Lesson Plan 4: Growing Up in a Segregated Society, 1880s-1930s

Historical Background

Segregation was more than an attitude – it was a system supported by both law and custom, and its purpose was to control newly freed African American people.  The system of racial domination was carefully constructed to accomplish its goal.

Its economic component was meant to control black labor, and included job discrimination that limited African Americans to agricultural and service jobs.  Sharecropping, an essential part of this system, assured white planters of continuing black farm labor by establishing a cycle of debt.  This was accomplished by “fixing the books,” debt peonage, vagrancy laws, a credit system, and a convict lease system.  These tactics prevented black people from receiving wages due them or moving when their situation worsened.  Often these laws were modeled on Slave Codes during slavery.

Politically, segregation disfranchised freedpeople and suppressed black political action – especially the expression of newly gained rights as citizens (14th Amendment) and the right of black men to vote (15th Amendment).  Disfranchisement was a two-stage process.  First the Ku Klux Klan and other related groups used violence and the threat of violence to suppress black political action.  Lynching and other violence was justified by the threat of miscegenation, and the alleged need to protect white women against rape by black men.  The second kind of disfranchisement came in the form of laws designed to prevent blacks from voting, including literacy requirements, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and all-white primaries.  These laws were carefully crafted to avoid the 15th Amendment – they could not explicitly use race as a barrier to voting.

A key piece of this system of control was Jim Crow laws and customs.  More than a series of strict anti-black laws – it was a way of life that affected whites as well as blacks.  There were many state laws touching all aspects of life, including these typical Jim Crow laws:

  • Barbers: No colored barber shall serve as a barber (to) white girls or women (Georgia).
  • Blind Wards: The board of trustees shall...maintain a separate building...on separate ground for the admission, care, instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or black race (Louisiana).
  • Burial: The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons (Georgia).

NOTE: Eleven additional Jim Crow laws are available at http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm

During Jim Crow segregation African Americans were not passive; they responded, resisted and negotiated in a variety of ways.  Among the most famous responders were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.  They represent two different approaches.  Washington, born a slave in Virginia, became a well-known educator and founded Hampton Institute in Virginia then Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  In his important and influential Atlanta Compromise Speech of 1895, he stressed accommodation rather than resistance to the racist order under which southern African Americans lived.  Acutely conscious of the narrow limitations whites placed on African Americans’ economic aspirations, he stressed that blacks must accommodate white people’s – and especially southern whites’ – refusal to tolerate blacks as anything more than sophisticated menials.  In this 1895 speech to the predominantly white audience, Washington said:

Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are…  to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen…  [I]n our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.


W.E.B. DuBois, on the other hand, was born free and was the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. In 1903 as an influential black leader and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois published an essay in his collection The Souls of Black Folk with the title “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” DuBois rejected Washington’s willingness to avoid rocking the racial boat, calling instead for political power, insistence on civil rights, and the higher education of Negro youth.  In 1905 DuBois and other middle-class but militant Black intellectuals, including Ida Wells Barnett, and some whites organized the Niagara Movement, and later the NAACP.  Included in their “Declaration of Principles” was this statement on the Color-Line:

Any discrimination based simply on race or color is barbarous, we care not how hallowed it be by custom, expediency or prejudice. Differences made on account of ignorance, immorality, or disease are legitimate methods of fighting evil, and against them we have no word of protest; but discriminations based simply and solely on physical peculiarities, place of birth, color of skin, are relics of that unreasoning human savagery of which the world is and ought to be thoroughly ashamed.


Many African Americans resisted Jim Crow segregation.  Among their strategies and tactics were collective protest, migrating north (or west) especially to urban communities, creating their own institutions, especially educating their children for a better life.  Education particularly offered African Americans hope and a sense of possibility.  Chafe, Gavins, and Korstad, in their introduction to Remembering Jim Crow, recognize:

  • “The extraordinary resilience of black citizens, who individually and collectively found ways to endure, fight back and occasionally define their own destinies…”
  • “The enduring capacity of families to nurture each other, and especially their children, in the face of a system so dangerous and capricious that there were no rules one could count on for protection.  Under these circumstances parents still managed to convey a sense of right and wrong, strength and assurance.”
  • “The incredible variety, richness and ingenuity of black Americans’ responses to one of the cruelest, least yielding social and economic systems ever created.”