Resistance to Jim Crow in Virginia

Author: Carolyn Watts
School: D.G. Cooley Elementary, Clarke County, Virginia
Grade Level: Elementary School
Time Estimated: 4 days (90 minute periods)

In this unit students will learn how the rights of a significant population of Virginia citizens were systematically denied. The students will work with primary sources to explore not only the history of the laws and institutions but also the effects that were experienced by ordinary citizens. They will learn how people learn to adapt to an unfair environment and how resistance, sometimes overt, but often covert, was ever present. They will see some of the sights and hear some of the voices of those people who experienced firsthand the sting of segregation under Jim Crow. The lessons will cover the time period from 1877 to 1954. There will be three 90-minute lessons and a roundtable discussion.

My class consists of 22 students. There are 12 fifth graders and 10 fourth graders. One child receives special education. Everyone else is on grade level in reading and math. Two students are not white. Everyone speaks English and there are no bilingual students. Socioeconomic status is varied, though most of the students are middle class. Two students, to my knowledge, are eligible for reduced lunch costs. There are eight boys and fourteen girls. They are a good receptive group of learners.


Historical Background:

During Reconstruction the 13th Amendment (1865) banning slavery in the U.S., the 14th Amendment (1868) granting citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (1870) granting suffrage allowed African Americans to experience civil rights on a broad scale for the first time in their collective cultural history. In 1860, 25,000 black children went to school. In 1870, the number was 149,581. In 1860 the number of black voters was zero. In 1867, the number was 700,000. (“Reconstruction by the Numbers,” , Nov./Dec. 1991: pp. 6-7) In 1869, Virginia’s Reconstruction constitution mandated a statewide system of free, state-funded schools for blacks and whites (though not integrated), and the franchise for African American men. After years of bondage and abuse, the future looked promising for African Americans.

In 1877, after a presidential election that was confusing, contested, and filled with conflicting agendas and accusations, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared President. In order to gain the votes he needed from southern Democrats, who called themselves the Redeemers, he agreed to pull federal troops out of the South, thus ending Reconstruction. The Redeemers were a white ruling class–white southerners who used terrorist tactics to win back control of the states from the Republicans. These Democrats took control of southern state legislatures and stepped up their attempt to strip African Americans of the rights they had gained under the Radical Republican controlled Congress. In ending Reconstruction, Hayes allowed southern Democrats to have their way. The door was slammed shut on civil rights for African Americans in the south and cultural prejudice became a matter of law in a very short period of time.

The protests of black Americans fell, for the most part, on deaf ears. One of the few areas where there were some victories was transportation. Some African Americans won their cases regarding discrimination by race or gender on railroad cars, but they were few in number. In Louisiana, an 1890 law pushed for segregation on the railroads, stating that “separate but equal” areas for blacks and whites were mandatory. Homer Plessy, a shoemaker, tested this law. Backed by two groups fighting racism, he refused to leave a “white only” railroad car and was arrested. He took his case to court and four years later the case was heard by the United States Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of John Howard Ferguson, the Louisiana Supreme Court judge and “separate but equal” became the law of the land. In spite of the arguments made by the defendants in the Supreme Court, the southern politicians had no intention of providing equal status, opportunity, or accommodations for black Americans. Jim Crow became law.

In Virginia, in 1902, the constitution of Reconstruction was replaced by a new constitution with a specific agenda for putting black Americans in their antebellum place. Segregation kept the races apart in every area of life: schools, movie theaters, restaurants, even water fountains. Black children could not enter a library and check out a book. Loopholes were written into the constitution which were deliberately designed to withhold funds from black schools denying black children an “equal” education. Voting laws were designed to make it nearly impossible to cast a ballot and voting restrictions were highly subjective, at the discretion of local officials. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation were some of the tactics openly used by the “elected” officials, policemen, and sheriffs. This was not just a collection of isolated incidents and vigilante-type actions. This was law.

Protest was nearly impossible because racism was institutionalized. Open resistance was dangerous and difficult. And yet many black southerners did resist. They formed organizations to publicize the unfair system under which they lived. They formed aid societies and self-help organizations. One champion in the fight for equal rights in Virginia was John Mitchell, Jr., editor of The Richmond Planet. Born a slave, he became editor of the paper at the age of 21 and for 45 years he wrote articles and editorials, drew cartoons, and gave speeches protesting the treatment of colored people. In 1895, his paper was instrumental in organizing a successful boycott of the city streetcars because of segregation and the mistreatment of colored passengers. A constant that was evident in his writing was his belief that segregation hurt everyone in Virginia, black and white. The masthead of The Richmond Planet was a flexed, muscular arm and a clenched fist with thunderbolts exploding from it. Power, perhaps, and judgment.

It is interesting that transportation is a theme throughout the struggle for equal rights. From the symbolic Underground Railroad that carried slaves to freedom, to the Montgomery bus boycott, freedom of movement carried all of us, finally, to the freedom movement of the 20th century.


Major Understanding:

Actions demand reactions, but circumstances do not necessarily determine how an individual will react. Resistance to oppression manifests itself in many ways. The idea of living “in spite of” and not “because of” one’s circumstances is key to understanding the Jim Crow era in Virginia. Using examples of resistance, both overt and covert, this mini-unit will help illuminate the struggle. The example of people like John Mitchell, Jr. will show that there were active forces of change out there. But there was also the undercurrent of change by people who simply refused to ride in the colored section or simply refused to ride at all. Hearing the voices of some of the people forced to live under these circumstances will bring home the imperative of civil rights for all people residing in this country.



Students will:

  1. Use primary sources to help understand the era of the Jim Crow society.
  2. Compare and contrast different perspectives on issues raised concerning civil rights.
  3. Sequence the events leading up to and including the Jim Crow era with special emphasis on:
    • The political events that made it possible
    • The effects it had on the populace of Virginia
    • The resistance to its unfair policies and practices.


Standards of Learning:

VS.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to

  • identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary sources using documents to understand events in history
  • determine cause and effect relationships
  • compare and contrast historical events
  • draw conclusions and make generalizations
  • make connections between past and present
  • sequence events in Virginia history
  • interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives
  • discuss issues orally and in writing.


VS.8 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the reconstruction of Virginia following the Civil War by

  • identifying the effects of segregation and “Jim Crow” on life in Virginia.

VS.9 The student will demonstrate knowledge of 20th century Virginia by

  • identifying the social and political events in Virginia linked to desegregation and Massive Resistance and the relationship to national history
  • identifying the political and or economic contributions made by Maggie Walker, Harry F. Byrd, Sr.