Publication Date

April 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


“The inspiration, the energy, the power, the recruits and the leaders of the mighty movement against segregation came out of the tightly segregated black community and institutions of the South.”—C. Van Woodward, Journal of American History, December 1988

Before the Civil War, Jim Crow was a minstrel character who epitomized the happy slave. As race relations changed in the aftermath of emancipation “Jim Crow” became synonymous with segregation which is the focus of an intellectually sophisticated and ambitious exhibition that opened recently at the city museum of Richmond, Virginia, the Valentine Museum. Jim Crow: Racism and Reaction in the New South stresses changes in race relations over time and place racism in a national as well as local context. Funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy and by Best Products, the exhibit examines the evolution of racism from the close of the Civil War to 1940, bringing together materials borrowed from the local Afro-American community as well as from national and state repositories.

Beginning with the origins of racism, Jim Crow traces Afro-American male participation in Virginia politics from emancipation to the adoption of a new constitution in 1902 which drastically curtailed that group’s suffrage. As Afro-American political participation decreased, segregation rapidly increased. Examining the rise of legal segregation, the exhibit then analyzes race relations in Richmond in the Progressive Era and the 1920s. White responses to a dual race society ranged from interracial reform activities to the often politically savvy, if frightening, techniques of the Ku Klux Klan. During the same period, the Afro-American community fought against the impact of segregation through trolley boycotts and legal challenges, as well as by promoting race consciousness through Afro-American fraternal organizations. The epilogue of the exhibit reminds viewers that the protests of the nineteen sixties continued a tradition of Afro-American struggle against racism.

Through a sophisticated use of printed material, including advertisements and photographs, and objects such as a bank in the shape of a slave “mammy,” curator Gregg Kimball balances the themes of white racism and Afro-American activism. This tension becomes startlingly concrete when the visitor’s confronted with the juxtaposition of a Ku Klux Klan robe and organization robe; Jim Crow avoids the usual traps of making Afro-Americans appear as only victims who failed to play an active role in history or of romanticizing the segregated Afro-American community by failing to acknowledge that racial oppression helped lead to its formation.

Using the newest interpretive techniques, the exhibition employs a multi-tiered approach that makes possible different levels of experience and learning. If visitors only read the largest labels and object descriptions, they can complete the entire exhibit in twenty minutes and still grasp the basic concepts being presented, although the terseness of some labels, particularly in the fraternal organization section may make it difficult for some readers to follow the thread of the interpretation. However, reading the smaller labels or listening to a free audio guide can provide more in-depth study, and four printed gallery guides, located at different vantage point around the large room, examine the themes and artifacts in even greater detail. Finally, Kimball has written a historiographical essay on the development of “Jim Crow” in Richmond, offering a lucid discussion of the complicated historical arguments about the origins of segregation. The museum gift shop sells both the gallery guides and Kimball’s essay.

An excellent eight-minute video accompanies the exhibit. The video coherently, although sometimes too quickly, reinforces the same themes as the exhibition, occasionally with even greater visual impact. For example, as the film narrates the decline of Afro-American political activities in Richmond, a picture of a racially mixed city council fades into a photograph of an all white council of a later period. While I watched the video, a maintenance man from the museum sat in front of me, a reminder that museums cross class lines in ways that research universities are often unable to do.

In his essay and in the exhibit, Kimball demonstrates his extensive knowledge of the most recent historical thinking about the period. He includes material on Afro-American and white women as well as labor reformers and lists the achievements of Reconstruction, including the establishment of a public school system. A favorable presentation of Reconstruction represents a relatively new departure for a museum in the form capitol of the Confederacy. While appreciative of the interpretations of C. Van Woodward, Jim Crow draws significantly on newer scholarship. As historian Howard Rabinowitz, a consultant on the exhibit, has written, the choice for Afro-Americans was not integration or segregation of services such as schools and hospitals, but rather exclusion or segregation. Dismissing more simplistic theories of Afro-American accommodation to segregation, Kimball weaves a complex picture of Afro-Americans struggling to prevail in an often hostile environment.

Of particular note for historians is Kimball’s new thesis about the nature of Southern white Progressivism and how white liberal Southern Progressives could advocate reforms in such areas as public schools and health care while maintaining racist assumptions about Afro-Americans. Kimball postulates that Southern Progressives focused on the ideal of “equal in the concept of “separate but equal,” convinced that the perpetuation of racial segregation depended on undermining Afro-American resistance through the provision of equitable but separate accommodations or facilities. This approach differed substantially from that of the KKK, which advocated intimidation as the basis for maintaining a segregated society.

Jim Crow, which closes August 21, 1988, and an earlier exhibition on antebellum blacks in Richmond, reconceptualize Richmond’s history by incorporating previously unexplored social history themes. The two exhibits are components of a larger Richmond History Project, which when completed in 1991, will reexamine the city’s past through a continuing exhibition, as a film and a monograph. Materials from the Jim Crow exhibition will become part of the continuing exhibition, and Marie Tyler McGraw, project historian, will use the exhibit’s extensive research in her book on Richmond’s history. McGraw served as a consultant to Jim Crow as did Spencer Crew, curator of the black urban migration exhibit, From Field to Factory, at the National Museum of American History. David Goldfield, a southern urban historian, was also consulted on Jim Crow.

By centrally locating Afro-American history in their vision of Richmond, the Valentine Museum’s efforts serve as a model for Northern as well as other Southern museums to follow.