The History of Jim Crow: Legal Racism in America

The History of Jim Crow: Legal Racism in America
Lucretia Garfield: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One to two weeks


During the lifetime of Lucretia Garfield, slavery was not the only form by which white America made sure that the Negro was kept “in his place.”  Racism in its many forms, against all people of color (but mainly, in the 19th century, against Blacks) went under the name of “Jim Crow.”


Students who participate in this activity will gain an understanding of the history and culture of “Jim Crow,” as well as an understanding of the scope of “Jim Crow” laws across the United States that supported these cultural attitudes and values, through considering the concepts of “terror” and “triumph” with respect to the history of Jim Crow, the recognition of evidence of each in essays about the history of Jim Crow, and the creation of an annotated timeline of Jim Crow legislation and Supreme Court cases.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to paper and pens or a word processor; access to print materials on the period of Jim Crow, from the 1830s to the 1960s; enough copies of each of the five essays listed below so that all members of the groups reading them will have one; highlighters, two colors (the same two) for each student; enough copies of the essay, “Overview of Jim Crow Legislation” (below) for each student.


Introduce this lesson by writing the words “terror” and “triumph” on the board.  Ask students to write a one sentence definition of these terms, and then ask them to share their definitions.  Then ask them to discuss whether or not there can be triumph in a time of terror.  Write their answers to this question on the board as well.  

Next, divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following sections of the article (below), “From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview:” 

  • Creating Jim Crow
  • Surviving Jim Crow
  • Resisting Jim Crow
  • Escaping Jim Crow
  • The Transition from Segregation to Civil Rights

Hand out a copy of the appropriate essay to each student. Ask them to use one color highlighter to indicate events they take to be part of the “terror” of the period and, with the other color, highlight events they take to be part of the “triumph” of the period.   When students have finished this task, write “Terror” on one side of the board and “Triumph” on the other, and ask each group to share one event they thought was part of the “terror” and one event they thought was part of the “triumph.”  You may go around from group to group until there is a substantial list of events on the board under each heading.  

Then ask students to revisit the question: “Can there be triumph in a time of terror?”  and compare their answers now to their answers at the beginning of the lesson.   After this discussion, hand out copies of the essay (below), “Overview of Jim Crow Legislation,” and ask each student to read it.  Then, divide the class into three groups, assigning each group one of the following web pages for research:

Dividing the work among themselves within groups, students should collectively construct a timeline of legislation and Supreme Court Cases which can be put up around the room.  This can be done by hand or, if available, with a computer banner program.  Each piece of legislation or Court case should be annotated with the following information: 
  • State of origin
  • Date of law or case
  • Category of law or case (using the categories listed on the Legislation Overview
  • The determination of the law or the finding in a Supreme Court Case
When the timeline is complete, post it around the room and give students some time to walk around studying it.  Assuming that legislation, and to some degree, court decisions, reflect the beliefs and values of the people of a society, ask students to list major beliefs and values associated with these laws and court cases, and compare them to beliefs and values on the same topics today.  

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson may be extended by using the timeline to stimulate class discussions around the school, or as a basis for a number of other projects such as a mock court case based on one real case, or a mock legislating session based on one law, in which the class assume the role of voting legislators and must vote on the legislation.

Sources & Resources:

Packard, Jerrold M. and Packard, Jerrold. American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.
Woodward, C. Vann and McFeeley, Willliam S. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. OxfordUniversity Press, 2001.
Wormser, Richard.  The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
  From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview

  Overview of Jim Crow Legislation 
  Jim Crow Legislation and Supreme Court Cases 

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University, with some inspiration from a lesson plan called "Historical Overview Gallery Walk," by Liz Morrison, found at