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Jim Crow Laws: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Mary Beth Burns

Mary Beth has taught 1st, 4th and 5th grade and has a specialist degree in Educational Leadership. She is currently an assistant principal.

To continue racial segregation after the Civil War, many Southern states began enacting what were called Jim Crow laws. In this lesson, learn who Jim Crow was, what the Jim Crow laws were, and how they came to an end.

Who was Jim Crow?

While the Jim Crow laws were a very real part of history, Jim Crow himself was a fictional character. An actor, Thomas 'Daddy' Rice, played a black slave character who later earned the name Jim Crow in the 1830s. Rice did his Jim Crow routine while wearing blackface makeup, which was made of burnt cork and grease painted on the face with clown-like red paint around the lips.

The fictional Jim Crow
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Jim Crow Laws

Before the Civil War, the Southern states had no reason to pass laws that would segregate, or separate, blacks and whites because slavery was still legal. The slaves had no rights, lived separately from whites and did not attend school. After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery; however, many whites, mostly from the South, wanted the two groups to remain segregated. By creating the Jim Crow laws, states were able to legalize segregation between blacks and whites. The government called this system separate but equal.

An illustration of separate but equal buses
Separate but equal caricature

The Jim Crow laws varied from state to state, but they all had a common message of excluding African Americans. One of the most common Jim Crow laws was that whites and blacks could not marry each other. Another common theme was that at places of businesses, such as a restaurant, blacks had to eat in a separately partitioned room from the whites and in all public places, there were separate restrooms for blacks and whites.

The 15th Amendment (1870) gave African American men the right to vote. So, the segregationists passed Jim Crow laws that required voters to pass a literacy test, meaning they had to prove they could read and write, and to pay a poll tax, which was a tax to be allowed to vote. They did this knowing these laws would exclude black men because most could not read or write, nor could they afford the poll tax. And if the laws didn't work, the whites would intimidate or even harm the blacks who tried to vote.

The Jim Crow laws and the doctrine of separate but equal also affected education. While both black and white children could attend school, they could not attend the same school. Nor were the separate schools anywhere near 'equal.' The schools for whites had more updated facilities and resources, while many black schools were overcrowded and literally falling down.

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