Dow English

Take an interest in the future. You will spend the rest of your life there.

Social Background

The novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee takes place during the 1930's in Alabama, a state that still is considered to be part of the country's region known as the Deep South where slavery was in full force prior to the Civil War.  The Civil War was fought, in part, to free blacks from slavery.  However, freedom from slavery did not result in freedom from oppression.  From the end of the Civil War (1865) through the 1960's, African Americans in the South were barred from the voting booth, sent to the back of the bus, and walled off from many of the rights they deserved as American citizens.  Until well into the 1960s, segregation was legal. The system was called Jim Crow.

Some of the following links are from The American Radio Works web site and presents the stories of Americans — black and white — who remember life in the Jim Crow times.  The other links present historical perspectives from Many of the personal stories you will be reading take place in the 50's and 60's, just before and after the enactment of civil equality laws.  However, keep in mind that the kind of prejudice depicted in these stories was as, if not more, prevalent and intense during the 1930's.

Your Assignment:

Find answers to and discuss the following questions with your partner(s).  You ALL must know the answers to all of these questions, so if you split up the searching for answers, make sure you discuss your results!


    1. When and why were Jim Crow Laws enacted?
    2. Why do you think Jim Crow Laws were enforced for so many years?
    3. What does "politically correct" mean, and why were the Jim Crow Laws considered politically correct?
    4. What are the differences between how whites viewed Jim Crow Laws and how blacks viewed them?
    5. Choose three of the Jim Crow Laws and briefly discuss with your group what you think of them. For instance, you might discuss whether or not each is fair; if they could possibly exist today; what you think the reasons were behind a particular law.
    6. What are lynchings?   What types of people were lynched?  Why?
    7. During this period (1920's-50's) what do you think many Southern whites would assume would happen if a black man were left alone with a white woman? Do you think this is a reasonable assumption?  Why or why not.
    8. What was "racial etiquette"?  Cite two examples.
    9. How were poor whites treated? (Remember this when you encounter the Ewells in the novel.)

      *** After answering and discussing the above questions, everyone should read the narratives.
  • Pick one of the situations in one of the stories and pretend you are the black person in that story during the 1930's. Write a 5-7 sentence first-person narrative explaining how you feel.

Historical Background

Creating Jim Crow

    The term Jim Crow originated in a song performed by Daddy Rice, a white minstrel show entertainer in the 1830s. Rice covered his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork to resemble a black man, and then sang and danced a routine in caricature of a silly black person. By the 1850s, this Jim Crow character, one of several stereotypical images of black inferiority in the nation's popular culture, was a standard act in the minstrel shows of the day. By 1900, the term was generally identified with those racist laws and actions that deprived African Americans of their civil rights by defining blacks as inferior to whites, as members of a caste of subordinate people.

    After the Civil War, when the formerly enslaved people acted quickly to establish their own churches and schools separate from whites, most southern states tried to limit the economic and physical freedom of the formerly enslaved by adopting laws known as Black Codes. These early legal attempts at white-imposed segregation and discrimination were temporarily squashed when the federal government declared illegal all such acts of legal discrimination against African Americans and by the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and other Acts that curtailed the ability of southern whites to formally deprive blacks of their civil rights.

    As a result African Americans were able to make great progress in building their own institutions, passing civil rights laws, and electing officials to public office. In response to these achievements, southern whites launched a vicious, illegal war against southern blacks. In most places, whites carried out this war in the late 1860s and early 1870s under the cover of secret organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Thousands of African Americans were killed, brutalized, and terrorized in these bloody years.

    By 1877 the federal government essentially abandoned all efforts at protecting the civil rights of southern blacks. It was not long before a stepped-up reign of white terror erupted in the South. The decade of the 1880s was characterized by mob lynchings, a vicious system of convict prison farms and chain gains, the horribly debilitating debt peonage of sharecropping, the imposition of a legal color line in race relations, and a variety of laws that blatantly discriminated against blacks by restricting their voting rights and segregated all aspects of life (especially schools and public places) wherein blacks and whites might socially mingle or come into contact.

    In the end, black resistance to segregation was difficult because the system of land tenancy, known as sharecropping, left most blacks economically dependent upon planter-landlords and merchant suppliers. Also, the white terror at the hands of lynch mobs threatened all members of the black family--adults and children alike. This reality made it nearly impossible for blacks to stand up to Jim Crow because such actions might bring down the wrath of the white mob on one's parents, brothers, spouse, and children.

(By Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D., California State University, Northridge)


Racial Etiquette

The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behavior in Jim Crow America

Most southern white Americans who grew up prior to 1954 expected black Americans to conduct themselves according to well-understood rituals of behavior. This racial etiquette governed the actions, manners, attitudes, and words of all black people when in the presence of whites. To violate this racial etiquette placed one's very life, and the lives of one's family, at risk.

Blacks were expected to refer to white males in positions of authority as "Boss" or "Cap'n"--a title of respect that replaced "Master" or "Marster" used in slave times. If a white person was well known, a black servant or hired hand or tenant might speak in somewhat intimate terms, addressing the white person as "Mr. John" or "Miss Mary."

All black men, on the other hand, were called by their first names or were referred to as "Boy," "Uncle," and "Old Man"--regardless of their age. If the white person did not personally know a black person, the term "nigger" or "nigger-fellow," might be used. In legal cases and the press, blacks were often referred to by the word "Negro" with a first name attached, such as "Negro Sam." At other times, the term "Jack," or some common name, was universally used in addressing black men not known to the white speaker. While the term "nigger" was universally used, some whites were uncomfortable with it because they knew it was offensive to most blacks. As a substitute, the word "niggra" often appeared in polite society.

