When the Delany sisters, born in 1889 and 1891, were small children, they could sit anywhere they pleased on streetcars in their hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. Once they reached late elementary school, the sisters faced new limitations in their everyday life, however, when the town began to apply Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation. The sisters would be close to 80 years old before government-mandated segregation ended in the U.S.
In the chaotic years after the Civil War, the U.S. government made a few promising strides in establishing and protecting civil rights for black Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 mandated that all people born in the United States were entitled to citizenship, and had rights to enforce contracts, sue and be sued, give evidence in court and purchase, hold and sell property. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 gave black Americans equal treatment in public accommodations and public transportation and prohibited their exclusion from jury service. It wasn’t long, however, before this progress was reversed. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Individual southern states began to enforce segregation laws, conforming to the idea that blacks and whites should be separate but equal. Schools, train cars, buses, businesses, restrooms and drinking fountains were soon subject to this doctrine. In 1896, the Supreme Court sanctioned the idea of separate but equal by ruling that the state of Louisiana had the right to arrest Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, after he sat in a whites only railway car and refused to move when asked.
The laws that imposed segregation became collectively known as Jim Crow laws, after a fictitious black character of the same name performed by white entertainer Thomas D. Rice, beginning in 1828. After darkening his skin with burnt cork and donning rags, Rice portrayed a lazy, simple-minded man; in doing so he initiated and perpetuated stereotypes about blacks and earned the title in history books of “The Father of Minstrelsy.” The term “Jim Crow” evolved into a slur to describe black people —so “Jim Crow laws” means “black laws,” but with a strongly negative and racist connotation.
Although the laws stressed that facilities for blacks were supposed to be “equal” to those of whites, in reality the black restrooms, train cars and schools were often underfunded or dirty, and the back of the bus was, if nothing else, less convenient for a weary commuter. Despite protests, these laws persisted through the middle of the century, finally being gradually repealed through a myriad of events, including the Supreme Court’s call to reintegrate schools with the landmark case Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Rosa Parks’ famous decision to remain seated in the front of the bus, and countless activist marches, chants and sit-ins.