Second Annual W.E.B. on Race & Democracy at Southern Maine University: The Strange Career of the Jim Crow North

On November 6, 2017, Brian Purnell (Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies & History at Bowdoin College), presented a very informative, and much needed, program on Jim Crow Law’s origin in the northern United States of America). The book, entitled the same as the second part of this blog’s title, will be published & available sometime in 2018.

Purnell’s primary question was this: what does racism look like outside of the south? so often, northerners will “blame” the south for the institution of Jim Crow Laws, due to lack of awareness and/or ignorance to these historical happenings, and it’s become a kind of mythological note in many American minds.

During Reconstruction (post Civil War, 1865-1890s), many southern states re-wrote their state constitutions to include Jim Crow laws; these were often used to bolster de-segregation efforts within educational systems.

In the Liberal North, Jim Crow may have been used to challenge the place of the origin of racism, and presumed the entire American cultural-segregation was a national cancer.
For blacks who moved from the south to the north for jobs, but continued to face ongoing poverty, discrimination, & unemployment, northern blacks developed practices that may have effected cultural discrimination & behaviors.

I remember how a man who grew up in Buffalo, New York, told me about his memories of being on city buses, and seeing signs in the bus telling African-Americans they had to sit at the back of the bus. When he recounted this, he had a look of incredulousness on his face.

With this back-and-forth between north & south, Jim Crow laws allowed people to “get off easy” when it came to racism-a decided neglect to see reality, not how it was but how they wanted it to be.

Policy makers used three interventions to insure Jim Crow’s reality in their states:

  1.  Framing racism in the north revealed how racism works by analyzing it on its own terms.
  2. Unmasking Jim Crow in the north, rejecting the ways northern liberals said there were more racial tensions in the south compared to the north.
  3. Laying claims to Jim Crow in the north, takes into consideration that their own, regional cities were marred by Jim Crow that were formed, in various social contexts.

The history of Jim Crow began in the north, not the south & west, with all the hallmarks of what life came to be like in the south. For example, in the late eighteenth century in Boston, African-Americans couldn’t access the same educational opportunities as whites.
By 1827, construction of newly, northern, re-written Jim Crow Laws in order to restrict black integration into white schools.

In Post-Emancipation times during the 1880s & 1890s, northerners adapted the word “nigger” for blacks saying they were backwards and uncivilized.

In 1831 De Toqueville’s history decried both northern & southern racism.
In Pennsylvania, in 1854, laws declared mandated segregation in schools for African-Americans.

In 1863 “immigrant artisans” (people of color who’d immigrated to the U.S.) attacked whites.

During the huge wave of Irish immigration in the north, the Irish were lynched (they were called the “niggers of Europe”) before lynchings of African-Americans were common in the south.

Northern union workers barred blacks from membership.

The creation of “sundown towns or communities” (1890-1968), excluded any persons of color from living there. They were all-white neighborhoods & communities. In so many words, it meant ‘if your black, don’t let the sun go down on you in this community.’ Signs, evidence of this reality, were seen at the borders of these towns, just to be sure!

In the early 1900s there was broad, national appeal to the KKK and white supremacy; membership in the Klan jumped to where membership rolls were between 3-6 million people, at least 6 times greater than it was in 1870.

The New Deal under Roosevelt’s administration cast a new image of Jim Crow laws; it offered a new thesis: using expansive language in the north was very much advocated for by the south; with this came expansion of social relations’ language & legalities in this regard.

Jim Crow’s representation in the north wasn’t so much based in law, like it was in the south. Rather, it was a mix of social customs, patriotic ideals & legislation that found its matrix-oh, our Sweet Land of Liberty!

Copy: CBB 11/07/2017


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