C. Vann Woodward’s book The Strange Career of Jim Crow is a close look at the struggles of the African American community from the time of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement. The book portrays a scene where the Negroes are now free men after being slaves on the plantations and their adaptation to life as being seen as free yet inferior to the White race and their hundred year struggle of becoming equals in a community where they have always been seen as second class citizens. To really understand the motivation of C. Vann Woodward’s motives of his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, one must look at Mr. Woodward’s life.
Comer Vann Woodward was born and raised in Vanndale, AK in Cross County on November 13, 1908. The town was named after his mother’s aristocratic family. He attended Henderson- Brown College in Arkadelphia, AK for two years before transferring to Emory University in Atlanta, GA in 1930, where he graduated. He received his PHD in history at the University of North Carolina and after he took graduate classes at Columbia University where he was introduced and influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. Woodward taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1946-61 and at Yale University from 1961-67.
He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for Mary Chestnut’s Civil War and won the Bancroft Prize for Origins of the New South*. It was when he was teaching at Johns Hopkins when he wrote the book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. It was during the court ruling of Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 that Woodward started his lectures, which lead to his book, at the University of Virginia. His audience was more or less surprised about the race relations of the old south during reconstruction; most thought that the two races have always been separated with hatred.
Woodward argues that the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s were a new concept of separating the two races. Throughout slavery and during the reconstruction period, the two races were fully integrated working on economics and political problems; the separation of the two races would lead to an insufficient and ineffective plantation. “The typical dwelling of a slave-owning family was a walled compound shared by both master and slave families. Neither non-slaveholding whites nor free Negroes escaped this ntimacy, for they were ‘sprinkled through most parts of town and surrounded by people of both races’” (14).
The same relations remained true during the Reconstruction era when the blacks started to urbanize in the south. Woodward goes on to say that the “blacks and whites lived side by side, sharing the same premises if not equal facilities and living constantly in each other’s presence” (14). The good relations of the south turned sour when conflicts between the whites over economic troubles heightened in the late 1870s. the determination of the Negro’s ‘place’ took shape gradually under the influence of economic and political conflicts among divided white people- conflicts that were eventually resolved in part at the expense of the Negro” (6).
The Negro at the time became the scapegoat for all of America’s economic strife. Many thought it best if they separated themselves from the Negro then all would be better. Hence the Jim Crow laws started to form on the segregation of the two races and then court cases followed in suit, aka Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 which ruled “separate but equal”.
Ironically the south is known for the most racism but most cities were reluctant in to enforce legal separation of the races. In New Orleans, whites and blacks gathered freely at public events and even many had sexual relations with one another resulting in an influx of mulattos in that area (15-16). Racism did in fact take place in mostly rural areas. “An excessive squeamishness or fussiness about contact with Negroes was commonly identified as a lower class white attitude, while opposite attitude was popularly identified with ‘the quality’ (50).
It was within these rural lower classes that extreme racism was formed involving white supremacy groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. As political parties started to shift in the mid 1880s, more conservative Democrats took the scene and strictly enforced the laws of segregation. The Republicans were the ones in support of more tolerant and equal society. The mentality of if one thing is separate then they all have to be took precedent during this time. With the shift of political parties, the segregation of the blacks from the whites heightened and the individual rights a Negro had were limited.
Blacks were discouraged to vote and separation of the two races became almost total with separate modes of transportation to separate drinking fountains. After the Progressive era and the New Deal, integration was a thought in higher education. Colleges started to let Negro students attend white universities because the separation of the races at school was infringing on their fourteenth amendment rights (144). Even though theses students did not attend the university for all four years, it was progress that helped lead up to the 1954 case of Brown vs Board of Education.
The school boards argued that “’Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect on colored children’, for it ‘generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone’” (147). The ruling of integration of public schools was monumental for the blacks at that time. After trying to fight racism and limitations of their individual rights, the blacks could finally be more equal then they had been in the eyes of the law.
When Woodward presented his lectures at the University of Virginia, which subsequently led to his book, it was right after the ruling of Brown vs Board of Education. He insisted that his audience would be integrated as well so he spoke to not only students, faculty and dignitary of the university but he also spoke to local blacks and whites of the community. His lectures received mix reviews; some older, more conservative members of the university were shocked and appalled by Woodward’s comments of pro-integration, while others were intrigued.
For them, the white Southern professor’s message was a challenge to the assumption that race relations had been immutably fixed over the course of Southern history” (224). Woodward also argued that the south was always changing and something that limited the rights of blacks in the 1890s was to turn around in the 1950s to something better. When The Strange Career of Jim Crow was released nationally, America did not agree with Woodward’s idea that it was time for a change, “segregation was ore firmly embraced than ever” (225).
Whites did not approve of the ruling of the integration of schools so they protested and sometimes rioted when the government tried to integrate some of the schools. States such as Georgia put the confederate flag back on their state flag in defiance of the new laws (225). Blacks protested in comparison. After the arrest of Rosa Parks not wanting to give up her seat to a white man, the Civil Rights Movement launched its campaign of civil and equal liberties lead by Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr. When this book was originally published in 1955, Rev King called it “the historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement”. I believe that the main reason behind King’s statement was that the movement was on the front page of every newspaper for over a decade that when the book did come out, Woodward looked at the struggle of the Negro in a historical sense and not putting blame on a specific race, but on certain decisions some legislators made that forced America to head in the direction of segregation.
Woodward presented a historical and non threatening story which gave reason to the Civil Rights Movement. The blacks liked it because it showed the persecution they had to endure for so long and the perseverance they maintained throughout that time and the whites bought the book because it helped explain what was going on at that moment in time. No doubt that this book is an important historical document that helped a nation through one if its more difficult times in history.