Vol. 16 No.2 (February 2006), pp.146-148


JIM CROW MOVES NORTH: THE BATTLE OVER NORTHERN SCHOOL SEGREGATION, 1865-1954, by Davison M. Douglas.  Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  344 pp.  Hardback.  £40.00/$70.00. ISBN: 0521845645.  Paper. £15.99/$24.99.  ISBN: 0521607833.


Reviewed by Stephen Pimpare, Yeshiva University.  Email: pimpare [at] yu.edu.


While it is chiefly an examination of school segregation in the North in the post-Civil War and pre-BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION period, Davison Douglas begins JIM CROW MOVES NORTH with a review of antebellum battles over school integration – in doing so, he provides a fine context for making sense of the post-1865 history that will follow.  So great was opposition in the antebellum north to the education of blacks that there were bloody and deadly riots by whites who were opposed not just to the integration of public schools, but also to the creation of private, segregated schools for African American children.  As a result, for most black children in the north, school was no more an option than it was for those in the south.  And, as Douglas observes, the scarcity even of segregated schools for blacks ultimately fostered residential segregation, as northern blacks moved closer to those few schools open to their children.  The consequences of that would be enduring.  This serves as a poignant reminder that we are generally ill-served by focusing too exclusively on the South when we examine race and racist policy in early nineteenth century America, just as the rest of the book is a caution against thinking of school segregation and Jim Crow-style laws and practice in our later history as a southern problem.  Perhaps one-third of northern black school-aged children had access to education by the eve of the Civil War (compared to two-thirds of whites), and while there may have been fewer laws on the books in the North that mandated their segregation, the practice was nonetheless widespread.  When state courts did weigh in, the results were all too often decisions that would later create the foundation for PLESSEY v. FERGUSON.  Conditions were surely better in the north, but that does not mean that they were good.


The rest of the book is devoted to an examination of northern efforts after the Civil War to segregate, desegregate, or resegregate schools.  By 1890, most northern states had passed laws abolishing racial segregation in schools – despite significant opposition in many locales – and most state supreme courts upheld and endeavored to enforce them. Douglas shows nicely how litigation was used as one means by which African Americans pressured legislatures to act, just as it would be later.  But, as in the Jim Crow south, what the law required and what actually occurred could be very different things, and thanks to the efforts of local school boards, by the turn of the century northern (and western) schools were, in practice, much less integrated than many had hoped, and black children had gained fairly modest improvement in their access to education, although they had made gains.  And again, as in the South, whatever burst of Reconstruction reform efforts there may [*147] have been faded quickly, for by the 1930s northern schools were actually more segregated than they had been at the turn of the century.  Not until the 1940s and early 1950s – thanks to the black migration north and the attendant changes in the electoral landscape, the powerful new claims for equality made by black war veterans, and the dogged activism of the NAACP – did the explicit exclusion of blacks from public schools and their segregation in them come to an end.  Still, because of the residential segregation patterns that had been fostered throughout the century, in 1954 more black children in the north attended segregated schools than at any time before.  That would not end with BROWN but would, instead, continue to grow worse. 


Douglas offers an illuminating examination of some neglected corners of American legal, political, and racial history, although throughout the book I found myself wishing for less by way of thick description of events city-by-city and state-by-state, and for more by way of explanation, analysis, and a search for patterns.  One of the many virtues of JIM CROW MOVES NORTH is that Douglas problematizes efforts at school integration, especially during the post-World War II period, highlighting African American ambivalence or outright hostility to integration in many northern communities – segregation was not championed only by racist whites, and the politics of integration does not always divide neatly along black-white or north-south lines.  The consistent attention to that complexity is one of the chief strengths of the book.  And, because it so thoroughly unsettles so much of conventional wisdom about the southern nature of Jim Crow law and practice, it should be included prominently in our thinking and teaching about BROWN, in our understanding of the events leading to it, and in our evaluations of its ultimate impact. 


Douglas concerns himself with events prior to 1954, but I nonetheless wonder what he would make of the continued de facto segregation of schools in the north today.  I suspect this history could shed light on contemporary questions.  It was striking, for example, to read Douglas’ description of segregated schools for black children, when communities in the antebellum north were able to erect them at all.  They were often cold, dark, dirty, dilapidated, and overcrowded sites in which the expectations of students were low and little real education occurred:  more recent laments on the awful conditions in which our poorest children are expected to be taught today echo throughout these pages.  The teachers in those black schools were typically paid substantially less than those in white ones, and the least qualified tended to concentrate there as a result.  It is similarly difficult not to think of how many of our best urban teachers are recruited by suburban (and whiter) schools and made offers that are hard to refuse – safer workplaces, students with fewer problems in class and at home, more abundant resources, and much higher pay.  It is unfair, I realize, to fault Douglas for neglecting to make such connections.  Instead, he should be credited for presenting this history so well that it implicitly invites a comparative analysis of contemporary education policy, and raises difficult [*148] questions about our long and continued legacy of segregated schools, even in the north, and about the limited power that both courts and legislatures may have when confronted by the forces of economically-based residential segregation, and by the (albeit softer) racism that still lingers throughout the nation.



BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 US 483 (1954).


PLESSEY v. FERGUSON, 163 US 537 (1896).


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Stephen Pimpare.