The Life and Science of Percy Julian
Activities and Readings
1A (Reading)

The Segregated South: From Slavery to Jim Crow

It may sound dry and boring to say that Percy Julian “faced discrimination in the segregated South.” But it might not seem so boring if you try to imagine the conditions he faced—it might seem more like “frustrating,” sometimes even “terrifying.” What was it really like to be a young ambitious African American in Alabama in the early 1900s?

Percy Julian did not experience slavery directly. Neither did his parents. But his grandparents did—Julian’s grandmother was a slave and had two of her fingers cut off by her owner just for trying to teach herself to read. The fate of slaves like Julian’s grandparents was entirely in the hands of their owners. Some slave owners were kinder than others, but all were in a position of dominance over their “property,” and they could treat their slaves however they pleased. The laws in the South reinforced this dominance of slave owners over their slaves. It was illegal for slaves to go to school in most southern states—slave owners felt that reading newspapers or books might give their slaves ambitions beyond picking cotton.

Slavery finally ended with the South’s defeat in the Civil War in 1865. So why in 1900 was Percy Julian still struggling against racism?

A Period of Hope: Reconstruction

Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people in Washington, April 19, 1866,” from Harper’s Weekly, 12 May 1866, p. 300. Photomural from woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

After the war, the northern armies occupied the South, and antislavery activists controlled the U.S. Congress. A new government was imposed on southern states that gave former slaves rights equal to those of their former owners. The Freedmen’s Bureau set up schools for African American children, and parents often attended with their children to make up for lost time. In 1868 Congress ratified the 14th Amendment, which was designed to protect individual rights for African Americans. This period immediately following the Civil War is called the period of Reconstruction. For a few years, African Americans were not only free from slavery but took an active role in politics and the community. Between 1868 and 1876 southern states elected 16 black representatives to Congress and more than 600 black state legislators. Both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators were African American.

Enter Jim Crow

Unfortunately, once northern soldiers returned home, ex-Confederate soldiers and officials regained their power and Reconstruction rapidly came undone. Former slave owners and other whites voted for laws to restrict black voting. They imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, and property ownership requirements that disqualified former slaves—who had not yet had time to overcome the legacy of slavery—from the voting process. With African Americans removed from state legislatures, the white majority then began to impose additional restrictions—such as segregated schools, hotels, restaurants, and train cars—forcibly segregating southern society. Blacks (and also whites) who tried to fight against forcible segregation were threatened by white supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan. Hundreds were lynched—executed (usually by hanging) by a mob without a trial or even any evidence of wrongdoing. African Americans were once again powerless against the white majority. Whites began to promote a “drop of blood” standard, which meant that if someone had even a single distant African American ancestor, he counted as black and should be disenfranchised, that is, not allowed to vote and deprived of his rights.

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined southern segregation as legitimate. It validated the argument made by white southerners that “separate but equal” treatment of the races fulfilled the requirements of the 14th Amendment. The official policies of southern governments, however, made the separate treatment of the races anything but equal. Plessy v. Ferguson gave renewed strength to racism. This was the environment in which Percy Julian’s parents lived and into which Julian was born.

The segregationist society of the South came to be symbolized by a popular stage character of the mid-1800s called Jim Crow. The character, performed by white performers in “blackface” (essentially black face makeup), sang and danced a silly dance as if he were completely happy with his life as a slave. It was a character that intentionally made blacks seem foolish and ignorant for being so happy in their misery, and the term Jim Crow became a commonly used racial slur among southern whites. By the end of the 1800s, the laws that reinforced racial segregation and discrimination became known as the Jim Crow laws, and this period of forced, legal segregation, which lasted from the late 1870s through the 1950s, is known as the Jim Crow era.

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