“Separate but equal”? The challenges of life as an African American under Jim Crow

By Zack Rose (zr239@cam.ac.uk)

Under the Jim Crow laws (1877-1950s), segregation based on race was legally justified in the United States.1 The key Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) was that it was not unconstitutional to enforce racial segregation, so long as segregated facilities were “separate but equal”.2 However, it is well known that the services available to African Americans were extraordinarily inferior and underfunded. By examining three modes of travel, this post hopes to shed light on the realities that African Americans faced under the Jim Crow system.

African American rail passengers could never be sure if they would be able to purchase food on their journey. When black journalist Thomas Fleming travelled in 1919, he rode on a train where black passengers were not allowed into the dining car: “When black people…wanted hot food…They had to eat where they were sitting. Of course, they were charged the same price as the white customers who got full table service.”3 When William Pickens travelled from Lynchburg to Norfolk, Virginia in 1920, he could not get food or water.4 The dining car on his train offered no service to black passengers. When railroads did open the dining car to black customers, they maintained separation. Martin Luther King recalled in his autobiography that “The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in the dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood”.5

Black drivers also faced difficulties on the road. In Mississippi “custom forbade black drivers to overtake white drivers on unpaved roads”.6 African American scholar John Franklin describes the use of “packed box lunches to avoid the humiliation of being turned away from restaurants…and [African Americans] relieved themselves in roadside ditches because service-station restrooms were often closed to them”.7 Guides such as the Green Book (1936-66) listed restaurants and gas stations that would accept black custom. It reached a circulation of two million in 1962.8 John Williams found much of these accommodations uninhabitable: “No competition; therefore, take it or leave it – and you have to take it. The slovenly restaurant keeper, the uncaring hotel man, the parasites of segregation have only to provide the superficial utensils of their business”.Other difficulties ensued, as black columnist George Schuyler wrote in 1930, those with “a well kept or expensive automobile…were suspected of stealing it”. Moreover, “well- to-do African Americans kept to older models so as to not give the dangerous impression of being above themselves.”10

African American travellers also faced discrimination when flying. Ella Fitzgerald was forbidden to reboard her plane in 1954 when it stopped in Honolulu to refuel on the way to Sydney. This was often to make way for white passengers. She later won $7,500 in damages from Pan American Airlines because of the incident.11 At Chattanooga Airport, black customers could eat in the restaurant but not use the bathrooms. On a trip from Los Angeles to Daytona Beach, Florida in 1948, Jackie Robinson was bumped from his first flight during a layover in New Orleans. The airport did not serve black passengers in its coffee shop or restaurant. When the next plane reached Pensacola to refuel, they were bumped again to make way for three white passengers. They had to finish their journey on a Greyhound bus.12

It is clear then from the lived experience of African American travellers in the Jim Crow era, that life was far from “separate but equal”. The routine discrimination African American travellers endured shows how racial inequality pervaded all aspects of everyday life. Perhaps “separate and unequal” would be a more fitting understanding of the experience of African American travellers in the Jim Crow period.

Image: ‘At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina’ , May 1940, Jack Delano, made available under a Creative Commons licence.


1 Encyclopaedia Britannica (2019) Jim Crow Law. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law

2 History.com (2019) Plessy v Ferguson. Available at:https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/plessy-v-ferguson

3 Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco (2019) Reflections on black history. Available at: http://sfmuseum.org/sunreporter/fleming9.html

4 Pickens, W. (1920) ‘Jim Crowed’, Socialist Review 9 (2): 176

5 Luther King Jr., M (1958) Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Boston: Boston University Press, p7

6 McMillen, N (1990) Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. p11

7 Staples, B (2009) ‘John Hope Franklin’, New York Times, March 26th

8 Sorin, GS (2011) ‘Keep Going: African Americans on the Road in the Era of Jim Crow’. Phd Dissertation, State University of New York at Albany, p187

9 Williams, JA (1966) This is my Country Too. New York: Signet, p72-73

10 Packard, JM (2003) American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin) p167

11 The Plaindealer (1957) ‘Ella Wins $7,500 suit’. February 1st. See Also Ella Fitzgerald, John Lewis, Georgiana Henry and Norman Granz v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., Civil 97-356, RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, Civil Case Files, National Archives at Chicago

12 Lamb, C (1997) ‘I Never Want to Take Another Trip Like This One: Jackie Robinson’s Journey to Integrate Baseball’, Journal of Sport History 24 (2): 177-191

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