Fellow Examines Life In North Carolina Under Jim Crow

Jun 03, 2004

By Peter Bean

There are countless scholarly histories of African American life during the slavery era and the civil rights movement, but Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow Raymond Gavins points out that the period in between those two eras-—when African Americans lived under Jim Crow laws and segregation—-is understudied. Gavins, a professor of history at Duke University, is writing a book on the meaning of freedom for African Americans in North Carolina during the period of Jim Crow.

"We do have shorter gauged studies of North Carolina," Gavins notes, "but we don't have anything like a general history of that period, so my project attempts not only to bridge that gap but also to think about African Americans who lived under the system of segregation. We've tended to forget about those generations."

Gavins' thesis is that a deep-rooted consciousness of, and desire for, freedom was critical to building African American ideologies and the beliefs by which the group organized itself and identified itself as citizens of the United States. Institutions and movements were equally informed by this deep-rooted desire to be free and equal citizens.

Gavins begins his study in 1880, three years after the formal end of Reconstruction in the South. He contends that for the first generation of African Americans who were no longer slaves, freedom initially meant self-ownership. "It was very important to them that they establish physical autonomy and some sort of distance from those who once owned them." Freedom also meant, Gavins says, working for a wage, a protection they expected to get from the federal government. "They hoped that the government would be fair with them, but that obviously didn't go so well." The opportunity to an education, to congregate freely, and to vote and to hold public office were also part of the ex-slaves' new conception of freedom.

"My argument here is that the foundation for what freedom meant was really established by the people who came out of the fields." Ex-slaves set up the framework that the generation in the 1950s and 60s was trying to fulfill."

Gavins has spent years combing through documentary sources in state and national archives, but he places special importance on sources generated by the African Americans themselves, leading him to research in every African American college archive in the state of North Carolina and most of those in the South. "In order to give shape to these African American sources, I really depend on the stories told by the generations who lived between the 1880s and 1940s, including the oral records we have. They tell important stories that allow me to look for key words and themes which I can go back and use to organize my documentary sources."

According to Gavins, in the 1870s North Carolina moved seamlessly from being a slave society, which it had been for two and a half centuries, into being a racially segregated society. "The reason for this is that the color line was rooted in slavery, and slavery, as it developed in British North Carolina, was based on race. It was racial slavery, so that ideology stayed there, even when the peculiar institution of slavery was formally abolished."

Gavins points out that the North Carolina Constitution of 1868, by which it rejoined the United States following the defeat of the Confederacy, had provisions which mandated that white and black children be taught in separate schools. "One of the things I like to point out is that school segregation lasted from 1868 until 1954. North Carolinians don't like to hear about that part of their history, but it's very real."

In fact, Gavins argues that North Carolinians tend to harbor a "progressive myth" about their history. "North Carolina has put forth a view of itself that doesn't square with its history. I think North Carolina builds from its less-than-extreme response to the Brown vs Board of Education decision." Whites didn't close or dynamite schools as they did in Virginia and Tennessee. From there, North Carolina generally "reads back its entire history of slavery and segregation and concludes that its history is not so bad."

Gavins intends for his work to resolve some of the disputes about North Carolina's history during segregation. For example, most histories only acknowledge one major riot in North Carolina—-the bloody Wilmington Riot of 1898—-but Gavins notes that there were devastating riots in Fayetteville and Winston-Salem in 1918. In 1922, the Ku Klux Klan burned the New Bern black community, leaving over 2,000 blacks homeless. These events are largely unreported.

Along with trying to flush out the true history of segregated North Carolina, Gavins is also concerned about the stereotypes that came out of the Jim Crow era. "When many people think of Jim Crow, they think of the shuffling black minstrel character. The misperception is that this was the reality of black life, but when you see the photographic record and you listen to the stories, you see how important it was for African Americans to have dignity. We forget that African Americans were battling those stereotypes all along, and we seem to think that this is something that came out of the contemporary civil rights movement. My argument is that it came out of these communities during Jim Crow."

Gavins hopes his work will help North Carolinians gain a better understanding of the roots of some critical problems that the state is still dealing with today. "I hope my work will serve as a resource for informing people about why we continue to have conflicts in our state about the right to vote, for example. We have some very important and controversial national cases about the creation of minority-majority voting districts. Well, these districts are rooted in this period when African Americans could not vote at all. One party ruled North Carolina from 1898 to 1972 and that party had a small electoral base; which is to say, it was not necessary to have a large white electorate if you eliminated your African American electorate."

Similarly, segregated housing regulations that were first instituted during the Jim Crow era are at the root of various school desegregation issues in North Carolina. North Carolina began heavily zoning and prosecuting people for moving out of their residential zones as early as 1911. African Americans were confined to certain parts of the cities. "These were policies developed during Jim Crow," Gavins notes. "Well, guess what? All those policies have come back to haunt us." Court-ordered busing in 1971 breached the racial zoning of neighborhoods to desegregate schools. White flight to suburbs, lawsuits that ended busing, and the current pupil assignment policy upholding neighborhood schools are rooted in residential segregation.

Raymond Gavins is a professor of history at Duke University and the project director of "Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South," Center for Documentary Studies. He is the co-editor of Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (The New Press, 2001) and author of "Fear, Hope, and Struggle: Recasting Black North Carolina in the Age of Jim Crow," in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), and The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership: Gordon Blaine Hancock, 1884-1970 (Duke University Press, 1977; 1993).

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