of Jim Crow by Stephanie Cole, Natalie J. Ring. Copyright © 2012 The University of Texas at Arlington. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Stephanie Cole is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. Her research focuses on border regions of the US South, highlighting the intersections of race, gender and work. Her PhD is from the University of Florida and she is a co-editor of the forthcoming essay collection Texas Women/American Women: Their Lives and Times.

Natalie J. Ring, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas, specializes in US Southern history and the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. She earned her PhD at the University of California, San Diego and is the author of the forthcoming book The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880–1930.

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