Legal Segregation and "Jim Crow"

Segregation based on race became a fundamental part of the Virginia legal system in the 1600's. There were no laws in England authorizing slavery based on skin color, but the General Assembly borrowed ideas from other colonies and invented the processes needed to justify and enforce chattel slavery in Virginia.

The Civil War, followed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution, disrupted the traditional system. White Virginians succeeded in establishing a new set of laws and procedures to oppress the formerly enslaved blacks and free people of color.

The General Assembly was not required by the new 1870 state constitution or the Federal government to treat as equals the people of different races. Federal troops were withdrawn from the state as part of the negotiations to determine the winner of the 1876 presidential election Virginia's, and Supreme Court decisions created opportunities for discrimination by race so long as the language in state laws was carefully worded. Virginia's white leaders proceeded to define who was black, Indian, and white, and to establish legal segregation of the races.

The US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to ensure blacks in Southern states had equal access to trains, ships, and other forms of public transportation. It also banned discrimination based on race in schools, public accommodations, and selection of juries. John Mercer Langston helped draft the bill, and later became the first man of color to be elected to the US House of Representatives in Virginia. (After contesting the initial results, he was seated for the last seven months of the 51st Congress.)1

However, the Federal government did not enforce the act, in part because of concerns regarding its constitutionality despite a positive ruling in 1875 by the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Black men sought to enter bars and a barber shop in Richmond after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and there was no response by government officials when the men were forced to leave.

In 1883, the US Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional; the Federal government could not outlaw racial discrimination by individuals or businesses. Actions by state governments could be affected by the 14th Amendment, but not actions within the private sector. Under the 13th Amendment, individuals could file civil cases but discrimination based on race was not a relic of slavery.2

The Byrd Organization


Race and Virginia

the newspaper in Prince Edward County reported on a court decision upholding the Pupil Placement Act
the newspaper in Prince Edward County reported on a court decision upholding the Pupil Placement Act
Source: Libraryof Congress, The Farmville Herald (December 6, 1957)


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  • References

    1. "Langston, John Mercer," US House of Representatives, (last checked June 7, 2021)
    2. John Hope Franklin, "The Enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1875," Prologue, National Archives and Records Administration, Winter 1974, p.226, p.231,; "U.S. Supreme Court: Civil Rights Cases, 1883," Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs,; Valeria W. Weaver, "The Failure of Civil Rights 1875-1883 and its Repercussions," The Journal of Negro History, Volume 54, Number 4 (October, 1969), (last checked June 7, 2021)

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