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Today's selection -- from The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Jim Crow:

"It is unknown precisely who Jim Crow was or if someone by that name actually existed. There are several stories as to the term's origins. It came into public use in the 1830s after Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a New York-born itinerant white actor, popularized a song-and-dance routine called 'the Jim Crow' in minstrel shows across the country. He wore blackface and ragged clothes and performed a jouncy, palsied imitation of a handicapped black stable hand he had likely seen in his travels singing a song about 'Jumping Jim Crow.' Jim Crow was said to be the name of either the stable hand or his owner living in Kentucky or Ohio. Rice became a national sensation impersonating a crippled black man, but died penniless in 1860 of a paralytic condition that limited his speech and movement by the end of his life. 

"The term caught the fancy of whites across the country and came to be used as a perjorative for colored people and things related to colored people, and, by 1841, was applied to the laws to segregate them. The first such laws were passed not in the South, but in Massachusetts, as a means of designating a railcar set apart for black passengers. Florida, Mississippi, and Texas enacted the first Jim Crow laws in the South right after the Confederates lost the Civil War -- Florida and Mississippi in 1865 and Texas in 1866. The northerners who took over the South during Reconstruction repealed those hastily passed laws. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 explicitly outlawed segregation. But the northerners who were there to enforce the law retreated by the late 1870s and left the South to its own devices. As the twentieth century approached, the South resurrected Jim Crow. 

"Streetcars, widely in use from the 1880s, had open seating in the South, until Georgia demanded separate seating by race in 1891. By 1905, every southern state, from Florida to Texas, outlawed blacks from sitting next to whites on public conveyances. The following year, Montgomery, Alabama, went a step further and required streetcars for whites and streetcars for blacks. By 1909, a new curfew required blacks to be off the streets by 10 P.M. in Mobile, Alabama. By 1915, black and white textile workers in South Carolina could not use the same 'water bucket, pails, cups, dippers or glasses,' work in the same room, or even go up or down a stairway at the same time.

"This new reality forced colored parents to search for ways to explain the insanity of the caste system to their uncomprehending children. When two little girls in 1930s Florida wanted to know why they couldn't play on a swing like the white children or had to sit in a dirty waiting room instead of the clean one, their father, the theologian Howard Thurman, had to think about how best to make them understand. 'The measure of a man's estimate of your strength,' he finally told them, 'is the kind of weapons he feels that he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place.'

"All told, these statutes only served to worsen race relations, alienating one group from the other and removing the few informal interactions that might have helped both sides see the potential good and humanity in the other. ...

"There were days when whites could go to the amusement park and a day when blacks could go, if they were permitted at all. There were white elevators and colored elevators (meaning the freight elevators in back); white train platforms and colored train platforms. There were white ambulances and colored ambulances to ferry the sick, and white hearses and colored hearses for those who didn't survive whatever was wrong with them.

"There were white waiting rooms and colored waiting rooms in any conceivable place where a person might have to wait for something, from the bus depot to the doctor's office. A total of four restrooms had to be constructed and maintained at significant expense in any public establishment that bothered to provided any for colored people: one for white men, one for white women, one for colored men, and one for colored women. In 1958, a new bus station went up in Jacksonville, Florida, with two of everything, including two segregated cocktail lounges, 'lest the races brush elbows over a martini,' The Wall Street Journal reported. The president of Southeastern Greyhound told the Journal, 'It frequently costs fifty percent more to build a terminal with segregated facilities.' But most southern businessmen didn't date complain about the extra cost. 'The question is dynamite,' the president of a southern theater told the Journal. 'Don't even say what state I'm in.'

"The was a colored window at the post office in Pensacola, Florida, and there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. White and colored went to separate windows to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi, and to separate tellers to make their deposits at the First National Bank of Atlanta. There were taxicabs for colored people and taxicabs for white people in Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the entire state of Mississippi. Colored people had to be off the streets and out of the city by 8 P.M. in Palm Beach and Miami Beach. 

"Throughout the South, the conventional rules of the road did not apply when a colored motorist was behind the wheel. If he reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer to shake a white person's hand. A handshake could occur only if a white person so gestured, leaving many people having never shaken hands with a person of the other race."

The Warmth of Other Suns
 
author: Isabel Wilkerson  
title: The Warmth of Other Suns  
publisher: Vintage Books, Random House  
date: Copyright 2010 by Isabel Wilkerson  
page(s): 40-42, 44  
The Warmth of Other Suns
 

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