US White Supremacy: A Southern Phenomenon?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford

[CW: discussion of racism and racial violence]


Many students who have studied History GCSE or A Level have come across Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights movement. Yet much of the curriculum often focuses on the South, stressing its exceptional history of segregation, voter disenfranchisement, and racially motivated violence. However, a focus on legally enforced segregation in the Jim Crow South has created the impression that race relations in the North were relatively peaceful, characterised by industrial prosperity and equal opportunity in the latter part of the 19th and 20th century. As will be shown, however, Jim Crow was a national phenomenon, both in its de jure (sanctioned by law) and de facto (not officially sanctioned) forms.


Indeed, the implementation of de jure segregation and voting restrictions across the South in the 1890s and into the 20th century, but not in the North, might at first suggest that white supremacy was primarily a Southern phenomenon. Legal barriers such as property or literacy qualifications for voting were set up. Disenfranchisement was accompanied by the adoption of a number of Jim Crow laws and enforced by city ordinances and by local regulations, which saw the increasing profusion of signs which read ‘Whites Only’ or ‘Colored’. A large body of law also grew concerned with the segregation of employees and their working conditions, while residential segregation in cities also developed.


The South also saw a rise in racial violence in the 1880s and 1890s. Lynching also became widespread across the South in the 1880s and the 1890s, particularly in rural areas which had seen a large black population increase. Although white immigrants and poor white southerners were also lynched, lynchings were used primarily as an opportunity to reassert white male power and authority.


However, the North was also steeped in white supremacy. Racially motivated violence in the North is one of the clearest indications of this. As the great anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells complained, 'lynching mania has spread throughout the North and middle West'. As in the South, there were spectacle lynchings and in 1900 four black men were killed in front of crowds of thousands in Indiana. Racial violence, however, in the form of gang attacks or race riots were a far more likely form of racial violence in the urban North. An example was the 1900 race riot in August that devastated New York city's Tenderloin district.


The North also complicates the historiography that tracks white supremacy solely based on the existence of de jure Jim Crow legislation. In the North, however, it is the case that segregation and formal disenfranchisement were not immediately evident in law. Supremacist attitudes also ensured that while civil rights in the North and the West seemed to protect against discrimination, municipal authorities found state laws easy to circumvent. African Americans across all regions, including the North, were also excluded from electoral politics as the black vote was systematically marginalized across the Northern states. This included violence, gerrymandering and diminishing influences within the Democratic and the Republican party.


The greatest evidence of prevailing white supremacist attitudes in the North, however, lies in the challenge Northern black activists themselves posed to segregation, poverty, violence, and disenfranchisement. Northern activists, for example, used the term ‘Jim Crow’ regularly and repeatedly made comparisons to the South. It is through the actions and opposition of African Americans that we find the most evidence that Jim Crow was a pervasive feature of national life.


Moreover, a focus on de jure segregation has obscured the systemized racial injustice which also existed in the North with procedures in place to divert resources in education and housing, for example, while black voters were also systematically disenfranchised. Racial hierarchies were just as entrenched as they were in the South and actively maintained and reinforced throughout the nation.


Further reading:

  1. Brian Purnell, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodward eds., The Strange Career of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle outside the South (2019)

  2. Lisa Crooms-Robinson, ‘African American Legal Status from Reconstruction Law to the Nadir of Jim Crow: 1865–1919’ in The Oxford Handbook of African American Citizenship, 1865-Present (2012)

  3. Stephen Tuck and Desmond King ‘Decentring the South: America’s nationwide supremacist order after Reconstruction,’ Past and Present, 194 (2007)