Jim Crow signs as symbols of subjugation, trophies of triumph

“I raced around to dumpsters collecting discarded ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ signs, thinking they would be of some interest to posterity in a Museum of Horrors. Alas, I stored them under my house, where termites got them, which may be just as well.”       — Stetson Kennedy, Florida author and folklorist

It has been more than four decades since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s brought an official end to the system of legal segregation known as Jim Crow. After the passage of those hard-won landmark laws, signs were removed that had demarked public space and private establishments throughout the South into separate and unequal zones.

Their disappearance was gradual and not always complete, notes Berkeley professor Elizabeth Abel, author of Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (UC Press, 2010). In place of a “White Only” or “Colored Entrance” sign, local authorities or business owners, complying reluctantly with the letter of the law, would sometimes paint one door black, another white, so that the effect would linger long after the sign itself had disappeared. Another form of resistance, Abel says, was to paint out “White” or “Colored” in such a way that the word remained legible.

An English professor and former recipient of Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award, Abel first launched her research on Jim Crow signage more than a decade ago, after coming across a photo of a Mississippi lunch counter in which a curtain prevented black and white customers from setting eyes on one another while they ate. Taken in the 1930s by documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, the image defied Abel’s idea of how segregated lunch counters had been arranged — and set her on a quest.

Elizabeth Abel

Elizabeth Abel

What she thought might be a short footnote or chapter “mushroomed into a very long-term project,” looking at “different ways these signs shaped perception and experience and representation for almost a century,” Abel says. Not only in the Deep South, she adds, “but significantly up and down both coasts and scattered across much of the Midwest.” And not only affecting drinking fountains, lunch counters and bus stations, but many other types of spaces and amenities as well.

During research visits to private collections, local historical societies and major national archives, she learned, for instance, of a segregated pet cemetery (“No negro dogs”) near Washington, D.C., and of Coke machines with separate coin slots for black and white customers. Abel discusses dozens of such signs and artifacts of segregation (both official and homespun) in her scholarly book, praised by literary and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates as giving “new focus to our national dialogue on race and the difference it makes.”

Today, Abel notes, the reproduction of Jim Crow signage has become a thriving industry — with imitations often passed off as originals and sold at inflated prices. “There’s an enormous amount of deception about the authenticity of these signs,” she says, “many of which are cleverly disguised to look old.”

Signs of the Times explores the rage for “black memorabilia” — from Jim Crow signage to “mammy” cookie jars and imitation chains. Abel suggests that, for some white collectors, the interest may reflect a nostalgia for the Old South; for many African American collectors, who number as many as 50,000 across the country, it may serve as a form of “political witnessing.”

“This symbol of our past subjugation has become something of a trophy of triumph in our struggle of memory against forgetting,” explains Chicago Tribune journalist Clarence Page in a quote found in the book. “Designed to enforce white supremacy, these old relics possessed by new owners now expose its folly.”

These objects “have lost the power to define my world; they have taken on the power to create a new one,” says another African American collector, the renowned activist, politician, and writer Julian Bond.

Abel, for her part, takes her cue “from many of the African American collectors of the signs, who feel they’re important documents and facts” for a nation “in danger of forgetting the seriousness, the longevity, and the pervasiveness of the system of segregation.”

“We’re always at risk of minimizing the deep roots of racism in this country — reverting to them, closing our eyes to recurrences,” she believes. That risk is the raison d’être of Signs of the Times, a complex look at an infamous and formative chapter of our collective past.