Talking about the Jim Crow laws era with kids can be really tough. It was a dark time in American history, one that still has ramifications in today’s world. Use these resources to teach kids about Jim Crow laws, and remember that learning from our past mistakes is the best way to keep from repeating them.
Note: Jim Crow laws and the history of segregation are challenging, controversial, and emotionally charged topics. The information here provides a basic overview for students, but it barely scratches the surface of this incredibly important issue. Use the links throughout this text to get more information from a variety of trusted resources.
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Jim Crow Laws Facts for Kids
What were Jim Crow laws?
Jim Crow laws were statutes put in place by states and local areas that legalized racial segregation. In other words, these laws said that people of color weren’t allowed the same rights as white people. These laws were wide-ranging and aimed to keep white people and Black people separate, while stripping Black people of as any many rights as possible. Legally known as “Black Codes,” these laws were nicknamed Jim Crow laws. The name “Jim Crow” comes from an 1800s minstrel show called “Jump, Jim Crow” (see below).
What is segregation?
Segregation means separation. In legal terms, it meant that people of color were kept separate from white people and denied access to many facilities and opportunities. For instance, there were separate schools for white children and Black children in many communities.
After the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, people often used the phrase “separate but equal” to justify segregation laws. They claimed that people of color received the same rights and benefits as white people, just in separate locations. In practice, separate was usually anything but equal. Black communities and schools received less funding, and people weren’t allowed to move into better neighborhoods or attend better schools.
Who was Jim Crow?
Black minstrel shows were once very popular forms of entertainment. White performers would paint their faces black (“blackface”) and dress in shabby clothes like enslaved people might have worn. They then sang songs (especially Black spirituals) and told stereotypical jokes and stories they claimed were “inspired” by Black culture. (Blackface and minstrel shows are both considered highly offensive today.)
By the end of the American Civil War, slavery was officially abolished in every state in America. However, this didn’t change the way many white people felt about people of color. They still viewed them as “inferior” and looked for ways to oppress Black people wherever possible. Some states enacted segregation laws (Black Codes) as early as 1865, as soon as the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed.
What was the purpose of Jim Crow laws?
After slavery was abolished, many white people felt threatened by the newly freed Black people. They still considered people of color inferior, saying they weren’t as smart, as capable, or even as moral as white people (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). They spread terrible rumors that free Black people would put white families in danger, and convinced their communities to pass laws (Black Codes) that would oppress people of color.
One of the major purposes of Jim Crow laws was to keep Black people from being able to vote. Voting is a powerful tool, one that drives change. By denying people of color access to the polls, white people could ensure they stayed in charge.
In 1868, the United States added the 14th amendment to the Constitution. In the wake of a wave of racial violence and discrimination following the Civil War, this amendment guaranteed equal civil and legal rights to Black citizens. After the spread of Black Codes during the following decades, politicians tried more ways to ensure people of color their rights. They passed the 1875 Civil Rights Act, making racial discrimination illegal, but the Supreme Court struck it down in 1883.
In 1891, a group of young Black men in New Orleans decided to challenge the state law that required railroads to provide separate cars for Black and white riders. They argued that the law requiring “separate but equal” accommodations was unconstitutional. By 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson case made its way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled against the Black plaintiffs, making “separate but equal” laws permissible under the Constitution throughout the country.
When and how were Jim Crow laws abolished?
In the 1950s and 1960s, Black community leaders began a strong push (the Civil Rights Movement) to gain true equal rights for all Black Americans and other oppressed citizens. Through a series of local and national actions, they succeeded in overturning many Jim Crow Black Code laws. One major event was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of over 50 years prior.
After years of struggles, marches, non-violent protests, and campaigning, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. It prohibited discrimination and segregation in public places, ordered the integration of schools and other public facilities, and forbade housing and employment discrimination due to race. The era of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws was over, at least legally.
Black Codes, known informally as Jim Crow laws, aimed to suppress the rights of people of color and ensure white people continued to dominate society for nearly 100 years after the Civil War ended. Here are some common Jim Crow law examples.
Denying Black citizens the right to vote made it easier for white people to stay in positions of power. Laws like these were common across the Southern states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 overturned them.
Literacy Tests: Since it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read, many of them were by default illiterate. Even those who could read were punished by these tests, since the poll clerks often had complete discretion over what it meant to pass or fail.
Poll Taxes: Eleven states required a poll tax of $1 to $2 a year per citizen. This amount may not seem like much, but it was extremely difficult for many poor Black families to raise.
White Primaries: Primary elections were run by political parties, not the federal government. These parties often limited primaries to white voters only, keeping Black candidates from gaining any popularity.
Nearly all Southern states and communities passed laws requiring white children and Black children to be educated separately. Many Northern communities had segregated schools because white people and people of color often lived in different neighborhoods.
Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people could choose not to rent or sell property to others based on their race. Banks could even deny mortgage loans to those living in certain areas (usually predominantly Black communities), a process called redlining. People believed that property values would drop if neighborhoods were integrated, a claim backed by the Federal Housing Administration.
Encyclopedia Britannica produced this short video with an overview of Jim Crow laws. The real images from the time help bring the subject to life.
Jim Crow by Khan Academy
You can always count on Khan Academy to provide quality information, and this video series (there are four parts in total) is no exception.
60 Second Civics: Jim Crow Laws
The Center for Civics Education’s video is a quick look at this time, perfect for introducing the subject to your students.
What Was It Like Growing Up in Alabama Under Jim Crow?
When John Lewis questioned Jim Crow segregation laws during his childhood, his parents and grandparents told him, “That’s the way it is.” But for Lewis, that answer wasn’t good enough.
The Jim Crow Era: A Stain on America’s Past
If you’re looking for a longer documentary to share with older students, this might fit the bill. Starting with Plessy v. Ferguson, it outlines Jim Crow laws and their eventual overturn.
Jim Crow Laws Books for the Classroom
Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
The Negro Motorist Green-Book helped Black motorists navigate travel around the USA during the Jim Crow laws era, knowing where it was safe to travel and places they should avoid. (Read the fascinating reproduction copy here.) In this picture book, a Black American family uses the book to enjoy their trip safely from Chicago to Alabama in the early 1950s.
Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
Eight-year-old Connie is familiar with the signs around her town telling where she can and can’t go as a Black child. So she’s amazed to see four Black teens take a stand at a local lunch counter one day, soon sparking a wider civil rights movement right in front of her eyes.
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
The two boys in this story, one white and one Black, find their friendship impacted both by the Jim Crow laws that segregate their town pool and the end of those laws. Fortunately, these two find that friendship is stronger than hate and prejudice.
American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard
Older students who want a more complete look at Jim Crow laws in the United States should check out this thorough review of a century of legalized segregation. More than one reviewer says, “This should be a required reading for every American.”
From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Michael J. Klarman
For a deep, in-depth dive into the Jim Crow and civil rights cases brought before the Supreme Court, add this book to your shelf. This one is best for those fascinated by legal history and the judicial system.
Teaching and Learning Resources for Kids About Jim Crow Laws
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