28 September 2012

Erasing Jim Crow

What was Jim Crow?

With A Patriot's History of the United States (2004) as a sole reference, a high school or college student, faced with a question concerning Jim Crow, would be able to say very little. The student would be able to link Jim Crow to segregation in the South and to Southern Democrats who called themselves Redeemers. These Democrats "restored white supremacy" and "intimidated blacks with segregation" (355). The student would have read that Jim Crow laws "ensur[ed] the separation of blacks and whites in virtually every aspect of social life" (483). If the question was part of an exam of the sort common in college courses, the student would fare poorly. He or she would struggle to offer more than one single example of a Jim Crow law.

Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina, April, 1938, John Vachon, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division, LC-DIG-fsa-8a03228
Although Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen claim their text has been assigned in more than three dozen colleges, the principal market for their book is homeschools. Schweikart is a frequent speaker at homeschool conventions, and their website offers teaching materials especially designed for homeschool parents.

Homeschooled students are those least likely to receive instruction from a professional historian. They rely more heavily upon assigned reading materials. These students, thus, must be highly motivated independent learners in order to gain the knowledge of specifics necessary to answer competently our hypothetical exam question.

Coincidentally, a law professor at Schweikart's own employer the University of Dayton, Vernellia R. Randall, put up a website that replicates a list of specific Jim Crow laws from several states. That website is no longer maintained, nor is original, and yet it appears higher in a Google search for Jim Crow than the original: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. This National Park Service site cites laws that protected white nurses from serving black patients (Alabama), required separate waiting rooms in transportation facilities (Alabama), prohibited miscegenation (Florida), prohibited black barbers from cutting the hair of white women (Georgia), and many dozens of others. The National Park Service list emphasizes that Jim Crow laws were not an exclusively Southern practice, although the vast majority of the examples are from the deep South.

Homeschool students who learn to use Google will be prepared much better than those who rely on A Patriot's History.

Although readers of A Patriot's History struggle to offer examples of Jim Crow laws without additional research, they can trace connections that are central to the American story as Schweikart and Allen present it. Not only was Jim Crow the work of Southern Democrats, but their northern Progressive colleagues found other ways to segregate the races: "Progressives used IQ tests to segregate education and keep the races apart" (483). Schweikart and Allen then offer a brief discussion of the landmark Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Their discussion of the case offers the sole example of a Southern Jim Crow law: a Louisiana state law segregating railroad cars.

The authors of A Patriot's History mention in passing that white Progressives combined with the Black Niagara Movement to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But, this information is sandwiched between mention of  Plessy v. Ferguson as the federal government contributing to Progressives' separation of white and black education, on the one hand, and activities that created segregated neighborhoods in New York, on the other. The Southern system of white supremacy and enforced segregation is mentioned, but not discussed in detail. Reading A Patriot's History, one almost gets the impression that segregation was more significant north of the Mason-Dixon line than it was in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. That impression produces a distorted understanding of the American past, one that begins to erase Jim Crow from our collective memory.

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