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The Jim Crow era began towards the end of Reconstruction in the South in 1877 and lasted all the way until the Civil Rights Movement put an end to it in the 1950s. During the era, the South enacted segregation laws to assist in disenfranchising African Americans and restrict them to "separate but equal" public schools, places, transportation, restaurants, restrooms, and drinking fountains. Prior to this era, during Reconstruction, African Americans had gained significant ground in gaining full citizenship. All were able to vote, and as many as 2,000 held public office, even as senators. However, as opposition to Reconstruction gained ground, those public officers were replaced with white Southern Democrats, those who opposed the freedom of the slaves. The demise of Reconstruction worked in conjunction with the enactment of Jim Crow laws to put African Americans back in a state of oppression that was as bad as and, in many cases, worse than what they had suffered during slavery.
While Ernest J. Gaines's novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman never specifically uses the term Jim Crow laws, we can certainly see several places where they are referenced based on circumstances being described in the narrative. The first time we see the Jim Crow era generally referred to is later in "Book II: Reconstruction." Here, Bone, the African-American Republican landowner whom protagonist Jane works as a field hand for, announces that his land has been taken from him by Southern Democrats and warns that the political climate is shifting--Northerners are no longer interested in looking out for the interests of the African Americans. Soon after this announcement, Jane narrates:
It was slavery again, all right. No such thing as colored troops, colored politicians, or a colored teacher anywhere near the place. (p. 72)
Jane's narration shows us just how much Democrats had been able to put a stop to Reconstruction through their rise in power and implementation of Jim Crow laws.
Further references to Jim Crow laws can be seen in "Book III: The Plantation," which details Jane's life working in the cotton fields of Robert Samson's plantation. On this plantation, whites and blacks live in separate dwellings. Blacks were confined to living in what were the slave quarters during the days of slavery, just as if nothing had changed. Another reference to Jim Crow laws can be seen in her references to education. At one point she states that black children did not have a school to go into Samson. Instead, "The children went to school in the Bottom or at Ned's school up the road" (p. 154).
Hence, as we can see, any references to African Americans being treated unfairly or being denied public office, the right to vote, or the right to education count as references to Jim Crow laws.
There are several references to Jim Crow Laws in the novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. To begin, however, there needs to be a thorough understanding of what Jim Crow Laws were. During the period shortly after the war, 1865-1877, Reconstruction occurred. It was during this time that the South attempted to rebuild their culture and way of life, while the North battled with an influx of new citizens in their towns. During this time too, many places enacted what were called Black Codes. These "Codes" were ordinances that dictated what freed Black citizens could and could not do. The Black Codes were the foundation for Jim Crow Laws.
Jim Crow laws sought to dismantle the essence of the Emancipation Proclamation, and regulate free Blacks to a lesser citizenship standing. Jim Crow Laws often segregated services, provided significantly lower standards of living, and paved the way for criminal activities to go unpunished against freed Blacks.
In the novel, references to these behaviors occurred in some of the following places:
1. Book II- Reconstruction, Miss Jane Pittman narrates:
It was slavery again, all right. No such thing as colored troops, colored politicians, or a colored teacher anywhere near the place.
Here, Bone has declared that Northerns aren't interested in looking out for Blacks, and that politically, things were changing for the field hands and others who had been freed. Miss Jane Pittman recognizes that, despite the "freedom", there aren't many people in positions to make a difference.
There was also a brief reference to the indifference of the people in power toward freed Blacks. During the first few pages, Master responded to Unc Isom's question about what the proclamation said of their fate. Master says,
"...No, they just say y'all free, Isom ... They don't care what y'all do, where y'all go."
Another reference in the conditions and treatment of freed Blacks under Jim Crow is seen in the chapter Plantation, where Tee Bob and Timmy are discussed. Timmy and Tee Bob are brothers by their father Robert. However, they aren't seen as brothers to society. Below is an exchange between Verda and Robert:
"I don't wan him up there," Verda told him.
"He'll be treated right," Robert said.
"I don't want him waiting on nobody's table," Verda said.
"He'll just ride with Tee Bob," Robert said.
"Tee Bob's butler?" Verda said. "His brother's butler?"
Another aspect of Jim Crow that many may overlook is the idea that skin pigmentation meant something to Blacks themselves. Since the days of slavery, darker hued Blacks had a general disdain for lighter hued Blacks. During the Jim Crow era, darker hued Blacks would still sometimes ridicule other Blacks who were lighter skinned, simply because they were lighter. In the chapter Plantation, Queen Harriet is confronted by Katie Nelson, a much younger, lighter skinned woman with a light skinned husband. Miss Jane Pittman and others make negative references to them.
This world so strange. Now, why a Katie Nelson? What good is one? Why here with that little red nigger she called a husband? Why not Baton Rouge? New Orleans? Why not the North? Huh? Tell me.
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