BY: SETH WILLIAMS
With the compromise of 1877 and the end of the Reconstruction Era in the south, southern white legislatures were free to once again codify racism and oppress their minority targets with the full backing of the law. It was a terrifying time to be black in America, as the gains made since the 14th Amendment began to be unraveled by the southern white elite and the North fell silent in the wake of a growing desire to see white America reunited after the bloody civil war.
From the beginning of Reconstruction to the early 1890s, southern blacks made social gains as their land ownership tripled and literacy increased by 40%. Whites and blacks began to grow used to seeing one another daily as black southerners became fully integrated as free American citizens. This didn’t sit well with some southern whites who still felt cheated by the outcome of the civil war. As northern troops withdrew after 1877 and republican state governments collapsed without northern support, the southern legislatures began to pass laws to ensure that the black community would never rise to be equal with whites.
These laws, referred to at Jim Crow laws, faced an issue: no clear definition of race existed that could properly describe to whom the laws applied. The issue of defining “whiteness,” and therefore “blackness,” had precedent, however, in the One-Drop Rule. For many southern states, the matter of who was white and who was black had already been settled socially, and so states began passing One-Drop Rules of their own as they fought to ensure that no one of any heritage other than pure-white was granted the American dream.
The problem existed, though, that black and whites had been intermixing for centuries, and for many individuals, their “blackness” was only defined by their culture; it could not be detected. Thus, the practice of passing, already commonplace during slavery in America, extended into the Jim Crow era as some descendants of blacks found opportunities to conceal their heritage in order to avoid the trials of racism in the south.
For some, passing was the answer for making their life simpler, easier… a means to survive in a cruel society that would fight against them at every turn to prevent their success. For others, though, passing would be a tool- one they could use to, hopefully, help their fellow black men and women find peace, prosperity, and happiness. Such was the case of Herman Plessy.
Plessy, whose status as 1/8th black made it possible for him to pass as white, elected to challenge Louisiana’s Separate Car Act on behalf of the Creole community. Purchasing a first-class ticket for the white car, Plessy refused to give up his seat there after announcing his ethnicity to the train conductor. After being forcibly removed, the case made it’s run to the supreme court and became the landmark case for “Separate but Equal” that would not be overturned for almost 60 years.
A person identified as mixed, colored, creole, or mulatto during the Jim Crow era faced the same hardships and dangers as the other members of the black community. Even when one’s blackness could not be physically observed, southern white legislatures declared that one drop of black blood was all it took to make someone not white. Some mulattos may have had success passing for white away from their homes, but they faced all the same hate, discrimination, and injustice as their darker-skinned brothers and sisters.
Davis, F. James. Who Is Black?: One Nation’s Definition. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State UP, 2005. Print.
“Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 11 May 2017.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress