For years now, there has existed a thriving trade in so-called “Black Americana,” a catchall term for historical memorabilia related to America’s racist past.
The items valued by collectors range from real artifacts of slavery to relics of the “Jim Crow” era of segregation in the South to examples of offensive racial stereotyping in popular culture (many of which date from not very long ago).
Some of these items, by their very nature, trigger controversy. Others become tainted with controversy when divorced from their original contexts or inserted into new ones, inviting misinterpretation or misunderstanding. An example of the latter is a subset of commercial signage from the Jim Crow period enforcing the segregation of blacks and whites. Few people nowadays are surprised to learn that “Whites Only” signs were posted on entrances to public buildings and facilities, but the fact that “Blacks Only” or “Coloreds Only” signs existed seems to flummox a lot of people.
One example posted to the snopes.com Facebook group for verification on 10 May 2017 prompted an intense debate, partly because it was introduced in a new, ahistorical context:
Having searched in vain for evidence to back it up, we’re skeptical of the claim that signs like this are currently “appearing on college campuses” in the United States, though we have seen such images used to illustrate Internet posts (such as here and here) decrying alleged instances of “reverse discrimination”.
It is real, but hardly an example of racism against white people. The sign depicted above dates from 1921, and it originally adorned the Lenox Theatre in the once-thriving “Golden Blocks” business district of Augusta, Georgia, which was home to dozens of black-owned businesses, including restaurants, banks, theaters, a meat market, and a real estate agency.
The Lenox was, in fact, a “colored only” movie theater — a place where African American patrons weren’t relegated to sitting in the back rows, as was typically the case in theaters across the segregated South (if African Americans were allowed to enter such places at all), according to a retrospective in the Augusta Chronicle:
The Lenox Theatre was begun by black businessmen because blacks were frustrated with their treatment in the white theaters along Broad Street.
J. Philip Waring, founder of the Augusta Black History Committee and a retired Urban League executive, in a 1995 interview recalled the efforts of his father, John P. Waring Sr., one of the Lenox founders.
“Why the Lenox?” said Waring, who is now deceased. “Because this was the height of Jim Crowism — the rule of the day, manifested by black people having to go through the back alley and going through the very back, up the fire escape at the Imperial Theatre. They called it the ‘buzzard’s roost.’ There were all sorts of jokes about it.
More typically, “colored only” signs designated building entrances or public facilities (such as restrooms, swimming pools and drinking fountains) that African Americans were allowed to use (when they existed at all), in lieu of those marked “white only.” Despite its “separate but equal” credo, Jim Crow perpetuated inequality by granting preferential treatment to whites, author Jerrold M. Parks wrote in American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow:
Though the “separate but equal” formula in Plessy [an 1896 Supreme Court decision upholding the legality of racial discrimination in the states] underlay the sweep of Jim Crow through the South, the “equal” half of the couplet never approached parity with the “separate” half. The reality of “equality” meant that the Negro part of everything would be indisputably and often grotesquely inferior to its white counterpart: black schools almost never achieved — and rarely even approached — equality with those for whites; black transportation facilities were famously and invariably shabbier than their white counterparts; when drinking fountains later became electrically cooled, a score of iconic photos showed the ice-water machines with For White Only signs hanging over them while under the For Colored Only placards stood ordinary and unquestionably nonelectrified appliances.
That a vintage “no whites allowed” sign from that era should engender a raging debate about “reverse racism” in 2017 betrays an ignorance of American history. It wasn’t an instance of discrimination when black-owned businesses such as the Lenox Theatre enacted “colored only” policies in the segregated South; on the contrary, it was one of the few means at hand to redress it.