Separate but Equal

Segregated America

After the Civil War, millions of formerly enslaved African Americans hoped to join the larger society as full and equal citizens. Although some white Americans welcomed them, others used ignorance, racism, and self-interest to spread racial divisions. By 1900, new laws and old customs in the North and the South had created a segregated society that condemned Americans of color to second-class citizenship.

The Promise of Freedom

For formerly enslaved people, freedom meant an end to the whip, to the sale of family members, and to white masters. The promise of freedom gave hope of self-determination, educational opportunities, and full rights of citizenship.

The goal of the Reconstruction Amendments was to extend the rights of citizenship to African Americans: abolishing slavery, extending equal protection of the laws to all citizens, and the right to vote.

During the Reconstruction era, the federal government politically controlled the former Confederate states. Black and white citizens attempted to extend educational opportunities and civil and political rights to everyone.

White Only: Jim Crow in America

By the late 1870s, Reconstruction was coming to an end. To heal the wounds between North and South, most white politicians stopped protecting African Americans.

In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments re-established white supremacy. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places.

The right to vote became the first of the freedoms taken away. Southern states excluded black voters by requiring literacy tests, poll taxes, elaborate registration systems, and eventually whites-only Democratic Party primaries. Poll taxes required citizens to pay a fee to register to vote. These fees kept many poor African Americans, as well as poor whites, from voting.

Insulting racial stereotypes were common in American society. They reinforced discriminatory customs and laws.

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee, in 1866, to fight Reconstruction reforms and intimidate African Americans. Similar organizations arose across the South. These groups used fear, brutality, and even murder to overthrow local reform-minded governments.

During the mid-1920s the Klan was again a powerful political force, spreading hatred against African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, and Jews.

Separate but Equal: The Law of the Land

African Americans turned to the courts to protect their constitutional rights. But the courts challenged earlier civil rights legislation and handed down decisions that permitted states to segregate people of color.

In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the Constitution. Segregation, the Court said, was not discrimination.

Source: Separate but Equal
© Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

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