100 Years ago today: Marked from birth to death

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago the \”color bar\” in the United States was quite firmly in place. Indeed it was so well entrenched that when reading newspapers from one hundred years ago it is easy to overlook many of the \”every day\” and pervasive aspects of segregation. Of course it stands out when, I have mentioned in other posts in this series, newspapers are reporting on lynchings but many of the rules that governed what African-Americans could do or where they could go are invisible to the casual reader of long ago newspapers. For example, it wasn\’t necessary for \”whites only\” to be included in an \”for rent\” listing because housing was so segregated at that time that contemporary readers would knows simply from the address whether the house or apartment in question was in the white or \”coloured\” part of town.

Sometimes it is a \”by the way\” and casual item that makes the modern reader sit up and remember just how heavily segregated life was for African-Americans in almost all areas of the United States in 1911. Here, for example, are the birth, death and marriage announcements on page 2 of The Washington Herald November 18 1911:

From the moment an African-American was born to the moment they died they were marked as \”other.\” If they were born in the same hospitals it would not be in the same rooms or even on the the same floor. They didn\’t go to the same churches and they were no doubt laid out at different funeral homes.

How carefully must African-Americans have negotiated the byways of a new town? If an African-American moved to Washington D.C. one of their first steps was probably to get a copy of The Washington Bee, the local African-American newspaper. If you glance through the pages of the November 18 1911 edition you will find some ads for the same stores and services as in The Washington Herald and some ads for different stores and different services. Readers could assume that any business that advertised in the pages of The Washington Bee would serve African-Americans. In fact one can find on page 3 of that edition an answer as to how people figured out if businesses were friendly to African-Americans:

Of course, there were businesses that would take money from African-Americans but not treat they as well as they did white customers. And there were businesses that wouldn\’t even take the money. If African-Americans patronized businesses run by other African-Americans they could assure themselves of good service at the same time that they supported their own community. As the writer of the article on page 4 SUPPORT YOUR OWN put it:

Since there are so many \”Jim Crow\” theaters in the city, The Bee would advise the colored people to support their own theaters. There is no reason for ninety thousand colored people to support moving picture theaters that have been set apart by white men for Negroes and bar them out of their theaters down town.
Let us support our own.

Too often the history we read of the United States excludes the voices, faces and stories of African-Americans. The great businessmen and businesswomen are white, the doctors and nurses are white, the inventors and mechanics, the painters and poets—everyone is white. Because the \”others\” are invisible we forget that they too were being born and dying, marrying and divorcing, running businesses, schools and hospitals. Reading papers such as The Washington Bee is a reminder that there was a thriving and interesting separate community of African-Americans whose stories are still not being heard.


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