Episode 20: The Invention of Segregation
A New History of the American South
Dr Edward Ayers (2018)
According to Ayers, Reconstruction had led to the natural development of public schools, poorhouses, orphanages for for newly freed Black citizens who lacked access to such services under slavery.
The first laws ordering public separation of Blacks and Whites applied to rail travel. Although nine states introduced laws separating Black and Whites on trains between 1887 and 1891, the term “segregation” wasn’t introduced until the 20th century. The railroads welcomed the laws to avoid incidents of Black passengers being accosted, assaulted and/or expelled by White passengers. Especially after one Black family won a lawsuit against the railroad for mistreatment.
Other forms of legally enforced segregation tended to accompany industrialization and urbanization. New cities tended to be segregated faster than older cities, as they purposely planned for separate facilities (eg streetcars, swimming pools for Black residents).
According to Ayers, one of the oddest features of racial segregation laws was that it only separated Blacks and Whites in public places. Extremely close (even intimate) interactions between Blacks and Whites were permitted in private settings, such as homes, and in male-oriented venues, such as bars, racetracks, boxing rings and brothels. According to Ayers, the motivation for racial separation was in large part a backlash against the populists (see The People’s Party: How the South Gave Birth to Populism) and the threat of poor tenant farmers launching a new biracial coalition. Oddly, another strong motivation was sexual, ie the stated fear of white lawmakers that Black and White strangers comingling in public spaces might feel sexually attracted to one another.
Between 1890-1910, the South experienced their first significant out-migration of Black males and families seeking good paying jobs. Black sociologist and activist W.E. Dubois noted a significant break-up of Black extended families starting in the 1890s, as young adults left their sharecropping families to seek work in towns or in the North. Many elderly Black parents were left abandoned.
The film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.
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