The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

I had a difficult time deciding on a website to profile for this week’s class. The subject of racism and the African-American experience in the early 20th century is a popular topic, and there were dozens of sites to choose from. However, I came away from this week’s reading wanting to learn more about the day-to-day difficulties of growing up black in early 20th century America, particularly in the South.  With that in mind, I came across the companion website to the 2002 PBS documentary The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.

Exploring some of the available media, I found that many of the interviewees’ experiences paralleled those of Wright’s and Hughes’ characters. James Nix recalls his father angrily disciplining him for commenting on the “pretty hair” of a white girl on their bus, echoing Roy’s lynching for the ‘crime’ of greeting Miss Reese on the sidewalk.[1] A video on the 1919 Elaine (Arkansas) Race Riot represents a historical counterpart to the organized mob violence against Bobo, Silas, and Bert.[2] Wilhemina Baldwin’s experience with a young white boy at the movie theater—and her fear after challenging him—brings to mind young Henry Heartfield, whose hatred for blacks led to the violent death of his lifesaver Mann.[3] Some of the narratives and videos are lengthy, but I recommend watching or listening to at least one or two if you can.

James Nix

The narratives and video on the site are rich sources of information on life under Jim Crow; additionally, several activities challenge visitors to think critically about what they see and hear. “Tools and Activities” features a number of opportunities for visitors to learn and voice their opinions about African-American life under and after Jim Crow.

“Voting Then & Now” takes visitors through the countless means of black voter disenfranchisement, including a 1965 Alabama ‘literacy test.’[4] “Racial Realities” compares and contrasts experiences of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era and in the present day; subjects discussed include white aggression and intimidation, racial profiling, and false accusations of blacks by whites.[5] The activity is a powerful reminder of how much work is yet to be done on the subject of racism in the United States. Finally, “Ways of Seeing” displays three images that will ideally provoke discussion, and visitors are invited to create their own caption for each of the pieces.[6]

Introductory screen, "Voting Then & Now"

Whites in the 21st century (like myself) will never really understand the experience of blacks (including Wright and Hughes) under Jim Crow, but I think the site does a good job of illustrating the everyday injustices faced by blacks, the infringement of their most basic freedoms, and how vestiges of the Jim Crow era survive today. In a world in which racism is frowned upon and racial equality is ostensibly the law of the land, the Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website reminds visitors that racism (and the feelings it provokes on both sides) is potent, destructive, and (unfortunately) often lasting.

[1] James Nix, personal interview. “Crime and Punishment.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/tools_unwritten_crime.html&gt;; Langston Hughes, “Home,” in The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage), 47.

[2] The Elaine Riot: Tragedy and Triumph. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/tools_riot.html&gt;; Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (San Francisco: Harper Perennial, 1991), 57, 155-6; Hughes, “Father and Son,” in The Ways of White Folks, 254.

[3] Wilhemina Baldwin, personal interview. “Jim Crow Stories.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/narrative_baldwin.html&gt;; Wright, “Down by the Riverside,” in Uncle Tom’s Children, 112-123.

[4] “Voting Then & Now.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/tools_voting.html&gt;

[5] “Racial Realities.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/tools_unwritten.html&gt;

[6] “Ways of Seeing.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/php/scribble.php?pic=1&gt;

Photo credits:

“The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/&gt;

Photograph of James Nix. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/narrative_nix.html&gt;

“Voting Then & Now.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow website. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/voting_start.html&gt;

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