The Era Of Segregation: Historical Photos Of Inequality

Culture | January 26, 2019

The First Day of Desegregation. A black child and a white child face each other on the first classroom day in history that saw racial integration in some public schools in the southern states of the U.S. Source: (gettyimages.com)

The United States has come a long way since institutionalized segregation. Historical photos, though, are a powerful reminder of the injustice of the "separate but equal" era. And it wasn't that long ago: Many people reading this post might have been born when segregation was still in effect -- before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that struck down Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks' civil disobedience in 1955, the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As much as we would like to think of segregation as ancient history, it's not, and we are still feeling its after-effects.

From the beginning, race relations in the United States were at odds with the ideals upon which the country was founded. The Declaration of Independence talked a good game in its most famous passage:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But the existence of slavery based on white superiority disproved the "created equal" claim, and legal bondage of fellow human beings was a clear deprivation of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Looking back at the pictures in history of how this country was ripped apart by the issue of segregation, have we, as a country, learned anything? Could things have been done differently? The country that people from all walks of life loved was marred by racial injustice and slavery. People from all over the world have sought freedom in this country and that freedom was shaken with the words of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" being tested. That freedom and happiness are still being tested even today. Have we learned anything from our history?

Slaves -- eventually -- were freed. Intolerance lingered after the Civil War due to the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896, that set the precedent for separate but equal policies. Progress toward equality was made -- slowly. Racial injustice lived on in the form of segregation, as historical photos remind us all too clearly

When Did Segregation Start?

Source: (augustachronicle.com)

Formally, it began with the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896, which established the legality of "separate but equal" facilities for black and white Americans.

But racial discrimination goes back farther than that, as far back as the 1400s in what we now call the United States of America. It began when the first settlers came over to this country and began making slaves of the Native Americans, and continued with the enslavement of Africans. 

Jim Crow Laws

Separate but equal. Source: (social.rollins.edu)

These local laws were used in an effort to make sure that racial segregation was enforced, particularly in the Southern states. The Jim Crow Laws (which stopped in 1965) stated that blacks and whites were to have separate restaurants, schools, bathrooms, and be differentiated from public service establishments. It was stated in these laws that even though they were to be separate they would be "equal." An example of such "equality" is shown in the picture above. Schools for white children were far better than schools for black children and funding for the schools were not equally dispersed.  

Separate But Obviously Not Equal

Segregated cinema entrance in Belzoni, Mississippi. Source: (upload.wikimedia.org)

In historical photographs, the difference is quite obvious. A famous one from 1939 depicts the exterior of the Crescent Movie Theater in Belzoni, Mississippi. A black man is walking up the stairs to enter where "colored admission" is permitted. Text on the door below the stairs reads "white men only."

Separate entrances were put in place for various businesses and establishments. There was a sense throughout the States that whites were somehow superior to blacks and should have all the benefits and privileges. These separations in the different businesses simply fanned the flame of racial tensions creating that sense of superiority among the whites that maybe would not have been there otherwise. Many children grew up in homes, particularly in the South, where racial discrimination was drilled into them by their parents.  

Second Class Citizens

Segregation interstate. Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

Bus stations, doctors’ offices, clinics, and other establishments had separate waiting areas and entrances with many having totally separate facilities altogether. The separate medical facilities were less funded and had poorer quality than the facilities for whites. All these incidents and restrictions brought about the assistance from the organization of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) which was founded in 1910. The NAACP played a major role during the 1950s when racial tension was at its peak.

The End of Segregation -- Or Was It?

Integration takes effect at Barnard School in Washington, DC. This photo was taken in 1955. Source: (nationalgeographic.org)

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education found that segregation was unconstitutional and outlawed racial segregation in the public schools after many long fought battles. It was the case of Oliver Brown against the school system in Topeka, Kansas that finally did the trick to make it a unanimous decision. The Brown case itself took five long years and was actually a group of five different school cases that overturned that 1896 case of Plessy versus Ferguson where the "separate but equal" doctrine had been outlined in the first place.

By the looks of these kids’ faces, desegregation was a pretty happy occurrence. Black and white children could finally go to school together, learn together, and play together. 

The Struggle Goes On

Segregation protest in Nashville, Tennessee, 1960. Source: (fasttrackteaching.com)

Individuals continued to rise up to fight against discrimination that persisted after Brown v. Board of Education. Rosa Parks was one; on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Consequently, she was arrested but her actions started the ball rolling for others to take a stand against racial discrimination. In 1960, four black students of North Carolina A&T University sat at the "whites only" counter in the cafeteria at a Woolworth's department store -- and were refused service. They remained seated at the counter until the store closed, and were joined by more students the following day. All over the country, protesters followed the example set in Greensboro and staged similar "sit-ins" to force stores to respect desegregation laws.

Even after the Supreme Court ended the segregation in restaurants in 1964 (as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), some restaurant owners still did not like it and refused to change their policies. Most of the restaurants did comply but some of them continued to hang on to their ideals and would refuse to serve black patrons because they were afraid of losing their white customers. There was one case in particular in Birmingham, Alabama where the restaurant owners actually sued the Federal government because they did not want the Federal government telling them what they could do in their own restaurant. But, to their disappointment, they lost the case as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against them. Ironically, they found out that the new law of “integration” did not hurt the business of the restaurant at all.

Forcing Washington To Make Good On Its Promises

Source: (georgiaencyclopedia.org)

Many historical figures have not only risked their lives but did, in fact, give their lives to fight for social justice. Those instrumental in making their voices known include Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Andrew Goodman, Malcolm X, and others. Unfortunately, even today, there are still groups around like the Ku Klux Klan's (or the KKK) who attack them.

In 1963, at the massive March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The event and Dr. King's words helped spur Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Segregation Didn't Go Down Without A Fight

Source: (www.flholocaustmuseum.org)

Some schools in Virginia did not comply and decided to actually shut down rather than to allow desegregation. It was not until the 1970s before all the schools in Virginia complied with integrating.

The prolonged "massive resistance," as the strategy was called, to desegregation in Virginia was yet another example how the battle for equality continued even after it had been declared over. Despite rulings like Brown v. Board of Education and legislation like the Civil Righs Act of 1964, old habits and biases tend to persist.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Air Travel In The 1960s | Brown v. Board Of Education | Civil Rights | Jim Crow | Martin Luther King Jr. | Rare Photos From... | Rosa Parks | Segregation | Separate But Equal | The 1950s | The 1960s | The March On Washington

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.