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South Carolina

South Carolina African Americans – Jim Crow


Also see African-Americans - 1900 to Present



Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

African-American Legal and Political Life During Jim Crow

With the 1895 Constitution, South Carolina's white elite managed to disenfranchise a large portion African-Americans in the state.

But this Constitution also whittled away other freedoms. For example, Article III, section 33 prohibited the marriage of "a white person with a negro or mulatto, or persons who shall have 1/8 or more negro blood."

Article XI, Section 7 provided that:
Separate Schools shall be provided for children of the white and colored races, and no child of either race shall ever be permitted to attend a school provided for children of the other race.
In fact, for a brief period South Carolina even established a third classification of schools – for mulattos.

But the events in South Carolina can't be understood in isolation. We have to examine what was happening elsewhere – especially in Louisiana.

Louisiana, like South Carolina, had begun to pass restrictive laws aimed at reducing the freedoms of citizenship enjoyed by African-Americans. In 1890 Louisiana passed a law that required separate train cars for white and "colored" passengers. This was a so-called "separate but equal" law, and many African-Americans began to protest. Louis Martinet, a physician, attorney, and publisher of the newspaper Crusader, along with Rudolphe Desdunes, a customs official, decided to test the new law.

They recruited a black man who would appear "well-dressed, well behaved, neither intoxicated nor afflicted with any noxious diseases." That person was 34-year-old Homer Plessy, who was 7/8 white and 1/8 black (meaning that one of his eight great-grandparents was black).

One June 7, 1892 Homer Plessy bought a first-class rail ticket from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. He boarded the car marked "FOR WHITES ONLY" and waited. Soon the conductor arrived and insisted that he would have to move to the car marked, "FOR COLOREDS ONLY." Plessy refused and remained seated. The conductor summoned the New Orleans police. When they arrived Plessy did not resist his arrest. He was imprisoned for violating Louisiana Statute Number 111.

Plessy filed for a writ of prohibition against the Honorable John H. Furguson, judge of the criminal District Court for the Parish of Orleans. This writ was to stop Judge Ferguson from enforcing Louisiana Statute No. 111 because that law was in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and was, therefore null and void. Plessy argued that because the Fourteenth Amendment had made him a citizen of the United States, he was entitled to all of the privileges and immunities of citizens and to equal protection of the laws.

The case was elevated to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The attorneys for the State argued that the Fourteenth Amendment protected political rights such as voting or holding public office, but was never intended to protect civil rights. Since seating on a train wasn't a political right, the state could legally separate blacks from whites as long as equal rights were provided for both races. The Supreme Court of Louisiana denied the writ of prohibition and ordered Plessy to stand trail. Homer Plessy then took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In 1896 the Supreme Court voted 7-1 against Plessy, establishing the legal concept of "separate but equal" which would stand for nearly 60 years until overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education. Stripped of equal protection and disenfranchised, the number of African-American voters plummeted. Unable to vote and unable to rely on the federal government for protection, African-Americans were largely powerless to fight Jim Crow laws. These laws continued to be passed into the second half of the twentieth century.

Life for African-Americans became a complex series of rules necessary to survive interaction with whites. One newspaper reporter, after visiting Charleston, commented that he would "rather be an imp in Hades than a negro in South Carolina." These rules are documented by Stetson Kennedy in his book, Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was (1990, Florida Atlantic University Press). Just a brief sample outlines the modes of address, hand-shaking, and wearing of hats:
  1. If you are white, never say "Mr.", "Mrs.", "sir", or "ma'am" to nonwhites, but always call them by their first names.
  2. If you are nonwhite, always say "Mr.", "Mrs.", "sir", or "ma'am" to whites and never call them by their first name.
Under no circumstances does interracial etiquette permit you to shake hands with a person of the other race anywhere in segregated territory. This taboo is primarily designed to prevent nonwhite men from coming into physical contact with white women; but you will find it applies almost as rigorously to hand-shaking between men.

If you are a nonwhite man in segregated territory, you are required to remove your hat while talking with white persons, regardless of their sex .... Inside segregated territory there are a number of places where whites may keep their hats on, while nonwhites are expected to remove theirs. This includes hotel lobbies, office buildings, and the like.
Failure to follow the rules led to being jailed, whipped, or lynched. African-Americans fled the South in unprecedented numbers rather than tolerate this racism. As one historian has observed, "Nearly a century after the Civil War, on new battlefields – Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Little Rock, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles – another struggle would be fought over the meaning of freedom and justice in America."

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