Role of Jim Crow Laws

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The Great Migration

        Although the passage of the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, took place in 1865 by the House of Representatives, the pain and suffering of African-Americans was far from over. Immediately after the House pushed the thirteenth amendment into effect, the roots of Jim Crow laws began to take form. The Jim Crow laws were a new form of slavery designed to keep black people that lived in the South oppressed and desperate to continue slave labor. Many could no longer withstand the terrifying environment, where they constantly walked on eggshells, that was the Jim Crow South. Those that could no longer take living in the South, the fear that their life could be taken over a misconstrued interaction with a white person, and those that had the means to quietly escape to the North in search of a better life, did just that. This was known as the Great Migration and it took place from about 1915 to 1970. The North was not the paradise that southern African Americans expected, but it provided them with lives much better than the ones they had in the South. This is evidenced through the true stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

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        When the Civil War ended, most black southerners’ economic status had not improved. Most were now sharecroppers, which was just a new form of slavery designed to keep them indebted to the land and its owner. Very often, when a sharecropper worked a whole year in the field, they would go to the planter looking for what they were owed and would be told that they earned nothing or were more in debt now than when the year began. During Reconstruction though, newly freed men were allowed the rights they were once denied before the Civil war, like marrying, going to school, voting, owning a business, becoming physicians, legislators, and more. Many believed that there would never be a question of whether they deserved rights again, not knowing that their newfound freedoms would be short-lived. By the mid-1870s, the North withdrew from the South and a caste system based solely on race, that afforded black people no mobility, took their place, stripping away all the rights that black people had just become accustomed to (Wilkerson, 2010). Southern politicians fed off of anti-black sentiments (Wilkerson, 2010, p.38) and used it to win elections all the way up to the Senate. It wouldn’t take more than a rumor to get a black person murdered because they were not afforded due process. Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, ‘Burn, burn, burn!’ as Washington was lowered into the flames (Wilkerson, 2010, p.39). The turn of the twentieth century would bring with it Jim Crow laws that would make it lawful for such murders to continue, for segregation, and regulate every aspect of black people’s lives, solidify the southern caste system, and prohibit even the most casual and incidental contact between the races (Wilkerson, 2010, p.40). Ida Mae Gladney and Pershing Foster both witnessed and experienced the immense hardships in the Jim Crow South that would push them north.

        Ida Mae had three siblings that ended up in the North long before her. She had even heard of other families fleeing because one or more of their members were murdered. When Ida Mae was thirteen years old, two boys, known as the Carter brothers, were accused of speaking to a white woman. That same morning, the boys were taken by white people and lynched (Wilkerson, 2010). It wouldn’t be the last time that Ida Mae would be an observer of such inhumane and unwarranted punishments. After she marries her husband, George, Ida Mae moves onto a plantation where she does the backbreaking work of picking cotton. One night, .around nine o’clock, the pounding started on Ida Mae’s door (Wilkerson, 2010, p.125). It was the boss, Mr. Edd, and about five other men looking for her husband’s cousin, Joe Lee, because they suspected him of stealing Mr. Edd’s turkeys. When they caught Joe Lee, they nearly beat him to death over stealing turkeys that had wandered away on their own and returned the next morning. It was then that Ida Mae and George decided to leave the South.

When they sneak away in the night, with fear that if they were caught they would be killed, to the North, they settle in Chicago in October 1937. Coming from a place where colored people had to step off the curb when they passed a white person in town (Wilkerson, 2010, p.31), Ida Mae said that when she first arrived in Chicago it looked like Heaven (Wilkerson, 2010, p.226) to her. In the North, black people that were once subject to the cruelties of Jim Crow laws, were restored with dignity because they no longer had to respond to white people with yes, sir or no, ma’am and there was no threat of being lynched. Blacks in the North now had access to political power, the police and government on their side, and better wages. The North still wasn’t perfect though. Although there were more jobs and opportunities, Ida Mae has trouble finding a job when they first arrive in Chicago. European immigrants were given priority when it came to hiring because employers claimed that white employees would not stand for the hiring of black people (Wilkerson, 2010). Years later when Ida Mae moved into a predominately white neighborhood, all of the white people moved away because they believed that black people would devalue their property.

Robert Pershing Foster grew up in Monroe and attended Morehouse, the most prestigious college in the country for colored men (Wilkerson, 2010, p.115). While he was growing up, he witnessed black professionals living in nice houses and living, what seemed like, a good life. It was then that he decided he would never live in Monroe ever again. After medical school, Pershing reports for duty as a medical officer and becomes Captain Foster. Many soldiers that served for the country returned home to hatred and blatant disrespect for their service. In the spring of 1919, a colored soldier named Wilbur Little returned home to Blakely, Georgia, after a tour of duty in World War I. A band of white men saw him at the train station in his uniform. They ordered him to take it off and walk home in his underwear. He refused (Wilkerson, 2010, p.145). They beat him to death and dumped his body on the edge of town. Even as a captain Pershing’s superiors didn’t trust him to work on white patients, especially the women (Wilkerson, 2010). Years later, when he lived in Los Angeles, even though he was Ray Charles’ doctor, he still had people, including black people, doubting his abilities. It was a common misconception that white doctors were better because schools gave white students the best education. The children, having emerged from one-room schoolhouses with their southern English, were often labeled retarded by northern school officials, regardless of their native abilities. Segregation was not the law, but the northerners would find creative ways to segregate the migrant children from the white children when so inclined (Wilkerson, 2010, p.265).

In conclusion, the Jim Crow laws was meant to keep black people oppressed and controlled their lives to the point where they were not even allowed to speak freely. If they misspoke or it was perceived that they misspoke when speaking to a white person, they were in danger of being beaten or murdered. Most black people were sharecroppers making little to nothing. Black people moved to the North in search of better opportunities and life devoid of fear. Although the North was much better than the South, it still had its issues with racism and discrimination.

References

  • Wilkerson, I. (2010). The warmth of other suns: The epic story of Americas great migration. Place of publication not identified: Publisher not identified.
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Role Of Jim Crow Laws. (2019, Dec 05). Retrieved October 5, 2022 , from
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