THE STRANGE CAREER OF "THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW"

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — One afternoon in the fall of 1954, as golden leaves dappled the University of Virginia campus, a hundred people — black and white — gathered in an old lecture hall.  They had come to hear a historian known only in the history department.  What they heard changed how they, the South, and America thought about Jim Crow.

            Jim Crow.  To this day, no one knows how a caricature of a slave morphed from a song into the name of an entire system.  But just as the name’s evolution was “lost in obscurity,” the historian said, so was the “strange career” of segregation.  Contrary to common wisdom, rigid separation of black and white had not risen from slavery’s ashes.  Nor had things — Southern things —  “always been this way.” 

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            Comer Vann Woodward was a proud Southerner.  Born in Arkansas, educated in Atlanta, he had written respected histories of the South.  A tenured professor at Johns Hopkins, he seemed unlikely to risk his reputation in a racial minefield.  But in May 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously outlawed school segregation, Woodward sensed “the end of an era of Southern history.”  He did not know how dramatic, how violent, how long the  Civil Rights movement would last.  But history, he knew, had lessons for those struggling for justice.

            With careful detail, Woodward described a forgotten — or white-washed — period of America’s past.  After the Civil War, Reconstruction tried to enforce racial equality.  It failed.  Southerners believed their “lost cause” was “redeemed” by noble whites ending black rampages.  Woodward knew better, but he went beyond describing white mobs and Klan violence.  Instead, he described “a time of experiment, testing, and uncertainty,”

            For a full generation after the war, Jim Crow had not been law.  Though this was no “golden era of race relations,” blacks and whites often intermingled — on street cars, in schools, in parks and other public places.  Racial violence was common but so was tolerance, as Northerners touring the South noted.  “The humblest black rides with the proudest white on terms of perfect equality,” a British writer reported in 1879.  Even in Mississippi, another wrote, “most of the saloons served whites and Negroes at the same bar.”  

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            Only in 1890 did Jim Crow arise — in the North.  “One of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow,” Woodward said, “was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force.”   As moderates retreated and racist doctrine surged, segregated street cars led to segregated schools, drinking fountains, swimming pools…. Meanwhile Confederate statues arose from Charlottesville to New Orleans. But if Jim Crow had a beginning and a middle, might the system also have an end?

            In 1955, Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow startled the nation.  History books based on lectures don’t usually become best-sellers, but The Strange Career… sold through several printings.  Woodward had offered America more than history — he offered hope.

             Over the next dozen years, as marches and sit-ins cracked and crumbled Jim Crow, The Strange Career… had its own strange career.  Southern historians fought back with evidence that segregation, while not the law, had been the custom since before the Civil War and would be, as Alabama’s George Wallace shouted, “now, tomorrow, forever.”  Woodward admitted errors but stuck by his thesis.  History challenged the faith that race relations “were as impervious to change as the characters of the two races involved.”

            In 1965, when the Voting Rights Act crowned the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King called Woodward’s book “the historical bible of the Civil Rights generation.”  C. Vann Woodward died in 1999 but The Strange Career remains, as one historian called it, “the most widely used survey text on the nature of American race relations since the Civil War.”

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            Yet recent events in Charlottesville suggest that the book’s lessons should be re-learned.  Hatred has its own career, but its rawest form, "red in tooth and claw," is not inherently human.  And racism, by custom if not law, flourishes whenever tolerance settles for a back seat.  Americans North and South are beginning to realize that these lessons will not be on the test.  They are the test.