Gender and Jim Crow

Generally, when we think about the complicated period of Jim Crow, we think of systems, beliefs, and motivations by white peoples to continually push down the growing rights of African American peoples. Following the turbulent period of Reconstruction, the newly rejoined (but still contested) the United States enacted laws in which segregation policies incessantly degraded the political and socio-cultural standing of African Americans. To the general public, these laws seemed to be some dominating force—especially in the South, but throughout the U.S., too—to control the new freedoms that African Americans gained in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. With all of that said, there have been some dominant notions about the Jim Crow era, generally as a moment in history where white Southerners continued to use racial superiority to control African American peoples following the emancipation of slavery. Besides, this tumultuous period generally follows a focus on intense racial violence that African Americans, especially men, faced throughout the Deep South. In Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s book, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and Politics of White Supremacy, however, she recasts that focus of Jim Crow to examine the role of women, especially Black women, who formulated new political standings in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. This not only reshapes our understanding of Jim Crow but also on the history of gender and women in the South. 

This book is a remarkable measure of the persistence of African American women in the South during this trying period. In the section that Gilmore addresses the “civil death” of African American men—a notion quite similar to the “civic death” of women during Colonial America—she examines how African American women rose to the occasion to demonstrate political participation; a fact that demonstrates that African Americans had staked a claim to politics of following the gilded age and at the start of the Progressive Era. The disenfranchisement of African American men gave whites a motive to exclude them from the political realm of the day; however, black women (especially middle class) demonstrated that through their strategies to combat these measures they, too, had an important voice to lead African Americans forward. 

A few bloggers in class have brought up the “Best Man” ideal; a process by which white leaders chose the men “who by faith and by works, exhibited benevolence, fair-mindedness, and gentility” as a means to best serve political interests of the state. Those interests were to lower the status of African Americans into, yet, another form of paternalistic control. A movement away from the plantation system, these systems contributed to a similar system in which African Americans faced situations where their political voices were not heard. Moreover, Gilmore states that “African Americans constantly had to prove their manhood to maintain civil rights.” So this “Best Man” idea brings up ideas of masculinity, themes we have seen in many other readings this semester.

I wonder, then, how does this book relate to the past readings we’ve done in class? In comparison to Revolutionary Backlash and Riotous Flesh, how does the participation of African American women bolster a sense of community action against the unbridled Jim Crow Era? In regards to masculinity, how does the “Best Man” ideology translate to other works we’ve read in demonstrating manhood in some specific society and period? 

One Reply to “Gender and Jim Crow”

  1. John, thanks for the thought-provoking questions. I think one of the things about the Best Man ideology that is so striking is that in this historical context, masculinity is not just about gender but about race. For instance, black men had to face the white supremacy of individuals who called them demeaning terms such as “boy” to try and emasculate them.

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