Between 1880 and 1954, African Americans dedicated their energies, and sometimes their lives, to defeating segregation. During these times, characterized by some as "worse than slavery," African Americans fought the status quo, acquiring education and land and building businesses, churches, and communities, despite laws designed to segregate and disenfranchise them. White supremacy prevailed, but it did not destroy the spirit of the black community.
Incorporating anecdotes, the exploits of individuals, first-person accounts, and never-before-seen images and graphics, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow by Richard Wormser is the story of the African American struggle for freedom following the end of the Civil War. A companion volume to the four-part PBS television series, which took seven years to write, research, and edit, the book documents the work of such figures as the activist and separatist Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. It examines the emergence of the black middle class and intellectual elite, and the birth of the NAACP.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow also tells the stories of ordinary heroes who accomplished extraordinary things: Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a teacher who founded the Palmer Memorial Institute, a private black high school in North Carolina; Ned Cobb, a tenant farmer in Alabama who became a union organizer; Isaiah Montgomery, who founded Mound Bayou, an all-black town in Mississippi; Charles Evers, brother of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who fought for voter registration in Mississippi in the 1940s. And Barbara Johns, a sixteen-year-old Virginia student who organized a student strike in 1951. The strike led to a lawsuit that became one of the five cases the United States Supreme Court reviewed when it declared segregation in education illegal.
As the twenty-first century rolls forward, we are losing the remaining survivors of this pivotal era. Rich in historical commentary and eyewitness testimony by blacks and whites who lived through the period, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow is a poignant record of a time when indignity and terror constantly faced off against courage and accomplishment.
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About the Author
Richard Wormser is an award-winning writer and photographer. He has written, produced, and directed over one hundred programs for television, educational institutions, and government. His programs have received over twenty-five awards. He is the originator, series coproducer, and writer/director of the four-part PBS television series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. He has also written twenty books of young adult nonfiction, and has taught film and video production courses at the University of Bridgeport and Global Village in New York. He lives in New York City.
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The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
By Richard Wormser
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Richard Wormser
All rights reserved.
The Promise of Freedom, 1865–1877
At 4:30 A.M., on the morning of April 12, 1861, Edward Ruffin, a flinty, irascible old man from Virginia who passionately hated the North and who for twenty years had been haranguing the South to secede from the United States, received a singular honor from the Confederate Army: He fired the first shot of the Civil War. Ruffin lit the fuse that hurled a cannonball blazing across the dark sky like a meteor toward Fort Sumter. "Of course I was highly gratified by the compliment and delighted to perform the service," he later boasted. A Union sergeant on the rampart of the fort remembered watching "the burning fuse which marked the course of the shell ... mounted among the stars."
The Civil War unleashed a tidal wave of patriotic furor that engulfed both sides. Northerners and Southerners alike clamored for what they believed would be a ninety-day bloodless war in which their side would easily emerge victorious. The bloodless ninety days swelled into four blood-filled years. Almost seven hundred thousand men died before the carnage ended.
Both sides insisted at first that the fight was not about slavery. To Southerners, "states' rights" was the catchword; to Northerners, "preserving the Union." Abraham Lincoln made his position clear in a letter to Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, when he refused demands by Northern abolitionists to end slavery early in the war: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
But the battle to preserve the Union inevitably became a battle to end slavery. One month later, after the horrific battle of Antietam forced the Southern armies to withdraw from Maryland, Lincoln formally announced the Emancipation Proclamation: "On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Blacks emancipated themselves even before the proclamation. Whenever Union soldiers appeared near where they were enslaved, they fled their plantations. Tens of thousands of freedmen eventually joined the army, helping transform the Union Army into an army of liberation.
Freedom became official on January 31, 1865, when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment. For four million African Americans, the "Day of Jubilee" had arrived — the promised time when God would set his people free. As the Union Army swept through the South, at times led by black soldiers, freedmen and freedwomen marched, danced, worshiped, and gave thanks to the Lord and to "Father Abraham." A woman on a plantation in Yorktown, Virginia, ran to a secluded place so her former owner would not see her express her joy. "I jump up and scream 'Glory, glory, hallelujah to Jesus. I's free. I's free. ... De soul buyers can nebber take my two chillun's lef' me. Nebber can take 'em from me no mo.'"
People created songs to express their newfound freedom:
Run to do kitchen and shout in de window
Mammy don't you cook no mo'
You's free. You's free!
Run to de hen house and shout:
Rooster don't you crow no mo'
You's free! You's free!
Ol' hen don't you lay no mo' eggs
You's free! You's free!
Felix Haywood was herding wild horses on the plains of Texas when the news came. "When we learned of our freedom, everybody went wild. We all felt like horses and nobody made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that we was free." When the wife of a black Union soldier asked her husband if she could name their newborn son James Freeman, he replied, "Take good care of our boy because he is born free — free as the bird, free as the wind and free as the sun and his name is Freeman. That just suits me. Thank God! He shall always be a freeman."
