The Last Generation to Knowingly Experience Jim Crow
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The Last Generation to Knowingly Experience Jim Crow

Why we're in danger of losing this history and what we can do about it

When Sylvester Magee died in 1971, he was thought to have been the last living person to have endured enslavement in the United States. Magee was born in 1841 to enslaved people Ephraim and Jeanette, who worked on the J.J. Shanks plantation. There were few aspects of slavery he didn’t experience. In a wide-ranging interview he gave in 1969, he discussed times he was whipped, sold multiple times, separated from his family, and forced to serve in both the Confederate and Union armies.

There are questions about some of the stories he told later in life, including his age, which was purported to be 130 when he passed. Civil War historians say his details about the Battle of Vicksburg ring true, especially since Magee could neither read nor write. One thing is sure: Sylvester Magee knew slavery and had experienced it firsthand. He had the institutional knowledge of having lived through it.

After slavery came the Black Codes, and there are no remaining survivors of that era. Jim Crow came along in the late 1870s, and most scholars say it generally ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Others say it was the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that brought Jim Crow to an end. Whatever date you choose, the people who lived through the Jim Crow era are dying out, leaving it to historians and, unfortunately, politicians to tell the story.

Jim Crow was systemic racism that covered every aspect of a Black person’s life. Jim Crow wasn’t a state of mind; it was laws and policies designed to control Black people, regulating their employment and ability to vote, legalizing segregation in the schools, the workplace, and the federal government, including the military. It was domestic terrorism and deserved to be rooted out.

One of the first places I lived was the Sumner Field Housing Projects in North Minneapolis. The area once housed a thriving Black and Jewish community before it was torn down through the use of eminent domain to make room for Olsen Highway in the 1930s. In 1936, Sumner Field was the first federally funded project in Minneapolis. The first residents were Black and Jewish; the Jewish people were mostly gone by the time I arrived. To get to church or the grocery store, we had to cross Olsen Highway, and most of the residents didn’t have cars. Several people a year are injured or die each year trying to cross the multi-lane highways, as there are several blocks between crossing lights. Efforts continue to this day to address the hazard.

My grandparents owned their home at 4009 5th Avenue in Minneapolis for as long as I can remember. My grandmother was a registered nurse (RN), and my grandfather was a retired Pullman porter. What I didn’t know of was the struggle they had in getting an FHA loan in the era of redlining and restrictive covenants. FHA and V.A. loans that built the middle class were almost exclusively made available to white people. Communities like Levittown and Daly City were all-white for decades, supported by the federal government that allowed race-based restrictions. It was an experiment when Tilsenbilt Homes built some of the first FHA homes available to Black homeowners in South Minneapolis. Redlining was in full effect, and Black people couldn’t have initially moved to the neighborhood I grew up in a few blocks away.

I had no idea when I attended Field Elementary School beginning in first grade that it had only recently been integrated. I didn’t notice when the white kids my age who lived on the same block that I played with all summer all attended private schools. I had the luxury as a child of mostly being a child, though the residue of Jim Crow was all around me,

We had school busing at Field Elementary School; I walked to school and paid little attention. My High school was grades 7–12 after a merger with a private school catering to the same age group. Marshall-University High was two blocks from the University of Minnesota in predominantly white S.E. Minneapolis. I got in because I attended the private University High in 7th grade the year before the merger. M-U High was the first voluntarily integrated school in the city and began busing in Black kids from North Minneapolis. I took the city bus from the South side, transferring downtown during what typically took an hour each way. My parents wanted me to go to school across town to avoid the inferior Black school in walking distance.

I am the beneficiary of some of the affirmative action programs designed to counteract the pervasiveness of Jim Crow. I was a National Merit Semifinalist based on PSAT scores, identifying me as a top minority high school graduate. I received information from hundreds of colleges and universities, most offering financial aid. When in college at HBCU Fisk University, recruiters from major companies came to our campus. I ultimately did a summer internship with and accepted a full-time position with Procter & Gamble.

Related: How Affirmative Action Affected My Life

Unfortunately, almost fifty years later. All the efforts to eradicate Jim Crow are under attack, including affirmative action, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Programs, and fair housing initiatives. The major acts credited for ending Jim Crow are being systematically taken apart, especially the Voting Rights Act, which I credit the Supreme Court with. History is literally being rewritten by politicians who make claims that “we’ve never been a racist country” and that slavery was a benefit for slaves.

Just as slavery was replaced by the Black Codes, which was replaced by Jim Crow. Doesn’t it stand to reason that something else replaced Jim Crow? If the Acts allegedly curtailing Jim Crow has been gutted. Doesn’t Jim Crow still exist? Unless we extract and record the experiences of those who’ve experienced Jim Crow. We run the risk of losing that history and becoming dependent on those more than willing to provide an alternate history. Please talk to your elders and catalog their experiences. The next generation is depending on you.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.