As Harlan predicted, states reacted to the Plessy decision by passing laws mandating racial segregation in every aspect of southern life, from schools to hospitals, waiting rooms, toilets, and cemeteries. Some states forbade taxi drivers to carry members of different races at the same time. Despite the “thin disguise” (Harlan’s phrase) of equality required by the Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, facilities for blacks were either nonexistent or markedly inferior. In 1900, no public high school for blacks existed in the entire South. Black elementary schools, one observer reported, occupied buildings “as bad as stables.”
More than a form of racial separation, segregation was one part of an all-encompassing system of white domination, in which each component— disenfranchisement, unequal economic status, inferior education— reinforced the others. The point was not so much to keep the races apart as to ensure that when they came into contact with each other, whether in politics, labor relations, or social life, whites held the upper hand. For example, many blacks could be found in “whites-only” railroad cars. But they entered as servants and nurses, not as paying customers entitled to equal treatment.
An elaborate social etiquette developed, with proper behavior differentiated by race. One sociologist who studied the turn-of-the-century South reported that in places of business, blacks had to stand back and wait until whites had been served. They could not raise their voices or in other ways act assertively in the presence of whites, and they had to “give way” on the streets. In shops, whites but not blacks were allowed to try on clothing.
Segregation affected other groups as well as blacks. In some parts of Mississippi where Chinese laborers had been brought in to work the fields after the Civil War, three separate school systems—white, black, and Chinese—were established. In California, black, Hispanic, and American Indian children were frequently educated alongside whites, but state law required separate schools for those of “mongolian or Chinese descent.” In Texas and California, although Mexicans were legally considered “white,” they found themselves barred from many restaurants, places of entertainment, and other public facilities.