Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

Segregated America
  • Promise of Freedom
  • White Only
  • Separate but Equal
  • The Supreme Court
The Battleground
Legal Campaign
Five Communities Change a Nation
The Decision
Sign, For Rent to Colored

White Only: Jim Crow in America

By the late 1870s Reconstruction was coming to an end. In the name of healing the wounds between North and South, most white politicians abandoned the cause of protecting African Americans.

In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places.

Publications showing sentiments against voting for blacks

Taking away the vote

Denying black men the right to vote through legal maneuvering and violence was a first step in taking away their civil rights. Beginning in the 1890s, southern states enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, elaborate registration systems, and eventually whites-only Democratic Party primaries to exclude black voters.

The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904.

poll tax receipt

Poll tax receipt

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. The poll tax receipts displayed here is from Alabama.
Jim Crow songbook, open to title page

Jim Crow songbook

This songbook, published in Ithaca, New York, in 1839, shows an early depiction of a minstrel-show character named Jim Crow. By the 1890s the expression “Jim Crow” was being used to describe laws and customs aimed at segregating African Americans and others. These laws were intended to restrict social contact between whites and other groups and to limit the freedom and opportunity of people of color.
Two trade cards

Advertising Cards

Insulting racial stereotypes were common in American society. They reinforced discriminatory customs and laws that oppressed Americans of many racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. The cigarette holder and early 20th-century advertising cards depict common stereotypes of African Americans, Chinese Americans, Jews, and Irish Americans.

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