Viewing History of Jim Crow Laws through Lens of African-Americans
During my K-12 educational experience the history of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras was sparsely presented. An important part of not only American history but African American history was minimized and presented as a time of rebuilding and advancement for America as a whole. My recollection of what I was taught about the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras was merely that, African Americans were freed and working toward building their lives as newly bestowed Americans. The truth behind how African Americans were treated and perceived was merely fabricated.
The Civil War, Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow Eras all took place in a linear form within American history. The Civil War is generally described as the fight between the Union and Confederate, the Union being northern Free states in addition to some western states and border southern, while the Confederacy consisted entirely of southern slave states. As Karenga, suggests that Civil War was not caused by a single event, but a series of events including, “the 1850 Fugivite Slave law and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act” (128-129) . The Civil War itself was solely derived from the division of the United States based on the perception and disagreement of the expansion of cotton plantations, including the enslavement of African American people. The start of the deadliest war in American history took place in, “April 1861, when the Confederate attacked a sea fort in South Carolina” (Karenga 129). This battle marked the start of a new era for America.
Granted that African Americans were still enslaved during the battle of the Civil War, whites highly opposed the idea of African Americans fighting in the war. White people felt that allowing African Americans to fight in the Civil War, “implied their inadequacies; arming Blacks meant potential rebels; serving in the armed forces would change the social attitude and status of Blacks and thus pose a problem for White rule and power.” (Karenga 129). Moreover, whites feared that allowing African Americans to enter the army would result in retaliation against them. In the midst of the president Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The executive order passed by Lincoln, “was a declaration of freedom for enslaved persons is all terorttieds at war with the US.” (Karenaga 130). Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation with the sole intent to use it as propaganda, to allow African Americans to fight in the war. The proclamation was not issued for the benefit of African Americans, for it only freed slaves in confederate states, not states that sided with the Union. “The line between free and enslaved was not clearcut” (Opotow 62), but those who were “free” took the opportunity to join the army, “to fight for freedom, respect and a better status and role in society.” (Karenga 130). African Americans joined the army in vast numbers serving in many different areas. Though free and fighting for their country African Americans still endured racism and unequal treatment. Following the victory of the Civil War for the Union, came an era known as Reconstruction.
The era of Reconstruction is highlighted to be a controversial point in history, as it is referred to as, “the best of times and the worst of times.” (Karenga 131), for African Americans. Susan Opotow argues that today Reconstruction is in fact seen as a bright point in history. In the beginning of the 20th century, historians of the north described the era of Reconstruction as a disappointing and horrid point in time. After examining different accounts of the time period there has been mixed opinions, on the effects that Reconstruction brung among African Americans (65). The time period brought about what seemed positive changes for the African American community, but it disguise oppression and racism was still very prevalent.
Post-Civil War the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were passed by congress to assist with the “integration of Blacks in the social fabric on the basis of equality.” (Karenga 131). The thirteenth amendment freed slaves, the fourteenth made blacks citizens, and the fifteenth gave them the right to vote. Although these amendments presented to aid equality, there were flaws that assisted with the conscious act of racism and oppression. For example, the fifteenth amendment gave blacks the right to vote, but the amendment limited it to men who could read. This excluded all black women and the majority of black men, because African Americans did not have the advantage of learning the basic skills of reading and writing. Furthermore the thirteenth amendment, states that slavery is illegal unless punisable by crime, which made it easy for African Americans to become enslaved again if they were to violate a simple law.
With Reconstruction came the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to, “provide relief to refugees and ex-slaves, try to settle ex-slaves on land, oversee labor contracts and labor disputes, build schools, and more.” (Cimbala and Miller 1). When presented to the African American community the agency seemed like another chance with the transition of becoming a freed slave, but yet again the proposition was flawed. Karenga presented that under the Freedmen’s Bureau the government promised to provide land to the African American community. When failing to do so many African Americans were left with no land of their own. Overtime without the access to their own land African Americans slowly but inevitably returned to plantations, because they did not have anything and their former owners provided shelter and work for them. Although they were compensated little to nothing for their work, it was the only choice they had to ensure survival (132). Despite the fact that the Reconstruction was to rebuild the South politically and economically, while aiding with the integration of African Americans into society, “it betrayed its own ideals and failed in solving the problems the post-war posed.” (Karenga 131).
As the Reconstruction era came to an end, the era of Jim Crow arised. Jim Crow is known to be “described a period of extreme racial segregation and refers to the pratices that were instutionalized… representing black people as simple and inferior” (Opotow 60). Ronald states that the term Jim Crow arose from a white man who was a minstrel show around the 1830s who performed in blackface, to a song called “Jump Jim Crow”. These performances were used to stereotypically mock African Americans. The performances created a stereotypical view of African Americans in the white community (1). The Jim Crow era brought horrid policies that separated blacks from whites, and limiting the freedom of African Americans as a whole.
The era of Jim Crow bought about the passage of things like pig law. Ronald explains that the simple act of stealing a pig landed an African American five years in prison. Laws such as the pig law made it extremely easy for African Americans to be subject to serving time in prison for an extended amount of time for petty crimes (4). The high rate of African Americans in prison created association between blacks and prison, which still exist today. With the number of African Americans in the prison system rapidly increasing due these laws, lead to the practice of convict leasing. The practice turned prisons, “into a profitable business, whereby convicts were leased to contractors who subleased them” (Ronald 4), to work in coal mines, plantations, etc., under extreme conditions. The prisoners were subject death as they were worked for extended hours in unsafe conditions, were rarely feed, and had poor living conditions. Along with convict leasing came the practice of debt peonage. Peonage was seen as yet another practice that whites used to enslave large population of African Americans. Peonage was simply when a white individual would bail an African American who could not pay their jail fees and return they must work off their debt. This practice ultimately allowed white to gain control over them and in some instances refuse to free them long after they paid off their debt. During this period the African American community could not simply advance in society,for “black males were disenfranchised by imposing voter restrictions such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause.” (Ronald 6). Loopholes were found during the creation of the restrictions because they applied to all voters. Even though they applied to all a voter it sequentially highly affect African Americans, because many of them did not have an education, they did not have money to pay poll taxes, nor could their grandfathers vote.
Overall the Jim Era was a time of legalized racism and segregation that hindered the development of the African American community after slavery ended. The Jim Crow era ended abruptly in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“A Brief History of Jim Crow Laws”). This act abolished all Jim Crow laws and all types discrimation in public spaces. This was followed by the “the Voting Right Act of 1965, which protected black people’s right to vote by barring discriminatory voting laws.” (“A Brief History of Jim Crow Laws”).
Learning history from an Afrocentric perspective in comparison to a Eurocentric perspective allows me to know the other side of the story once. Being able to see, learn, and read history from Afrocentric perspective has taught me that there is always more than what you actually learn. You have to think of things from different perspectives in order to fully understand and assess any event or situation. In many cases learning history from an Afrocentric perspective is significant for African American students. It allows them to learn their history, who they are, and what their ancestors experienced, ultimately what makes them, them. Learning from an Afrocentric perspective is important because it allows a person, regardless of race to understand our world and society today, while showing them the changes necessary in taking steps toward a racially and sexually equal society. It allows for the realization that we came far in the past hundred years, but we have so much further to go.
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