Black women were addressed as "Auntie" or "girl." Under no circumstances would the title "Miss." or "Mrs." be applied. Some educated whites referred to black women by the words "colored ladies." White women allowed black servants and acquaintances to call them by their first names but with the word "Miss" attached as a modifier: "Miss Ann," "Miss Julie" or "Miss Scarlett," for example.

This practice of addressing blacks by words that denoted disrespect or inferiority reduced the black person to a non-person, especially in newspaper accounts. In reporting incidents involving blacks, the press usually adopted the gender-neutral term "Negro," thus designating blacks as lifeless and unknown persons. For example, an accident report might read like this: "Rescuers discovered that two women, three men, four children, and five Negroes were killed by the explosion."

In general, blacks and whites could meet and talk on the street. Almost always, however, the rules of racial etiquette required blacks to be agreeable and non-challenging, even when the white person was mistaken about something. Usually it was expected that blacks would step off the sidewalk when meeting whites or else walk on the outer street side of the walk thereby "giving whites the wall." Under no circumstances could a black person assume an air of equality with whites. Black men were expected to remove their caps and hats when talking with a white person. Those whites, moreover, who associated with blacks in a too friendly or casual manner ran the risk of being called a "nigger lover."

The white owners of clothing stores did not allow blacks to try on clothing as a general rule, fearing that white customers would not buy clothes worn by African Americans.

Many public places, parks, and entertainment centers excluded blacks altogether after 1890, frequently by law if not by custom. Signs were often posted equating blacks with animals: "Negroes and dogs not allowed." In some communities blacks could attend public performances but only by using separate entrances in the back or via an alley. In public halls, theaters, and movie houses, they always sat upstairs in the so-called "nigger heaven" or "buzzard roost." Even the annual state fairs would have a "colored day", allowing the black population to attend only on that specific day.

Some towns and municipalities put blacks in the rear of the streetcars while others required them up front where they could be watched by the car's operator. Custom did not allow motormen or conductors to assist black women with bags or parcels. In general, it was expected that blacks would give up their seats to white passengers during peak or crowded times.

Some towns required separate entrances to public buildings with blacks using one entry and whites another. In most cases, white clerks in stores and ticket stands always served white customers first, although no state or municipal law required this practice. Signs in the black section of waiting rooms at train stations, for example, customarily warned against loafing, spitting, and unacceptable behavior. No such signs were usually displayed in the white sections.

The color line and the codes of racial etiquette were also strictly observed in public hospitals, with separate wards for whites and blacks. Black nurses were allowed to minister to whites but not the other way round. If a black person needed an ambulance, for example, a private, black-owned-and-operated wagon or auto would have to be obtained. No exceptions were allowed no matter the extent of the injury or emergency. A similar Jim Crow code of conduct applied even in the U. S. Army.

The whole intent of Jim Crow etiquette boiled down to one simple rule: blacks must demonstrate their inferiority to whites by actions, words, and manners. Laws supported this racist code of behavior whenever racial customs started to weaken or breakdown in practice--as they did during the Reconstruction era. When the laws were weakly or slowly applied, whites resorted to violence against blacks to reinforce the customs and standards of behavior. Indeed, whites commonly justified lynchings and the horrible murders of blacks during the Jim Crow era as defensive actions taken in response to black violations of the color line and rules of racial etiquette.

(excerpted from: Racial Etiquette: The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behavior in Jim Crow America By Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D., California State University, Northridge)


Personal Narratives

Clifford Boxley . . .

So, you don't mess with white women. You don't talk back to white women. You don't sass white women. You don't even find yourself in the presence of white women alone, okay? I can work in the drug store and have a discussion with Ms. Alma, the woman who was in there. Or Glen, who is a young high school boy just like I am working there--but he's got a better position. Ms. Alma is in charge, and you talk, you know, about the issues of work. The floor is dirty, there is dust on the products, and what have you. But, you don't talk about sex. You don't talk about religion. You don't talk about politics. You don't talk about any of these things.

Joe Holloway . . .
I remember that we stopped somewhere in central Texas at a Texaco gas station that also sold food and other items. For some reason, I don't recall now why, we all walked into the station's diner and took a seat to eat. The manager immediately came over and said, "Sir, excuse me."
    My uncle answered, "Yes sir."  
    "We don't serve your kind."
    "You mean you don't want our business?"
    "No, I mean we don't serve or sell to niggers here at the table. You all have to go around the side of the station and we serve niggers there." And the more he talked, the more agitated he became with us. "This is Texas. I see your Yankee license plate is from California. You know we kill niggers in this town. Do you know where you are boys? This is the South. Now you all just move your collective ass to the back entrance before I call the police."
    "Is it okay for us to buy gas?" my uncle asked.
    "Yea, I'll take your money. It's green ain't it?"
    "Uh um."
    "Then I'm open for business."
    As we were walking around the side of the building toward the rear entrance, we stopped to use the restroom. It was a large, clean, fully-equipped bathroom. The owner suddenly ran out of the store and blocked the entrance to the restroom. "Nigger, can't you read the sign? It says 'Whites Only.'"
    My uncle asked politely, "Where is the restroom for coloreds?"
    "It's there in the middle of the field. See right there, that's the one for niggers."
    He had pointed to a cow patch in the middle of the wilderness. I walked to the spot, which was quite a distance from the road, and I kept hearing my Uncle Gus yell for me to watch out for snakes. The "colored" restroom was an old outhouse. The door was hanging off and there were holes throughout. Anyone passing could see everything. It stank and looked horrible.

(excerpted from: Racial Etiquette:  By Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D., California State University, Northridge)