Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Woodward - The Strange Career of Jim Crow

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. [Commemorative Edition]

Originally Published 1955, updated 57, 66, 74.

Contrary to the arguments made by the South in favor of Jim Crow, and traditional historiography which suggested Jim Crow emerged immediately on the heels of the collapse of reconstruction, Woodword's brief, non-footnoted account explains that Jim Crow was actually a very recent development in the South, developing around the turn of the century. During slavery, fieldhands (the vast majority of slaves) certainly lived a segregated existence, but house servants lived in close proximity and had often intimate relationships with white masters. After the Civil War, Jim Crowism threatened to emerge but blacks protested successfully (thanks to the presence of the army and Republican governance).

After reconstruction, though, Jim Crow did not immediately return. In fact, blacks may have been worse off, in some ways, north of the Mason-Dixon line. Black travelers through the south reported they could travel in first class train cars without harassment throughout the south, and would often be served in mixed dining cars.

Even political participation was not immediately restricted, with some states taking until 1900 to disenfranchise blacks. The populist party is an important example of a radical movement which sought to unite poor whites and poor blacks as a political bloc. But populists like Tom Watson eventually betrayed this ideal in favor of a scapegoated attitude toward blacks. Meanwhile, conservative Southerners courted black voters through a racialized paternalism, and an accusation that northern Republicans were in no position to take care of them. Booker T. Washington looms large for his inadvertent surrender to Jim Crow.

Woodward's revisions continues the story to what he calls "Second Reconstruction," following Brown v. Board. Encouraged by the Supreme Court, a black movement arose to attack Jim Crow. Despite dire predictions of a racial Civil War, black leaders steered a peaceful course from the 50s into the successes of the 60s. But by 74 Woodward lamented that the Second Reconstruction had ended, as segregation crept back in some ways.

Harold Rabinowitz, JAH

Woodward Thesis: (As Woodward himself put it) "first, that racial segregation in the South in the rigid and universal form it had taken by 1954 did not appear with the end of slavery, but toward the end of the century and later; and second, that before it appeared in this form there occurred an era of experiment and variety in race relations of the South in which segregation was not the invariable rule." Though Woodward emphasizes that much of Jim Crow was enforced through custom, the existence of law was an important variable in its existence. Still, Woodward hedges his use of laws as mileposts by emphasizing that laws alone are not a perfect index of segregation. Rabinowitz points out that Woodward's thesis is much more fluid than critics of Woodward might hope. "Woodward seems to have been wrong about the extent of nonsegregated behavior and the prospects for forgotten alternatives in that realm during the Reconstruction and post- Reconstruction periods, but he did inject the issue of segregation into the study of nineteenth-century southern history." "...Woodward's profound insight into the importance of discontinuity in the study of southern race relations and especially the watershed nature of the 1890s"

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