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Signs of Their Times: “Jim Crow” Was Here

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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.)

Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, Baltimore, Maryland, May 1943. “A drinking fountain.” [Sign: “White.”]
A drinking fountain, Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, Baltimore, Maryland. Photograph by Arthur Siegal, May 1943.
”Man drinking at a water cooler in the street car terminal.” [Sign: “Reserved for Colored.”]
Negro drinking at “Colored” water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photograph by Russell Lee, July 1939.
"A fish restaurant for Negroes in the section of the city where cotton hoers are recruited." [Sign: ”Bryant's Place Hot Fish for Colored.”]
Fish restaurant for colored in the quarter cotton hoers are recruited, Memphis, Tennessee. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, June or July, 1937.

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.

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  1. In the FSA-OWI photographs, there are a couple images showing how Jim Crow extended beyond African Americans, Thank you for sharing these links.

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