The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
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By Tsahai Tafari

"Jim Crow," a minstrel character popular during the early 1820s, is the namesake of an American system of discrimination and segregation. The Black Codes of the Reconstruction era and railroad segregation laws foreshadowed the birth of the system of Jim Crow, but the Compromise of 1877 can be considered the political event that allowed Jim Crow to come into full power.

President Lincoln

President Johnson
Presidents Abraham Lincoln (top) and Andrew Johnson (bottom).

By the election of 1876, the federal government had withdrawn from all but three Southern states, leaving blacks at the mercy of state and local governments. The Compromise of 1877, in which election-winning electoral votes were exchanged for the end of federal intervention in the Southern states of Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida, marked an era of complicity between Northern and Southern politicians in the abandonment of the issue of civil rights for blacks. Southern Democrats accepted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes' election in exchange for the promise of more federal aid for rebuilding the Southern infrastructure and less federal intervention in Southern politics. As a result, many of the civil rights blacks enjoyed during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) were revoked.

Jim Crow effectively began after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes. There was a great deal of political confusion as the country continued to recover from the war, and at first, many white Republicans and Democrats were split over the issue of black suffrage. Blacks had begun to participate in politics, holding positions in local government and voting, but during the 1880s, civil rights and political access for blacks were rapidly rescinded, as Northern and Southern politicians agreed that white solidarity on the issue of race was more important than civil rights for blacks.

The executive administrations of 1876-1900 did not address legislation designed to disfranchise blacks, such as poll taxes, grandfather clauses, intimidation, and lynching. The election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 heralded one of the first Presidential administrations openly opposed to civil rights and suffrage for blacks. Roosevelt is remembered for inviting the black leader and entrepreneur, Booker T. Washington, to the White House for dinner, the first instance of such an invitation for a black person. Southern Democrats were offended, and were vocal in their disapproval. Though Washington's visit was distinctive in its novelty, Roosevelt invited Washington not to improve the situation of blacks, but because they agreed that blacks should not strive for political and social equality. Washington privately used his wealth and influence to challenge Jim Crow, despite his public declarations of the opposite, while Roosevelt's administration was not supportive of civil rights for blacks. The popularity of eugenics and the philosophy of social Darwinism reached a zenith during the early part of century, and racism was integrated into presidential party platforms as late as the early 1930s. President Roosevelt believed blacks were intellectually inferior, and began to decrease the number of federal appointments to blacks and promised Southerners that he would appoint local federal officials that would not disrupt the accord between north and south. President Taft, a Republican elected in 1908, publicly endorsed the idea that blacks should not participate in politics, and perpetuated the racist party line of his predecessor.

Virginia Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won both the 1912 and 1916 presidential elections. He encouraged the introduction and passage of discriminatory legislation, such as a bill passed by the House that made interracial marriage in the District of Columbia a felony. President Wilson made it a requirement to include a photograph with any application for a federal position, to facilitate the exclusion of blacks from government jobs. Wilson pushed for segregation of federal workers, systematically demoted black civil servants, and claimed nothing could be done to improve the situation of blacks in the country. He refused to meet with black leaders, to appear at black conferences on race issues, or to publicly denounce lynching. President Wilson's wartime administration relegated black Army soldiers to non-combat labor billets, claiming that blacks were unable to fight courageously. Under Wilson, the Navy only allowed blacks to serve as messboys, and the Marines did not accept blacks at all.

Historical Documents
A handwritten version of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was passed by both houses of Congress over President Johnson's veto.
Related Pages
The Congress

The Supreme Court

Democratic Party

Republican Party

The Fourteenth Amendment Ratified

The Ku Klux Klan Acts


The Enforcement Acts

Civil Rights Act

The Election of 1876

Plessy v. Ferguson

Booker T. Washington

The Brownsville Affair

Segregation in the U.S. Government

U.S. Enters World War I

Red Summer

Interactive Maps

President Wilson's inaugural
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