“Occupying” Main Street in the Jim Crow South

One of the broadly held myths of Main Street has to do with it being a place that serves everyone.  Need a hammer?  Get yours at the hardware store at the corner of Main and 2nd Street!  Want to get a haircut?  Go to the barbershop just down from the corer of Main and the Methodist Church. You might want to stop by their church bazaar at the same time and pick up a few tasty home baked goods.  Need a small business loan?  Go to the national bank on South Main Street.  You can get everything you need right here:  consumer goods, beauty services, church service, a beer or a meal, entertainment, bank loans, education, health care, funeral services, telegraph service, a telephone booth, and the U.S. Mail.  In addition, there are other things less easily defined that people get on Main Street; they get conversation, society, and communal membership.

But have you ever wondered how Main Street worked for African Americans during the Jim Crow era?  This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.  What a puzzle!  Not intrigued?  Consider:

1)  Small town American Main Streets boomed between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression.
2)  Laws restricting African American use of public and private facilities—from restaurants to water fountains to barber shops—were on the books of states and local municipalities between roughly 1880-1965.

There’s an overlap in these time periods—which means that our “idea” of the thriving Main Street as the place where all Americans can get whatever they need cannot possibly be accurate.  How did African Americas in the Jim Crow south get loans from Main Street banks to buy farms and houses, or start businesses?  How did they gain access to schools or other educational civic institutions such as libraries or reading rooms?  How did they get insurance to care for the sick and bury their dead?  How did they tap into the social life and community of Main Street?

To get a sense of the cross section of Jim Crow laws and how they complicated access to Main Street amenities, I’m pasting below a sampling of state statutes, taken from the National Park Service’s website:

Libraries: Any white person of such county may use the county free library under the rules and regulations prescribed by the commissioners court and may be entitled to all the privileges thereof. Said court shall make proper provision for the negroes of said county to be served through a separate branch or branches of the county free library, which shall be administered by [a] custodian of the negro race under the supervision of the county librarian. Texas
Wine and Beer: All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine…shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room at any time. Georgia
Barbers: No colored barber shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls. Georgia
Burial: The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons. Georgia
Restaurants: All persons licensed to conduct a restaurant, shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license. Georgia
Restaurants: It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. Alabama
Pool and Billiard Rooms: It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards. Alabama
Theaters: Every person…operating…any public hall, theatre, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race and shall set apart and designate…certain seats therein to be occupied by white persons and a portion thereof , or certain seats therein, to be occupied by colored persons. Virginia
Telephone Booths: The Corporation Commission is hereby vested with power and authority to require telephone companies…to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons when there is a demand for such separate booths. That the Corporation Commission shall determine the necessity for said separate booths only upon complaint of the people in the town and vicinity to be served after due hearing as now provided by law in other complaints filed with the Corporation Commission. Oklahoma

And these are only the laws on the books; what’s above is not what was casually practiced by white landlords, business owners, folks on the street.  This period was a terrible time for black people in America.  Thus while small town building boomed between 1870-1930, African American life was at its “nadir,” as historian Rayford Logan has termed the post-reconstruction period.  On all fronts—political, social, educational and economic, black people suffered.  Main Street had written and unwritten codes reinforcing segregation and exclusion, all in support of white supremacy.  Funny thing was, these codes were about reinforcing separation and preventing interracial activity that might have implied equality.  But while pro-Jim Crow whites worried about integration, this was not the primary concern for blacks.  What they wanted was access to the facilities and services Jim Crow separated them from.  As Ruby Cobb Smith, a black Texan put it in a 1927 speech to her community, “If I cannot go to the white man’s church, I must create a church.   If I cannot read books out of his library I must in some way get one of my own.  If I cannot clerk in his stores it is my job to get one of my own.”  As consumers, producers, and sellers, blacks wanted what Main Street offered.

My research into the question of how African Americans accessed the amenities of small town America during Jim Crow has yielded complex answers.  There were alternative constructed spaces, such as negro business districts and organizations that helped to support them such as the Negro Business League, started by Booker T. Washington in 1900 (smack the middle of Main Street’s development period and roughly 20 years into Jim Crow).  There were all-black towns, such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, founded in 1887.  And finally, there were general “uplift” member-based organizations that offered a variety of financial, health, and educational services and community life to the rural and scattered black farmer in the south.  I’m going to finish this blog post by giving a little history of the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS), founded by R.L. Smith in 1885.

FIS ConstByLaws.RLSmithPhoto

R.L. Smith argued that even though black citizens were emancipated after the Civil War, they were still in a state of “economic slavery,” largely because they lived in debt and almost purely on credit. In fact, #1 in the group’s Declaration of Purposes is “To abolish the credit system completely, or as much as lies in our power.”

graphic from RITUAL.1925small

Graphic from inside the FIS booklet RITUAL (1925)

But as you can see from the graphic on the left, the FIS was aiming for a comprehensive approach to providing the resources and services of self-help.  Thinking back to what mythic Main Street symbolizes in terms of its amenities and open-access, it is, in a kind of collective imaginary way, a place of personal opportunity and self-help or uplift.  Main Street offers everything you need to better your situation, from that hammer to a hair trim to banking.

