Segregation means keeping things or people separate. In United States history, it means the laws and customs that kept black and white Americans separate. Black and white people had been seen as different and unequal since Europeans started bringing slaves from Africa to America in the early 1600s. By 1804, all the northern states in the U.S. had ended slavery, but there were slaves in the South up until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery everywhere in the U.S. after the Civil War. Segregation, however, lasted a lot longer.
The abolitionists were concerned about how black people would be treated after being freed. Some argued that the formerly enslaved should be returned to Africa to create their own colony. Meanwhile, official segregation was in full force with the “Black Codes,” which were laws dictating how black people should live and work. After the end of Reconstruction and the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws did the same. Just about everything became segregated – from schools and neighborhoods where black people could live to theaters, parks, swimming pools, cemeteries, and jails. Professional offices also had different waiting rooms for black and white visitors, and in 1915, Oklahoma took it a step further by segregating public phone booths.
In 1869, the Hampton Institute in Virginia was established as a school for black youth; however, the teachers were white, and the curriculum reportedly taught the students how to work in service positions to white people.
In 1875 Republicans tried to eliminate racial segregation with a civil rights bill that made it illegal to discriminate in schools, public transportation, and churches. The bill was passed, but the law was not really enforced, and the Supreme Court overturned it in 1883.
What happened to those who were mixed race, with one white and one black parent? Where did they fit into society? In 1896, the Supreme Court still ruled that segregation was constitutional in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, ruling that a mixed-race man had to sit in the black-designated train car.
Neighborhoods and Housing
Between 1916 and 1970 was a time known as the Great Migration, when large numbers of black people left the South, hoping for more equal opportunities. Instead, they found similar segregation and discrimination in the North. Some cities had zoning laws that prohibited black families from moving into white neighborhoods. Although the Supreme Court ruled those laws were unconstitutional, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover found a loophole letting him create a federal zoning committee that pressured local boards to pass rules preventing lower-income families (which almost always meant black people at the time) from moving into middle-income areas.
By the 1940s, “Whites Only” signs were still visible on businesses, even in the northern states. At the end of World War II, Harry Truman proposed the Housing Act of 1949 to solve a shortage of housing, but it stipulated that black families could not buy a house under this Act.
Segregation in Schools
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional. Still, black children were being harassed and it became so bad that in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas to make sure nine black students could enter the high school safely. Then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had called the National Guard to try and prevent the students from attending.
The Civil Rights Movement
The fight for equality included many incidents over the years, but one of the most famous was in 1955. Rosa Parks, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was arrested. This inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize and lead the bus protest in December that year, which kicked off the Civil Rights Movement in earnest. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. It officially outlawed discrimination, but it was a long and slow process to undo centuries of beliefs and segregation.