Blacks expressed their freedom by organizing parades. They demanded that whites address them as Mr. and Mrs. Women dressed in brightly colored clothes, carried parasols, rode in carriages, refused to give way to whites on the street, and sat with whites on streetcars. Men carried guns and bought dogs and liquor, all of which had been forbidden under slavery. Restricted in their ability to move about during slavery, freedmen and freedwomen exhibited a passion for travel. They organized train excursions to hold picnics and religious meetings in distant places. Whites could not understand why even those who had been well treated left. When one white woman begged her cook to stay on, even offering to pay her twice as much money as she would make elsewhere, the cook refused. Her baffled former mistress asked why she declined such a generous offer. The cook replied, "If I stay here, I'll never know I'm free." One former slave explained, "They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they'd know what it was — like it was a place or city."
Even as they enjoyed their freedom, African Americans struggled to define it. Where would they work? What role would they play in the community? Would Southern whites accept them? Where would they live? Would they be able to own land? Would their children receive an education? What political power would they have? To help answer these questions, Congress authorized the Freedmen's Bureau. Administered by the Union Army, the bureau's task was to organize a system of free labor between freedmen and -women and white planters, settle conflicts and disputes between whites and blacks, administer confiscated land, ensure that blacks received justice in the courts, and organize schools. The bureau was also to provide food, fuel, and clothing to the needy of both races on a very limited basis.
Woefully understaffed, the bureau did receive support from other agencies. Hundreds of black and white ministers, missionaries, and teachers flocked to the South with Bibles and spellers to help "uplift the race." Although blacks welcomed Northern assistance, they recognized that the main responsibility for their future lay with themselves. From the very beginning, African Americans began to build their own communities and institutions. They established churches, built schools, and set up benevolent societies to take care of the sick and the elderly, social organizations, including dramatic societies, debating clubs, fire companies, militia groups, and temperance leagues. There was so much activity that one man commented, "We have progressed a century in a year."
Freedmen and freedwomen attempted to restore families destroyed by slavery. Tens of thousands of children and parents, brothers and sisters had been sold away. Newspapers were filled with advertisements from mothers, fathers, children, brothers, and sisters seeking one another.
Sam'l Dove wishes to know the whereabouts of his mother Areno, his sisters Maria, Neziah and Peggy, and his brother Edmond, sold in Richmond.
$200 reward. For our daughter Polly and our son George Washington, carried away as slaves.
Many husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles were lost forever to one another. When Henry Spicer discovered, after remarrying, that his beloved first wife, who had been sold away from him and whom he believed dead, was still alive, he wrote her a heartbreaking letter: "I had rather anything happened to me than to have ever been parted from you and the children. I thinks of you and the children every day of my life. My love to you never have failed. Laura, I have got another wife and I am sorry that I am. You feels to me as much as my dear loving wife as you ever did Laura."
The great passion of the freedman became education. Booker T. Washington, who had been born in slavery and whose climb up the educational ladder would become legendary, observed his people's fervent desire for education: "To get inside a schoolhouse would be about the same as getting into heaven. Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for education. It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn."
Sidney Andrews, a Northern white journalist sympathetic to black aspirations, noted the same passion as he traveled through the South after the Civil War: "Many of the Negroes ... common plantation Negroes and day laborers ... were supporting schools themselves. I had occasion very frequently to notice that porters in stores and laboring men about cotton warehouses and cart drivers in the streets had spelling books with them and were studying them during the time that they were not occupied with their work. Go into the outskirts of any large town ... and you will see children, and in many instances grown Negroes, sitting in the sun alongside their cabins studying."
By 1866, an estimated five hundred independent schools had sprung up outside the cities and towns. William Channing Gannett, a white missionary from New England, observed that though blacks welcomed white assistance, they did not want white control: "They have a natural praiseworthy pride in keeping their educational institutions in their own hands. There is a jealousy of the superintendence of the white man in this matter. What they desire is assistance without control."
Many white Southerners resented the "Yankees" who had come South to educate blacks. One Southern white woman tried to convince Elizabeth Boutume, a New England schoolteacher, of the futility of her efforts. "I do assure you," the woman said, "you might as well teach your horse or mule to read as these niggers. They can't learn." Boutume replied, "If they can't read, why are you so afraid of school?"
Boutume knew well her students' desire to learn. She told the story of one cook who had ankle chains shackled to her feet by her master so that she would not run away. The woman had still managed to escape, hobbling and dragging herself day and night until she finally reached the school. Her feet were swollen and bloody from the chains biting into her flesh, and she would never walk normally again. When asked why education was so important to her, she answered that, before she died, she wanted to learn at least one thing to show to God when she met him. When a Union general visited Boutume's school and asked the students what message they had for their friends in the North, a child rose up and answered, "Tell them we are rising."
African Americans were as eager to build their own churches as they were to establish their own schools. Churches were the spiritual, educational, and political centers of community life. W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the great black civil rights leaders of the early twentieth century, wrote of the black church:
The church was the spiritual and social heart of the black community. Various organizations meet here — the church proper, the Sunday school, insurance societies, women's societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of every kind. Entertainments, suppers and lectures are held here besides the five or six weekly services. Employment is found for the idle; strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time, this social, economic and intellectual center is a religious center of great power ... the Church often stands as a real conserver of morals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Good and Right.
