March 20, 2012

He could stay there till h_ll froze over

At the beginning of a new century, Charles W. Chesnutt headed South and visited the Tuskegee Institute and met with W. E. B. Dubois, then visited Atlanta University. He wrote of his experience for the Boston Evening Transcript, which published his account on March 20, 1901 as "The White and the Black." Chesnutt was particularly interested in race relations in the South, now four decades after the Civil War and was researching for a novel. He learned, as he wrote, "The Negroes of the South are not yet free, and social odium at the North is preferred, by many, preferable to the same thing at the South, with oppressive and degrading legal enactments superadded."

But, typical for Chesnutt, even that generalization was too simplified. "I have said that the Southern Negro is not free," he continued. "The same may be said of the Southern white man, for the laws which seek the separation of the races apply to him as well." He notes, for example, that even in the nation's capital passengers on a train have to choose their seat based on their skin color. "A white man is never allowed to forget that he is white; lest he forget, a large sign is fastened at either end of the car, keeping him constantly in mind of the fact."

Though, Chesnutt writes, these social laws were passed with the ideal of equality (or at least claimed to be), it was never possible. Because the "colored" travelers are more often poor and, therefore, their cars are "invariably less comfortable... [and] less ornate." It is the least desirable section and those forced to sit there are "passively submissive to the inevitable."

Of course, Chesnutt questions the train conductor about the practicality of the law. This white man from Virginia ("the old-time mother of presidents and breeder of slaves") insists the law works just fine, and he is happy to enforce it no matter the race. But what if a white-faced man is found in the colored car, Chesnutt asks, and insists he is of African descent?

"I'd let him stay there," replied the conductor, with unconcealed disgust, which seemed almost to include the questioner who could suppose such a case. "Anyone that is fool enough to rather be a nigger than a white man may have his choice. He could stay there till h_ll froze over for all I'd care."

Little did the conductor know that he was talking to a white-faced man of African descent who identified himself as black. Chesnutt also relates the story of a dark-skinned white woman forced to sit in the colored car, despite protests. She promptly sued and won $25,000. Incidentally, the byline on this article when it was published noted it was by the author of "The Wife of His Youth."


  1. Great post. Thank you!
    It offers a needed contrast to the outrage surrounding the death of Travon Martin. Of course his killing is an outrage but it would have passed unnoticed just a few short years ago. That was just the way things were. Today, it is News! In so many ways: Hell Has Frozen Over and, if you choose, you can even skate there. Many, I think - in the words of Bob Dylan - should :"Take the rag away from their face" and note how far we have come.

  2. I find this post interesting. I learned things about Charles W. Chesnutt I didn't know before. Thank you!