The Forgotten Northern Origins of Jim Crow

7 minute read

When you hear the phrase “Jim Crow,” what comes to mind?

The easy answer: The South. No other region of the country bears as much responsibility, as much shame, as the states where slavery and then segregation once flourished and dominated. The most famous images of Jim Crow segregation are indelible, unforgettable: Separate bathrooms. Separate water fountains. Separate schools.

What doesn’t come to mind: The North.

Too often when Americans confront the nation’s history of racial injustice, we set aside or leave out the North’s role. Or worse, despite the notable efforts of a few historians, we allow a distorted and simplistic version of our past to creep into the public consciousness. The North, antislavery and good. The South, slaveholding and evil.

This is not to excuse the South, where violence became a tool of white supremacists after slavery’s end, where lynching went unchecked, and where civil rights protections created by Congress in the wake of the Civil War were denied to people of color. There’s no question that Jim Crow laws gained velocity in the South at the end of the 19th century, and then spread like wisteria for five decades, until the Supreme Court declared that separate was inherently unequal in its unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

But Jim Crow did not originate in the South. What most of us don’t know — what I didn’t know until I began researching my new book, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation — is that the impetus for separating the races was a Northern one. The first reference to a “Jim Crow car” that I could find in a newspaper, aided by the 21st-century power of digitized databases? The Salem Gazette, Oct. 12, 1838, less than six weeks after the new Eastern Rail Road opened for business on thirteen-and-a-half miles of freshly-laid track from East Boston to Salem, Mass.

Separation — the word universally used in the 19th century — had no place in the South before the Civil War. Slavery required close contact, coercion and intimacy in order to survive and dominate. It was the free but conflicted North that gave birth to separation, in different places and different forms, at the dawn of the railroad age in the late 1830s.

No existing form of transportation quite compared to a train car’s opportunities for throwing together dozens of passengers without regard for status or social group. “Where do I sit?” was not a new question for white Bostonians. They had already created separate pews in churches, and separate galleries in theaters. But it was a new question for the well-heeled boarding the Eastern Rail Road’s trains on the Salem line.

Among the eight passenger railways operating in the state of Massachusetts in 1840, only three chose the custom of separate cars. Not many people of color were riding the trains, which was hardly surprising in a state with 8,669 “free colored persons,” less than one percent of the population, as recorded in the 1840 census. But two of those lines served towns north and south of Boston that had emerged as antislavery strongholds. With pairs of white and black abolitionists from the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society aboard those trains, confrontations were guaranteed. They could not ride together, conductors said — not in the whites-only car, nor in the “dirt car,” another label that appeared in print. Resisters could go quietly to their assigned seats, or in the rough grip of the crew’s strong arms. But go they must.

As “separation” emerged in the North, so did early attempts to fight it. One who did not go quietly was a young abolitionist who had fled slavery’s grip in Maryland. His name was Frederick Douglass. In his memoirs, Douglass described holding so tightly to his bolted seat during one 1841 trip that it took six men to oust him. “It might have cost the company twenty-five or thirty dollars,” Douglass wrote, “for I tore up [the] seats and all.” The Eastern Rail Road superintendent, tired of Douglass’s fierce resistance, ordered his train crews to skip the station at Lynn where Douglass boarded. Lynn’s white residents howled, forcing the superintendent to rescind his ill-advised directive.

Nor was Douglass the only one resisting. On the line going south to New Bedford a few weeks earlier, a train crew had ejected black abolitionist David Ruggles for refusing to move from the whites-only car. The slightly built Ruggles, on his way to early blindness from cataracts, filed assault charges against the men who had manhandled him, leaving him with bruises and torn clothing. By seeking to bring the railway to account through the legal system, this free man of color had done something extraordinary, something no one in slavery could do. He wanted more than an apology. He wanted the discrimination to end.

The local judge ruled against him, blaming Ruggles for disobeying the conductor and declaring that the railway corporation was entitled to make and enforce whatever rules it deemed necessary to keep good order. The rights of individuals vs. the rights of corporations — a clash that resonates still, nearly 200 years later.

The abolitionists protested the judge’s ruling with fervor. Separate cars, they said, belonged in “the receptacle of forgotten barbarisms.” In 1843, under pressure from Massachusetts legislators, the three railways succumbed. But the custom did not die, nor did resistance and legal challenges.

In 1855, a New York jury awarded $250 in damages to passenger Elizabeth Jennings after a judge ruled that “colored persons, if sober, well-behaved and free of disease, had the same rights as others” on the city’s streetcars. In 1858, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against black abolitionist William Howard Day, who had sued a Michigan steamboat company for refusing to sell him an overnight cabin. In 1867, after the Civil War, teacher Mary Miles refused to sit in the colored-only section of a car on the West Chester and Philadelphia Railway. After succeeding in the lower court, Miles’ lawsuit met a brutal defeat at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Judge Daniel Agnew declared “a right to separate,” a precedent-setting ruling often cited later by other state courts — and by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy.

These cases share a common lineage. All came from the North. All were challenges to discrimination, but all were also links in a chain leading to the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual embrace of separation, first in a Mississippi railroad case in 1890, and then in Plessy, a Louisiana railroad case from 1896. Both were decided by a court dominated by Northern justices.

The shame of the South? Yes, and the North, too. In the spirit of understanding our history and its reverberations, of dealing honestly with our past and present, shame on us if we do not remember this.

W.W. Norton

Steve Luxenberg is an author and long-time Washington Post editor. His new book, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation (W.W. Norton) is available now.

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