In the first part of the twentieth century, with Jim Crow in full effect in southern states, before there was any pretense of the equal in “separate but equal,” it was up to African-American communities to take on the responsibility of educating their children. (In the North, there was a pretense.) A half-century earlier, custom and law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write. Taxpayer funding for segregated public schools in the South mostly went to white kids; white schools received more than five times the per-student funding as black schools. (In Mississippi the ratio was thirteen to one.) African-American citizens paid taxes, but were effectively barred from voting.
A black educator and a Jewish business entrepreneur joined together to do something about it.
Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man, was born in New York City in 1808. He devoted himself to the theater in his twenties, and in the early 1830s, he began performing the act that would make him famous: he painted his face black and did a song and dance he claimed were inspired by a slave he saw. The act was called “Jump, Jim Crow” (or “Jumping Jim Crow”).
Megyn “Santa is white” Kelly reportedly has settled with NBC after her show was cancelled halfway through her three-year, $69 million contract. The stunning ignorance supporting her defense of wearing blackface for Halloween was not enough to invalidate the $30 million she will still collect on the deal.
White entertainers performing in blackface, caricaturing and demeaning people of color, amused white audiences. Black folks have been entertaining white folks in this country for a couple centuries. It’s a blurry line between the joy of performing and cynical pandering.
The recent antics in Charlottesville, Virginia ostensibly began as a protest of the impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, astride his horse. The demonstrators were enraged by this attack on their heritage. The South’s Confederate legacy was so important that it took nearly sixty years, until 1924, for them to get around to erecting this monument in its honor. Like most Civil War memorials, this one was built not during the postwar reconstruction, but during the time of Jim Crow laws, a sort of “in your face” to African-Americans whose few decades of civil rights were ending.
Daniel Murray was born in Baltimore in1852. His father was a freed slave; his mother a free black woman. At the time of his birth, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the country. Baltimore and nearby Washington D.C. were islands of opportunity for free blacks. Careers in government service and Howard University attracted African-American civic leaders and intellectuals. With timing, connections and his ability to network – sound familiar? – with both whites and blacks, Murray built a successful business and government career. By 1899, he was Assistant Librarian, the second-highest position at the Library of Congress, working with Congress doing research for legislation. He was a member of the Washington Board of Trade, the only non-white on the advocacy group of businessmen. Murray’s wife, Anna Evans, was a black socialite who taught at local schools and attended Oberlin College. They owned a three-story brick home in D.C.
Thomas Rice, a white vaudeville performer, became famous in the 1830s for a song and dance he performed in blackface and wearing shabby clothes. He claimed his inspiration was a slave he had seen. He called the routine “Jump, Jim Crow.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 1877 that states could not prohibit segregation on streetcars, railroads, riverboats or other public transportation. That same year, federal troops were pulled out of the southern states. Reconstruction had ended. The Supreme Court promulgated its “separate but equal” doctrine in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case. (“Equal” had a different meaning in southern states.) A deluge of “Jim Crow” laws followed, peaking in the 1920s, coincided with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and a new need to put up Civil-War monuments. Confederate statuary reached a second peak in the fifties and sixties, a reaction to the escalating civil-rights movement.
After being inaugurated as president in 1913, Woodrow Wilson oversaw the segregation of federal offices, firing or demoting black employees and segregating facilities. Daniel Murray was one of those demoted and salary slashed. He was not allowed to eat in the Library’s public cafeteria. He died in 1925, in a segregated hospital and was buried in a segregated cemetery.
It’s vacation season. Millions of us are hitting the highways, to visit relatives, or Disney World or exploring the two-lane roads. The automobile is an American icon, a symbol of our freedom. From Duncan Hines to the A.A.A., travel guides have helped vacationers and business travelers on their journeys. For some Americans, though, mainstream publications were not very helpful.
African-Americans on the road found challenges in finding a bed for the night or a decent meal or a rest room. Jim Crow was enforced by law or by custom in many areas. Some cities had Sunset Laws, prohibiting non-whites from being in town after dark.
Victor Hugo Green first published his travel guide in 1936. The Negro Motorist Green Book listed businesses that welcomed black patrons. Green, a veteran of World War I, a New York City mail carrier and later a travel agent, published his book “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” Green’s book initially focused on the New York area. Subsequent editions, with the help of correspondents and readers, expanded the territory, eventually covering the U.S. and parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation and discrimination in public accommodations and lessened the need for the “Green Book.” It ceased publishing in 1967.