The Rise of Jim Crow

Even after the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow laws restricted the freedom of African-Americans.
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Jim Crow Cars

Among the earliest pieces of Jim Crow legislation were those regulating enforcing the segregation of railway facilities. Public segregation of transport facilities was a fact of life in the South by the turn of the century, and a good many states outside of the South adopted equally discriminatory measures.

On the March

Before Rosa Parks, there was Homer Plessy, a Louisiana carpenter. As part of an intentional constitutional challenge against Louisiana segregation law, Plessy stepped onto a train on the seventh of June 1892, and took a seat in the whites-only car. He declined to give up his seat and was placed under arrest. His case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which held not only that Plessy had not been harmed by the Louisiana law, but also that state-mandated racial segregation did nothing whatsoever to brand African-Americans “with a badge of inferiority.”

There are some contemporary references to the South's “colored-only” railroad cars as “Jim Crow cars.” These cars were often poorly lit, unbearably overheated, and overcrowded. Passengers were frequently forced to share space with farm animals; whisky-drinking white male passengers sometimes passed through the cars long enough to share foul language and abuse.

Many African-Americans protested; an 1882 editorial, for instance, indignantly urged southern railway systems to “toe the mark of progress.” But that mark was being moved—steadily and predictably—backward.

The Supreme Court Signs Off on Jim Crow

Before long, state legislatures had passed a wave of discriminatory laws. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court formally endorsed these laws with its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision was a critical formal endorsement of the entire Jim Crow cultural and legal structure. Others would follow.

Today, Plessy v. Ferguson is widely regarded as one of the lowest points in the long history of the Supreme Court. The decision would not be formally overturned for nearly 60 years.

Did the U.S. Supreme Court ever rule on the question of Jim Crow-era racial segregation in schools? Yes. In Cumming v. County Board of Education (1899), the court held that separate educational facilities were permissible, even when no facilities at all were available to African-American students.

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