#2 in the FIS Declaration of Purposes is education about agriculture and good farming practice.  #3 is buying bulk supplies cooperatively, even if folks have to travel to a city to make the purchases (a sort of Cosco or Ikea run, 1895-style), so as not to live on credit at the local general store.

#4 is aiding each other in sickness and death (disability and death benefits were a major benefit of FIS membership, providing relief to the families who lost heads of household).

FIS insurance certificate

FIS Insurance Policy Certificate, 1904

And finally, #5, is encouraging members to buy homes and if they own homes, to beautify them and their surroundings: “repair our highways and keep them in order; to plant suitable shade trees and shrubbery; and in general to bring up our home life to the highest American standard compatible with our incomes.”

Yes, folks, Robert Lloyd Smith required members to promise to invest in the aesthetics of their homes and landscapes.  To Smith, cash-based living, economy, agricultural science, death benefits, and home beautification were all part of a magical formula for lifting folks up out of a rough, if not economically desperate, situation.  To an architect like me, this is a fantastic sentiment.  Let’s approach these problems from several vantage points:  economic thrift and resourcefulness, education, and pride of place.

Smith established the first Farmers Improvement Society chapter in a tiny segregated town in East Texas named Oakland in December 1890.  There were roughly 200 black citizens at that time and nearly all of them became involved with the organization.  Within ten years, the black section of Oakland was considered the most progressive negro community in Texas.

Smith went on to start 1000 branches of the Farmers Improvement Society across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  The group’s overall membership was over 20,000 by 1910.  Over the next decade, the FIS established a bank in Waco as well as an agricultural college for black youth in Ladonia, Texas.  There are many other details that I don’t have the space here to get into, but suffice to say that this organization was innovative, resourceful, and highly progressive.

What’s interesting to me is that the FIS operated primarily “off” Main Street.  They didn’t start their work by building a bank or their own Oakland general store (granted, these projects would have been tremendously difficult to manage, but bear with me while I make my point).  “You said a hammer’s whatcha need?  Don’t go to the hardware store on Main Street! They’ll put you in a mound of debt, plus, you’ll have to wait until all the white folks have been waited on. They might not even have what you want by the time you’re waited on! We’re making a run to the big city in a few weeks and we’ll get one for you cheap.”  The FIS relied on the basic structure of a social group, and worked primarily through thoughtful discussion and coordinated activities such as planting trees or whitewashing their homes, pooling cash to buy supplies in bulk, and assembling enough dues to offer life-insurance.  The bricks and mortar FIS bank came decades later.

2Bridge Street.FISbank.Waco.TX.circa1910.fromSmithCobbArchive.TexasCollection

Farmers Improvement Society Bank (central building) on Bridge Street, Waco, Texas, c. 1915. Incidentally, Bridge Street was the original “Main Street” of Waco until this period when all the white businesses moved southwest, to the other side of the courthouse square on Austin Ave. Waco effectively had two Main Streets in the early twentieth century: Austin Ave (white) and Bridge St. (black). Today, the FIS bank building and other black-owned businesses of Bridge St. are underneath the Waco Convention Center and Hilton, products (?) of urban renewal.

In my other blog entries I have talked about how Main Street was not divorced from modernity and national economic development when it boomed.  Small town America, contrary to a popular myth, was a place of cutting edge ideas, innovation, and reform.  The story of the FIS, although a narrative about a scattered society, amounted to an alternative form of Main Street, a “decentered” and “fragmented” space of community that was skillfully and ingeniously accessed by disenfranchised rural African Americans in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas during Jim Crow. It was Main Street life but without Main Street!  It existed virtually and operated as an organized network of people exchanging ideas through membership documents (such as their monthly newspaper The Helping Hand), chapter events, and regional encampments where several chapters met together over a long weekend.  In a sense, the FIS operated like a virtual civic group.  Thus, the FIS’s version of Main Street was as dissipated and as scattered as their membership, challenging anyone interested in the typology of Main Street and small town America to look further than our widely-held belief that bricks and mortar equals livable communities.  Community and amenities can be scattered and, in certain situations, must be in order to get people what they need, because, quite frankly, not everyone can “occupy” Main Street.  [KJM]

Helping Hand

All images courtesy of Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Post Script:  Last March while all my students were on the beach in Florida for Spring Break, I travelled to Waco, Texas to use the Texas Collection archives at Baylor University to do research on the Farmers Improvement Society.  I was funded by a research grant at the Texas Collection, the Wardlaw Fellowship Fund, and I am grateful to that family and the Collection for their generous support.

Convocation Poster

Encampment Poster


1 thought on ““Occupying” Main Street in the Jim Crow South

  1. Pingback: Quaint Towns along North Neck, Virginia, Chesapeake Bay | Psalmboxkey's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s