Self Respect and Fear Stem From Segregation

February 4, 2013 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Oral history

Although slavery’s end created new freedoms, it also gave way to new injustices.  A society developed, especially in the south, in which racial segregation dominated all parts of life.  Two key themes that stand out from this time are the struggle to maintain self-respect among African Americans and the usage of fear as a powerful tool of oppression.

In the post-slavery era, many blacks remained in a position to be easily exploited by their white employers.  Black women often fell into positions as servants.  This position, as described in The Maid Narratives, placed workers in a position of “daily humiliation.”  Beyond their demeaning employment opportunities, under segregation a life of inferiority was imposed.  Parents often attempted to shield their children from the harsh reality, but even through the eyes of children the inequality was blatant.

Despite of the nature of the times, individuals developed tactics for asserting and maintaining their self-respect. In Freedom on the Border, John Wesley Hatch retells the powerful words his father had shared with him about maintaining dignity. He stated that “for things you absolutely don’t have to do, you don’t go to back doors, you don’t segregate yourself.” This sentiment is so powerful because it exemplifies the smalls actions people took to deny the power to the system even before mass movements erupted.  Other individuals asserted self-respect through self-employment.  Washerwomen were a major group of these individuals.  By bringing laundry into their own homes, washerwomen avoided the oppression of working directly as servants.  These women were also significant because they held a strike expressing their desire for uniform payment.  This strike laid a foundation for future activism.

Although some individuals severed ties from white oppressors, few escaped the fear.  Particularly in the south, fear became a powerful weapon for controlling African Americans. The Maid Narratives details a strong tie between the seeming permanence of segregated culture and a “sense of powerlessness” that was “absolute” which developed in a system of blatant and understood injustice.  What hope was held for change when much of this fear was kept in place by law enforcement that was responsible for violating, not protecting, people’s rights?


Fosl, Catherine, and Tracy Elaine Meyer.Freedom on the border an oral history of the civil rights movement in Kentucky. Lexington, Ky.: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2009. Print.

Wormer, Katherine Van; Jackson, David W., III (2012-09-17). The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (p. 32). Louisiana State University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 responses to Self Respect and Fear Stem From Segregation

  1. I like the quote you included in bold. I think even Morgan Freeman once said that the only way we can get rid of racism is if we stop talking about it. I’m not sure if this is the best way to truly get rid of the institution, but it is certainly a start.

  2. I really like your focus on pride and self respect, and taking your own life and actions into your own hands.

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