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Walking in black folks' shoes

After receiving a Headline Club Award and several offers from publishers, a version of the series was published as In the Land of Jim Crow (1949). The serial boosted circulation for the Gazette and was widely read on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. It even prompted a counter-series in defense of the South. Today such an experiment in “blacking up” may seem suspicious as yet another white appropriation of Black experience. But Ray Sprigle deserves credit for aiding in the post-World War-Two struggle against segregation because his daring stunt helped bring greater awareness to an issue that would soon become the focus of national attention.

Negro drinking at "Colored" water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Jim Crow: water for “colored” citizens

I write frequently about the history of  slavery, abolition, reconstruction, lynchings, and systemic racism. One of the difficulties I’ve encountered is that some readers have a hard time placing themselves into “the problem” when the time periods under discussion are the 17-, 18-, and early 1900s. Perhaps revisiting Jim Crow will be more successful. I’m not talking about the dramatic photos of civil rights protestors being assaulted by police with dogs and firehoses, or foaming-at-the-mouth white mobs spitting at black school children attempting to integrate all-white schools. I’m talking about living in a world where you can never forget the “not normative” color of your skin.

I would like readers to consider the day-in, day-out lives of black American citizens of this nation who were reminded all the time about our “place” in this country as “un-equals.” This isn’t long ago and oh so far away. I’m 70 this year, and have vividly clear memories of the insults to my humanity during those times (which, of course, continue). I remember the first time I saw water fountains labeled “white” and “colored.” 

Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina
Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina

I immediately ran to the colored one expecting rainbow-colored water. Disappointed, I tried the white one—but the water did not look like milk. Both tasted the same, and my mother had a very hard time explaining to a child why there were two, both with false labels. She had an even more difficult time explaining away why white people were supporting this. Yes, Rosa Parks sat down.  She was black. I wondered: where were the hordes of white folks refusing to sit in white sections, or refusing the white water? 

By the time I was a teenager I was excited to read Black Like Me, and elated to see young white students heading off to participate as Freedom Riders and in Freedom Summer with black civil rights workers. Though some of today’s young academics may look back on John Howard Griffin with harsh critiques of his brief passing journey, I remember how reading about it made me feel at the time. Someone outside the loving circle of my family—which included a white grandmother, and my parents’ white communist friends—gave a damn.  I hoped his action would influence the views of other whites, those who were not reading Du Bois or Baldwin. 

I had not heard of or read about Ray Sprigle at that time. He took his trip to the South the year after I was born. His book, and the republishing of his series, didn’t hit my radar until recently.

30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South by Bill Steigerwald tells Sprigle’s story.

Bookcover: 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South

In 1948 most white people in the North had no idea how unjust and unequal daily life was for the 10 million African Americans living in the South. But that suddenly changed after Ray Sprigle, a famous white journalist from Pittsburgh, went undercover and lived as a black man in the Jim Crow South.

Escorted through the South’s parallel black society by John Wesley Dobbs, a historic black civil rights pioneer from Atlanta, Sprigle met with sharecroppers, local black leaders, and families of lynching victims. He visited ramshackle black schools and slept at the homes of prosperous black farmers and doctors.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter’s series was syndicated coast to coast in white newspapers and carried into the South only by the Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s leading black paper. His vivid descriptions and undisguised outrage at “the iniquitous Jim Crow system” shocked the North, enraged the South, and ignited the first national debate in the media about ending America’s system of apartheid.

Six years before Brown v. Board of Education, seven years before the murder of Emmett Till, and thirteen years before John Howard Griffin’s similar experiment became the bestseller Black Like Me, Sprigle’s intrepid journalism blasted into the American consciousness the grim reality of black lives in the South.

Author Bill Steigerwald elevates Sprigle’s groundbreaking exposé to its rightful place among the seminal events of the early Civil Rights movement.

Smithsonian magazine had this feature which covered Sprigle’s journey and his critics, titled “The Complicated Racial Politics of Going ‘Undercover’ to Report on the Jim Crow South.”

The act of “passing” was something Sprigle touched upon early in his series—though he described its prevalence in the African-American community. “The fact remains that there are many thousands of Negroes in the South who could ‘pass’ any day they wish,” Sprigle wrote. “I talked to scores of them. Nearly every one had a sister or brother or some other relative who was living as a white man or woman in the North.” Among the more famous examples of passing among the African-American community are Ellen Craft, who used her fair skin to escape slavery with her husband disguised as her servant in 1848, and Walter White, whose blond hair and blue eyes helped him travel through the Jim Crow South to report on lynchings for the NAACP. Far rarer were instances of white people passing as black, because such a transition meant giving up the benefits of their race. And Sprigle’s act wasn’t universally praised or accepted by other writers of the era.

“Mr. Sprigle is guilty of the common blunder of a great number of other northern whites. A white man who is sincerely interested in promoting the advancement of the Negro in the South need not make any apology for being white,” a reviewer in the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s still-extant black newspaper, wrote. “And never once have we heard of them changing racial identity in order to accomplish their desired ends.” The sentiment was echoed in a review of Sprigle’s book, In the Land of Jim Crow. It was “somewhat doubtful whether a white, pretending to be a Negro” could really understand the experience of that group, the reviewer wrote.

“It’s really easy to think, [Sprigle] is problematic, let’s dismiss everything,” says Alisha Gaines, professor at Florida State University whose forthcoming book Black for a Day: Fantasies of Race and Empathy deals with Sprigle and other cases of white-to-black passing. “I don’t advocate for everyone to go paint themselves and shave their heads, but there’s something about their intentionality that I want to hold on to. About wanting to understand, about caring enough and being compassionate.” But, Gaines adds, it seemed like Sprigle reported the story in disguise in an (unsuccessful) attempt at another Pulitzer rather than for reasons of social justice.

