What is Segregation? - Definition, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson you will learn what defines segregation in society, how it worked in American culture, and gain an understanding of how it evolved and ultimately came to an end.

What Is Segregation?

As one of the most difficult topics in American culture, the marginalization of African Americans has had a profound effect on nearly every aspect of society and continues to plague the United States in the 21st century. This lesson will briefly introduce one of the ways in which the white majority has oppressed African Americans in the past, and trace the evolution and ultimate end of the practice of segregation.

To segregate simply means to remove one thing from the presence of another and treat it as a separate entity. In the context of American history, segregation was the practice of keeping African Americans separate from white Americans and treating them differently because of the color of their skin.

Jim Crow Laws and Legal Segregation

In the years that followed the abolition of slavery, many state and local governments enacted a series of laws known as Jim Crow Laws, which established a system in which African Americans were to be treated 'separate but equal'. For example, Jim Crow Laws allowed for white business owners to require African Americans to use a separate entrance, drink from separate water fountains, and use separate restrooms from their white counterparts.

Separate waiting room sign, 1943
Segregated sign

Jim Crow Laws are not specific laws but instead are a collection of civil laws that allowed African Americans to be treated differently than white Americans. Though these laws varied from state to state, with some falling out fashion before others, in many cases, Jim Crow Laws were actively enforced well into the 1960s.

Plessy v. Ferguson Legalizes Segregation

Though there were various laws and ordinances enacted from the end of the Civil War into the 1960s, there were also a number of federal laws that contributed to the rise and fall of segregation in the United States.

Jim Crow Laws are a collection of state and local laws, but they are all made possible because of an 1896 Supreme Court case known as Plessy v. Ferguson. The case stemmed from an incident in which Homer Plessy, an African American man, was arrested for refusing to give up his seat in the 'whites only section' of a Louisiana train. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana state law, ruling that segregation was legal as long as both sides were given 'separate but equal treatment'.

In the decades that followed Plessy v. Ferguson, African Americans received anything but equal treatment. They were frequently subjected to police brutality and public violence, forced to endure hardships due to an economic disadvantage, and routinely denied opportunities reserved for whites, such as jobs and housing.

Brown v. Board of Education Overturns Plessy

One of the most important aspects of Plessy v. Ferguson was that it made segregation a legal practice in all areas of public life, including public schools. This meant that African American children were forced to go to separate schools, where they often received a sub-standard education and insufficient resources.

As the United States reached the mid-20th century mark, segregation became widely criticized, particularly as it related to children's education. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate educational facilities violated the 'separate but equal' piece of Plessy v. Ferguson because African American schools were almost always inferior to white schools. The court's unanimous decision brought an end to segregated schools in the United States, but it resulted in a process of integration that was at times aggressively resisted, which forced the process to take much longer than many had anticipated.

African American residents of Mississippi protest school segregation

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