Distinctive patterns of daily life defined the Jim Crow South. Contrary to many observers’ emphasis on de jure segregation—meaning racial separation demanded by law—neither law nor the physical separation of blacks and whites was at the center of the early 20th-century South’s social system. Instead, separation, whether by law or custom, was one of multiple tools whites used to subordinate and exclude blacks and to maintain notions of white racial purity. In turn, these notions themselves varied over time and across jurisdictions, at least in their details, as elites tried repeatedly to establish who was “white,” who was “black,” and how the legal fictions they created would apply to Native Americans and others who fit neither category. Within this complex multiracial world of the South, whites’ fundamental commitment to keeping blacks “in their place” manifested most routinely in day-to-day social dramas, often described in terms of racial “etiquette.” The black “place” in question was socially but not always physically distant from whites, and the increasing number of separate, racially marked spaces and actual Jim Crow laws was a development over time that became most pronounced in urban areas. It was a development that reveals blacks’ determination to resist racial oppression and whites’ perceived need to shore up a supposedly natural order that had, in fact, always been enforced by violence as well as political and economic power. Black resistance took many forms, from individual, covert acts of defiance to organized political movements. Whether in response to African Americans’ continued efforts to vote or their early 20th-century boycotts of segregated streetcars or World War I-era patterns of migration that threatened to deplete the agricultural labor force, whites found ways to counter blacks’ demands for equal citizenship and economic opportunity whenever and wherever they appeared. In the rural South, where the majority of black Southerners remained economically dependent on white landowners, a “culture of personalism” characterized daily life within a paternalistic model of white supremacy that was markedly different from urban—and largely national, not merely southern—racial patterns. Thus, distinctions between rural and urban areas and issues of age and gender are critical to understanding the Jim Crow South. Although schools were rigorously segregated, preadolescent children could be allowed greater interracial intimacy in less official settings. Puberty became a break point after which close contact, especially between black males and white females, was prohibited. All told, Jim Crow was an inconsistent and uneven system of racial distinction and separation whose great reach shaped the South’s landscape and the lives of all Southerners, including those who were neither black nor white.
Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.
Christopher W. Schmidt
One of the most significant protest campaigns of the civil rights era, the lunch counter sit-in movement began on February 1, 1960 when four young African American men sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Refused service, the four college students sat quietly until the store closed. They continued their protest on the following days, each day joined by more fellow students. Students in other southern cities learned what was happening and started their own demonstrations, and in just weeks, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place across the South. By the end of the spring, tens of thousands of black college and high school students, joined in some cases by sympathetic white students, had joined the sit-in movement. Several thousand went to jail for their efforts after being arrested on charges of trespass, disorderly conduct, or whatever other laws southern police officers believed they could use against the protesters. The sit-ins arrived at a critical juncture in the modern black freedom struggle. The preceding years had brought major breakthroughs, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954 and the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, but by 1960, activists were struggling to develop next steps. The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality, moving the leading edge of the movement from the courtrooms and legislative halls to the streets and putting a new, younger generation of activists on the front lines. It gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important activist groups of the 1960s. It directed the nation’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination in private businesses that served the public, pressured business owners in scores of southern cities to open their lunch counters to African American customers, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation.
Claudrena N. Harold
The civil rights movement in the urban South transformed the political, economic, and cultural landscape of post–World War II America. Between 1955 and 1968, African Americans and their white allies relied on nonviolent direct action, political lobbying, litigation, and economic boycotts to dismantle the Jim Crow system. Not all but many of the movement’s most decisive political battles occurred in the cities of Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Greensboro and Durham, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia. In these and other urban centers, civil rights activists launched full-throttled campaigns against white supremacy, economic exploitation, and state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. Their fight for racial justice coincided with monumental changes in the urban South as the upsurge in federal spending in the region created unprecedented levels of economic prosperity in the newly forged “Sunbelt.” A dynamic and multifaceted movement that encompassed a wide range of political organizations and perspectives, the black freedom struggle proved successful in dismantling legal segregation. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded black southerners’ economic, political, and educational opportunities. And yet, many African Americans continued to struggle as they confronted not just the long-term effects of racial discrimination and exclusion but also the new challenges engendered by deindustrialization and urban renewal as well as entrenched patterns of racial segregation in the public-school system.
Amanda M. Nagel
In the midst of the long black freedom struggle, African American military participation in the First World War remains central to civil rights activism and challenges to systems of oppression in the United States. As part of a long and storied tradition of military service for a nation that marginalized and attempted to subjugate a significant portion of US citizens, African American soldiers faced challenges, racism, and segregation during the First World War simultaneously on the home front and the battlefields of France. The generations born since the end of the Civil War continually became more and more militant when resisting Jim Crow and insisting on full, not partial, citizenship in the United States, evidenced by the events in Houston in 1917. Support of the war effort within black communities in the United States was not universal, however, and some opposed participation in a war effort to “make the world safe for democracy” when that same democracy was denied to people of color. Activism by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the War Department’s official and unofficial policy, creating avenues for a larger number of black officers in the US Army through the officers’ training camp created in Des Moines, Iowa. For African American soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the potential for combat experience led to both failures and successes, leading to race pride as in the case of the 93rd Division’s successes, and skewed evidence for the War Department to reject increasing the number of black officers and enlisted in the case of the 92nd Division. All-black Regular Army regiments, meanwhile, either remained in the United States or were sent to the Philippines rather than the battlefields of Europe. However, soldiers’ return home was mixed, as they were both celebrated and rejected for their service, reflected in both parades welcoming them home and racial violence in the form of lynchings between December 1918 and January 1920. As a result, the interwar years and the start of World War II roughly two decades later renewed the desire to utilize military service as a way to influence US legal, social, cultural, and economic structures that limited African American citizenship.