Segregation becomes an easy topic to study following the Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896), which mandated the constitutionality of separating people by the color of their skin so long as it was deemed “equal.” In the case, Homer Plessy, a black man, was arrested for sitting in a whites only section of train car in Louisiana. The court dismissed Plessy’s claim that this was unconstitutional, stating that public accommodations were equal. It did not matter that they were separate. This became the norm for the first half of the 20th century in the United States.
History classes have typically described the lives of black Americans after the Civil War by looking at Reconstruction and then at the Plessy decision. It is no wonder that most people assume that segregation was a natural growth out of the Civil War. What they miss, however, is the gap of years between 1877 and 1896. By looking at this gap of time, one can see how segregation did not just appear immediately. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, society, specifically in the South, was very complex. Segregation was not an immediate solution, but rather a gradual one.
Legislation was being made that indicated that African Americans should be included in the everyday life of American society. African Americans were migrating all across America, into Western territories and into the Northeast. This indicated that African Americans were participating in society, taking advantage of opportunities across the country Black men were serving on state legislatures, and prominent men were making a name for themselves as advocates for their race. African American writers at this time show that society was complex and unclear. They share their solutions to the problems plaguing society at that time, and not all come to same conclusion.
What happened after Reconstruction? Too often, history books deceive us into thinking that the course of history fits into easy categorizable sections. This is not the case with segregation. Its development was complex and gradual. We must ask the question of where segregation came from, and how did it develop?