Under slavery, black congregations had been subject to white ministers and churches. Now they either withdrew from white churches or took control, hiring black ministers to replace white ones. In 1867, the black membership of the Methodist church in the South was 40,000. Six years later it had dropped to 653. In 1858, there were 25,000 black Presbyterians. By 1875, the number fell to 1,614. Along with the church, blacks organized benevolent societies, political clubs, fraternal organizations, women's clubs, and labor unions. They raised money for orphanages and soup kitchens for the poor and the aged. Northern black ministers who came South expected to find their congregations completely degraded by slavery and in need of uplift. They learned instead what Thomas Higgenbotham had already discovered several years earlier about the Southern black troops he had commanded during the Civil War: "We did not know how the religious temperament of the Negroes had checked the demoralization." James Lynch, a Northern black minister, found freedmen and freedwomen a most responsive audience: "They exhibit a desire to hear and learn that I never imagined. Every word you say while preaching, they drink down and respond to with an earnestness that sets your heart all on fire and you feel that it is indeed God's work to minister to them." When Isaac Brinkerhood, a white Baptist minister from the North, tried to teach blacks to abandon their old black preachers who had conducted secret services during the days of slavery, he discovered that he had a lot to learn himself. Listening to one of these ministers preach, Brinkerhood confessed, "He was an unlearned man who could not read ... telling of the love of Christ, of Christian faith and duty in a way which I have not yet learned."
As African Americans built their own institutions, they organized conventions to debate and define their future. Men, women, and children attended these conventions, participated in the discussion, and voted. At the Convention of the Colored People of South Carolina in 1865, the delegates requested "that we shall be recognized as men; that the same laws which govern white men shall govern black men; that we have the right of trial by jury of our peers; that no impediments be placed in our way of acquiring homesteads; that, in short, we be dealt with as others are — in equity and in justice."
For a brief moment, their pleas might have been granted. According to Whitelaw Reid, a Northern reporter touring the South, Southerners seemed to be resigned to the fact that blacks would be major players in a new South. This opportunity was quickly lost. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the South found itself with an ally — the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson.
* * *
Andrew Johnson was described by his contemporaries as quick-tempered, hard-drinking, and mule-headed, a bully whose hatred of slave owners was as intense as his hatred of blacks. Johnson was born and raised in poverty. Through grit and determination he worked his way up in life, becoming governor of Tennessee and a United States senator. Although a slave owner, he favored emancipation. When the South seceded, he remained loyal to the Union. Lincoln rewarded him for his loyalty by choosing him as his vice president in 1864.
During the war, Johnson had taken a hard line regarding the South. "Treason is a crime," he said, "and crime must be punished." Johnson condemned those Southern politicians who had led the South into war. He said that, if he could, "I would arrest them — I would try them — I would convict them — and I would hang them." Many Radical Republicans in Congress — those who supported strong civil and political rights for blacks and harsh punishment of the South — had more hope that Johnson would carry out their policies than they did Lincoln. Some were not at all unhappy that Lincoln had been assassinated. Representative George Julian wrote, "Hostility towards Lincoln's policy of conciliation and contempt for his weakness were undisguised. The universal feeling here among radical men is that his death is a god-send." One senator remarked of Johnson, "I believe that the Almighty continued Mr. Lincoln in office as long as he was useful and then substituted a better man to finish his work."
The Radical Republicans believed that Johnson shared their view of the South. They maintained that the South had forfeited all rights to statehood when it separated itself from the Union. After defeat, it was little better than a conquered nation, barred from representation in Congress and the protection of the Constitution. They wanted to restructure the South to ensure that blacks would receive their rights and whites would be forever loyal to the Union.
Johnson had his own agenda. He did not share the belief that the South had separated itself from the Union. He agreed that the leaders of the South were guilty of treason but, like Lincoln, Johnson felt that the Union was indissoluble. He wanted to "reconstruct" the South in order to hasten its return to the Union as soon as possible. Moreover, Johnson wanted the South brought back into the Union under white control. While governor of Tennessee, he had promised black people that he would "indeed be your Moses and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace." But Moses became Judas for black people when Johnson became President. For though he had opposed slavery, he did not believe in racial equality. "I believe they [African Americans] have less capacity for governing than any race of people on earth," he said. He opposed extending the vote to blacks and any attempt of the federal government to ensure their civil and political rights.
Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow by Richard Wormser. Copyright © 2003 Richard Wormser. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Promise of Freedom, 1865–1877,
Chapter 2: Promises Betrayed, 1880–1890,
Chapter 3: New Roads Taken, 1880–1890,
Chapter 4: "Jim Crow Comes to Town," 1890–1896,
Chapter 5: Victories and Defeats, 1897–1900,
Chapter 6: The Worst of Times, 1900–1917,
Chapter 7: Prelude to Change: Between Two Wars, 1918–1931,
Chapter 8: Center Stage for Civil Rights, 1932–1944,
Chapter 9: The Breakthrough, 1945–1954,
List of Credits,
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