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Jim Crow North: Institutionalized Racism Outside the South

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the commencement address at The City College of New York. But among the 2,800 graduates, fewer than 2 percent were black. “The audience that day in Harlem, the capital of Black America, was blindingly White,” wrote doctoral candidate Tahir Butt (The Graduate Center, CUNY).

A policy of granting free tuition to high-achieving high school graduates meant that most nonwhite students, stuck in the city’s worst schools, did not qualify. Officials defended the admissions criteria as color-blind and meritocratic. But to critics, the policy was elitist and contrary to CUNY’s mission of serving disadvantaged New Yorkers.

Butt’s account of the fight to diversify CUNY is in a new book, The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South. The book, co-edited by Professor Jeanne Theoharis (Brooklyn College), argues that institutionalized racism was just as pervasive in places like New York as it was in places like Mississippi. “There did not need to be a ‘no coloreds’ sign for hotels, restaurants, pools, parks, housing complexes, schools, and jobs to be segregated across the North as well,” wrote Theoharis and her co-editor Brian Purnell in their introduction.

The book’s title is a “riff” on a “seminal” 1955 book called The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which “traced the history of Southern Jim Crow emerging in the second half of the 19th century … in a particular moment for particular reasons,” Theoharis said in a New Books Network podcast sponsored by the Gotham Center for New York City History. Theoharis’ book uses the plural Careers in the title to show that “institutional segregation developed in multiple ways in multiple places” around the country.

The book offers many examples, starting with the origins of Jim Crow in 18th century legal codes in New York and other northern cities. In the Midwest, “sundown towns” banned blacks after dark. KKK activity included a 1927 parade in Queens where President Donald Trump’s father was arrested. Even Social Security favored whites by excluding domestic and agricultural workers, who were disproportionately nonwhite.

In the chapter about CUNY, called “You Are Running a de Facto Segregated University,” Butt shows how public pressure, student strikes and protests in 1969 forced the university to implement open admissions. Another chapter, by Professor Kristopher Bryan Burrell (Hostos Community College), focuses on Ella Baker and Mae Mallory, black intellectuals who led the fight in the 1950s and ‘60s against segregation and unequal funding in New York City’s K-12 public school system.

Northern liberals liked to paint Jim Crow as a “regional anachronism,” the editors wrote. But racial inequities persist nationwide because Jim Crow was and is a “national condition.”

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Work By

Jeanne Theoharis (Distinguished Professor, Political Science) | Profile 1
Tahir Butt (Doctoral Candidate, Urban Education) | Profile 1
Kristopher Bryan Burrell (Assistant Professor, History) | Profile 1

Bonus Content

"Podcast: The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North" (New Books Network)
"50 years later, CCNY remembers pivotal protest" (City College of New York website)
"Gotham and the Jim Crow North" (Gotham Center for New York City History)