The Origin and Impact of Segregation

Where Did Segregation Originate?

Segregation is the practice of separating people by their race, ethnicity, or gender. This can include housing, schools, and even restaurants.

The fight against segregation has been a long one. It began with Homer Plessy, who challenged laws that prevented black and white people from riding together on trains.


Segregation is the separation of people based on their social or physical characteristics. Historically, it has been used by conquering groups to maintain their advantage over subordinated populations. Segregation can also occur among members of the same social group, such as a family.

In the United States, segregation originated in the aftermath of slavery. Blacks lived separately from whites and had few opportunities to get an education or find jobs. Segregation continued to exist after the Civil War and became more rigid as racial prejudice intensified.

In the early 20th century, cities enacted laws that forced African Americans to live in designated neighborhoods, such as zoning ordinances and racially restrictive covenants. These covenants allowed property owners to legally prohibit Black families from purchasing or renting homes in white-dominant areas. The NAACP fought these laws, including a 1917 Supreme Court case called Buchanan v. Warley. This ruling declared that racial zoning was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court did not fully abolish racial segregation until the 1950s.


As segregation became official policy in the South through Jim Crow laws, it was imposed on every aspect of life from schools to neighborhoods to public parks to hospitals and homes. Even government offices were segregated. Black civil servants were barred from white unions, and they worked in lower-level jobs than their white counterparts.

Private prejudice also played a role in keeping neighborhoods segregated. For example, white homeowners resented the presence of black neighbors, and they were often worried that their property values would decline. Even federal housing programs, which were built to help people displaced by the Great Depression, only provided homes for white families. In most communities, racial covenants kept apartments and houses out of reach for Black residents.

Neighborhoods that are racially isolated stunt house price appreciation, weaken children’s educational attainment, and reduce job opportunities. In addition, disproportionate police use and poor health outcomes (such as higher rates of COVID-19) are linked to segregation.

Efforts to end segregation

As the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s took hold, efforts were made to end segregation. However, these were often met with violence and legal challenges.

After Reconstruction, white southerners enacted state laws separating blacks and whites, creating de jure segregation. These were called Jim Crow laws, and they enslaved blacks to second-class citizenship and reinforced white supremacy.

Even in the North, some housing practices enforced segregation. Realtors steered African-Americans away from white neighborhoods, and municipal ordinances and legally binding covenants signed by homeowners kept blacks out of certain areas.

Nevertheless, there were a few isolated incidents where segregation was broken. For example, Prudence Crandall admitted an African American girl into her all-white boarding school, and this caused public backlash and violence. Eventually, she converted her school to an all-African American institution. In other cases, buses and trains would separate into different sections for blacks and whites. Blacks could also be required to use separate water fountains and restrooms.


Students need to know that Jim Crow laws created a formal system of racial apartheid that was enforced by the law. It separated people in practically every aspect of life: schools, parks, theaters, libraries, water fountains, restaurants, restrooms, buses and trains. Even in the workplace, Blacks were often assigned to less desirable positions and given separate waiting rooms.

Those who challenged segregation ran into fierce resistance from the government and private groups that wanted to maintain it. Reformers such as Charles Sumner argued that segregated schools branded a whole race with the stigma of inferiority and degradation. Supreme Court cases such as Buchanan v. Warley and Shelley v. Kramer helped overturn legal defenses of residential zoning that prohibited Black families from buying houses in white-dominant neighborhoods.

Another interesting point is that segregation arose not because of voluntary choices made by the public but because of government-sanctioned policies designed to keep blacks at the margins of society. Explain how this system demeaned and devalued African Americans, forcing them to stay in their place and, when they tried to challenge Jim Crow laws, facing retribution.

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