What Are Jim Crow Laws? - Definition, Examples & History

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  • 0:01 Defining Jim Crow Laws
  • 1:39 The Fight Against Jim Crow
  • 3:04 The End of Jim Crow
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brian Muhammad
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in effect from 1876 to 1965 in the United States. Learn more about the definition and history of this term, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Defining Jim Crow Laws

The term 'Jim Crow' originally referred to a black character in an old song. Around 1828, minstrel performer Thomas Rice blackened his face, dressed in old clothes, and imitated an old black man. Rice published the words to the song 'Jump Jim Crow' in the 1830s.

Beginning in the 1880s, Jim Crow referred to practices, laws, or institutions that served to separate black people from white people. The most common types of Jim Crow laws forbid intermarriage and separated black and white citizens in public places, especially in restaurants and theaters. States and cities were allowed to punish people who broke these laws.

Below are some examples of Jim Crow laws from various states.

  • In Alabama, no person or corporation could require a white female nurse to work in a hospital ward or room in which a black man was present.
  • It was illegal for a white person and a black person to play billiards together in Alabama.
  • In Wyoming, any marriage between a white person and a person considered Negro, Mulatto, Mongolian, or Malaya was illegal and void.
  • In Georgia, mental health facilities were required to provide white patients with living spaces separate from black patients.
  • Black barbers in Georgia were not permitted to cut the hair of white females.
  • In Louisiana, a circus with both black and white people in the audience was required to have separate ticket boxes for the two races situated more than 25 feet apart.

The Fight Against Jim Crow

In 1892, Homer Plessy (who was classified as 1/8 black) took a seat in a whites-only car on a Louisiana train. He refused to move and was arrested. His case, the famous Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), went all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision of this case deemed that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long they were equal.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981. This executive order abolished racial discrimination in the military. Truman's decision was a historic one, and many blacks believed this decision would provide momentum to end Jim Crow.

In 1954, the Supreme Court declared separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional, when Brown vs. Board of Education overturned the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896. The case was filed when Oliver Brown's daughter, Linda, was denied entrance to her local elementary school, which was only seven blocks from her home, due to 'separate but equal' segregation. Instead, she had to walk six blocks to a bus stop and ride the bus for one mile to a black school. This decision paved the way for integrated schools.

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