It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.
–Birmingham, Alabama, 1930.
“Jim Crow” laws systematically codified separation by race in the American South. Although it had begun some years before and persisted for some time afterwards, the life span of “Jim Crow” is legally bounded by two landmark Supreme Court cases. At one end, the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” after a black man attempted to sit in a whites-only railway car. At the other end, the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” a pivotal decision in the struggle for racial desegregation in the United States.
(Note: The titles of the photographs below are transcribed from the original captions the agency applied to the photos in the 1930s and 1940s.)
The visual documentation of Jim Crow is recorded in the signs designating various facilities for the exclusive use of one race. Photographers working for the Farm Security Administration Historical Section (later transferred to the Office of War Information) were particularly encouraged to photograph billboards and signs as one indicator of continuity and change ongoing in America during the 1930s and 1940s. No documentation has been found to indicate that photographers were explicitly encouraged to photograph racial discrimination signs, yet the observant and perceptive photographers didn’t overlook them and shot some in a variety of locales and settings.
- The four photographs featured in today’s post are from the reference aid “Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers.” This image list includes all the known photos of discrimination signs found in the FSA-OWI file of photographic prints. Compiled in response to frequent patron requests for such photographs, the list is updated as additional pictures are identified.
- For further study of the Jim Crow era:
- Brown v. Board at Fifty: “With an Even Hand” from the Library of Congress
- Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
- Freedom Riders, the companion web site for the film from the American Experience series, WGBH
- Photographs of civil rights-related events and leaders are found in these two image lists:
- Additional civil rights-related exhibitions from the Library of Congress include: