The Background Story: How Segregation Began
Frameworks for America's Past
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Originating Page

Racial segregation and
the "Jim Crow" laws

   In the decades after
Reconstruction ended in 1877, laws began to be passed in Southern states requiring segregation (separation) of blacks and whites.

   For example, a state law might require separate railroad cars, hotels, schools, or restaurants for blacks and whites.  These laws were called Jim Crow laws.

    Black leaders and some whites objected to the spread of Jim Crow laws.  Even so, the laws became more and more common in the 1880s and 1890s.

The photo on the right shows a hotel for blacks only in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1899. 

The Plessy v. Ferguson case

   A famous challenge to the Jim Crow laws came from a group of blacks and whites in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The group wanted to stop an 1890 Louisiana law that required racial segregation on all trains traveling in that state.  Under that law, railroad companies had to provide separate passenger cars for whites and blacks.

   Homer Plessy, a black man, agreed to challenge the law so a court case could be started.  He deliberately sat in a "white" railroad car and was arrested. 

   The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Plessy's basic argument was that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires the states to give all citizens "equal protection of the laws."

   In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Plessy.  The court decided that the segregation law was not illegal, because the Louisiana law required that the separate railroad cars had to be equal in quality.

The spread of Jim Crow laws

   The decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case became the origin of the "separate but equal" principle of racial segregation laws.  The Plessy case decision is considered one of the worst ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court.  It led to the rapid spread of even more segregation laws across the South and in some other states as well.

   By the early 1900s most aspects of life in the South was segregated by Jim Crow laws.  Schools, colleges, theaters, amusement parks, beaches, bus stations, restaurants, and hotels were almost always segregated.  Public water fountains, often side by side, had one marked "White" and the other "Colored."  (
"Colored" was a common term for African Americans at that time.)

   The photo below shows a building in Oklahoma City in 1939 with a separate "Jim Crow" water cooler for African Americans.   

   The photo below shows a street in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939.  A billiard hall is a place with pool tables.

The Supreme Court document image is from the National Archives.
All other historical images are from the Library of Congress.
Some have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2017 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.