“In 4,000 miles of travel by Jim Crow train and bus and street car and by motor, I encountered not one unpleasant incident,” Sprigle concluded at the end of his series. “I took no chances. I was more than careful to be a ‘good [n****r.]’” What Sprigle clearly missed, however, was that behavior and caution had little to do with how blacks were treated in the South. Griffin, once he began publishing his expose in an African-American owned magazine, was forced to take his family and flee the country after receiving death threats and having an effigy of him hung in Dallas.

 

In 2011, black playwright and poet Robert Earl Price premiered a new play, All Blues, based on Sprigle’s story.

All Blues — named for the 1959 Miles Davis classic from Kind of Blue, one of the most influential record albums of the 20th century — is being co-produced by the Washington College Department of Drama and the Atlanta, Ga., theater company 7 Stages, where the play will open with the same cast on Sept. 22.Del Hamilton, co-founder and artistic director of 7 Stages, will play the role of Ray Sprigle, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who traveled through the South for 30 days in 1948 as a light-skinned black man named James R. Crawford. Sprigle’s guide was John Wesley Dobbs, an important political leader in Atlanta’s black community and an NAACP activist. Dobbs will be played by Chestertown musician Bob Ortiz.

Sprigle had already won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and he was famous both for his hard-hitting stories and for his penchant for going undercover to get them.

All Blues is a compelling meditation on the moral complexities of Sprigle’s venture across the country’s racial and geographic divide, which the reporter learned in his travels to call not the Mason Dixon, but the Smith and Wesson line. Sprigle’s journey took place more than a decade before the publication of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s bestselling account of his own travels through the South as a white man passing himself off as black.

The lyrics and music of All Blues form a subtext to the play, which weaves light, movement, and a cast of characters that include the light and dark sides of Sprigle’s own soul into a moody meditation on race.

I feel more than kind of blue when I take out my Jim Crow memories and dust them off for re-examination. Many people are aware of the problems black folks have doing something simple like hailing a cab. But how many remember cabs like these, for whites only?

Taxi cabs with sign "White only, Becks cabs" on side, Albany, Georgia
Taxi cabs with sign “White only, Becks cabs” on side, Albany, Georgia                    

Contemporary political discourse has swirled around legislation affecting transgender folks and bathroom discrimination. It often hurls me back to thinking about a time when there were no bathrooms we could use at all in certain areas. 

Street scene near bus station in Durham, North Carolina - bathroom sign says "white ladies only"
Street scene near bus station in Durham, North Carolina. Bathroom sign reads “White Ladies Only”

Driving across the country with my parents, we always had a “porta-potty” in the car. But when you were out shopping and on foot, bringing one along wasn’t possible. My mom used to ignore the signs when we lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and use whatever bathroom was available, which could have gotten her in a lot of trouble. Thankfully, we moved back north after a year in Jim Crow land. 

The movie version of Black Like Me had a scene involving bathrooms at a bus rest stop. Though I prefer the book (and thought the makeup on James Whitmore, who plays John Howard Griffin was ludicrous), the rest stop scene is a page from real-life as experienced by black folks. 

I have many more of these memories, too many to recount here today. I’ve also seen Jim Crow signs banning Native Americans and Mexicans, and was refused service in a restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota, when I was with a group of Indians from the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1980s. 

“Race changing” has a long tradition in our culture. When done by whites, much of it has been negative for black Americans, who have been relentlessly mocked, parodied, stereotyped, sexualized, infantilized, and vilified via the mediums of minstrelry (blackface) and film (Birth of a Nation). There is heated debate and discussion of cultural appropriation as well. These subjects are brilliantly explored by Susan Gubar in her text Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culturein which she makes distinctions between and among the different forms.

Bookcover: Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

In Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, Susan Gubar, who fundamentally changed the way we think about women’s literature as co-author of the acclaimed The Madwoman in the Attic, turns her attention to the incendiary issue of race. Through a far-reaching exploration of the long overlooked legacy of minstrelsy–cross-racial impersonations or “racechanges”–throughout modern American film, fiction, poetry, painting, photography, and journalism, she documents the indebtedness of “mainstream” artists to African-American culture, and explores the deeply conflicted psychology of white guilt. The fascinating “racechanges” Gubar discusses include whites posing as blacks and blacks “passing” for white; blackface on white actors in The Jazz Singer, Birth of a Nation, and other movies, as well as on the faces of black stage entertainers; African-American deployment of racechange imagery during the Harlem Renaissance, including the poetry of Anne Spencer, the black-and-white prints of Richard Bruce Nugent, and the early work of Zora Neale Hurston; white poets and novelists from Vachel Lindsay and Gertrude Stein to John Berryman and William Faulkner writing as if they were black; white artists and writers fascinated by hypersexualized stereotypes of black men; and nightmares and visions of the racechanged baby.  Gubar shows that unlike African-Americans, who often are forced to adopt white masks to gain their rights, white people have chosen racial masquerades, which range from mockery and mimicry to an evolving emphasis on inter-racial mutuality and mutability.

Her lecture on the book is available online.

Last Tuesday, I wrote this in reference to bigoted, racist remarks made by Iowa Rep. Steve King:

King’s comment, “If you go down the road a few generations or maybe centuries with the intermarriage, I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same,” comes out of a history—founded on racism—which dragged black people here to labor in chains and after finally freed to be kept separate and othered via the institution of Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction was defeated.

While folks point fingers at King for being the bigot he is, from my pov it is more important to point fingers at the people who have been electing him to Congress since 1997.

The vileness has become normal for Republicans. Racism has always been normal in the United States. Dear friends and allies: Do not stand by silently, as so many did during those long, long years of Jim Crow.

You may not be able to walk in my shoes. But you can walk the road by my side.


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