When I travelled to New York many years ago we went on a guided walk around Harlem and I learnt a lot about the segregation laws of pre-Civil Rights Movement America.
The ‘Jim Crow laws‘ which were state and local segregation laws enacted from 1876 – 1965, were passed to separate blacks and white in as many aspects of life as possible. Supposedly aimed at making separate but equal accommodations for both races, the reality was that blacks were often treated as inferiors and put at a disadvantage, ultimately making racism and discrimination systemic.
One of the most memorable stories from the tour, was that of a shoe shop in Harlem, where black people were not allowed to try on the same pair of shoes as a white person -instead they had to draw around their feet and then match the shape and size to a pair of shoes before they could buy them. Bizarrely this rather innocuous yet ridiculous rule, struck such a chord with me and I’ve never forgotten the story.
2016 has once again raised the ugly issue of racism to the forefront of public awareness, with undertones of minority racist agendas at work during Brexit. It has got me thinking that racism in all it’s extreme shades is still very innate in society today. Like an animal padding through long grass, it is often hidden, but occasionally it surfaces quite ferociously as it did this year embroiled in the political wrangling over Europe.
I wondered whether I could develop this idea into something that I could photograph for the assignment – the ‘unseen’ being racism. I decided to look at the activities which were affected by the Jim Crow laws and photograph mixed cultures today, enjoying these activities side by side. I would intend for the images to be a warning against allowing these thoughts and ideas to permeate back into any Western society (albeit that these rules were propagated throughout America).
The activities that were subject to segregation laws were many and varied, but a few stood out in history, and these activities would be the subject of my images. Some of the old ‘Jim Crow’ laws surrounding them are listed below:-
- Blacks had to drink out of the ‘Black only’ water fountain;
- Blacks could go to a ‘movie theatre’ but were only allowed to enter via a separate entrance and sit in a balcony;
- Blacks were not allowed to sit in the front of a bus: if a white person got on the bus, the black person would have to give up their seat;
- Blacks and whites should not go boating together. Boating implied social equality. (Oklahoma, 1935).
- “It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together, or in the company with each other, a game of cards, dice, dominos or checkers” (Birmingham, Alabama, 1930);
- “It shall be unlawful for any coloured child to attend any white school, or any white child to attend a coloured school” (Missouri, 1929);
- “No coloured barber shall serve as a barber to white women or girls” (Atlanta, Georgia, 1926); and
- “All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine… shall serve either white people exclusively or coloured peopled exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room at any time” (Georgia).
My intention for the set of images would be that they were run of the mill photographs depicting people carrying out everyday activities. Their very ordinariness would be the ideal mask to the underlying message I wanted to convey – ‘let’s continue in this vein’. The photograph of people drinking from a water fountain, and a black person sitting next to a white person on the front of a bus, would contain enough historical references so that the viewer might be able to ascertain the meaning of the messages.
I continued to work on this idea to the point of photographing my final set of images for this assignment.