3.5.2 Old South (1877-1920): Residential Segregation and Peonage


Peonage laws

State v. Norman – North Carolina, 1892 (14 S.E. 968); State v. Griffin – North Carolina, 1911 (70 S.E. 292)
  • In the 1880s, several Southern states enacted laws subjecting workers who broke labor contracts by quitting their jobs early to criminal penalties, including hiring out the workers to their former employers.  Many viewed the laws, popularly known as peonage laws, as a tool for imposing slavery in all but name upon workers.  The laws were frequently challenged and were viewed with disfavor by most courts. 
  • In Norman, North Carolina’s supreme court construed the state’s peonage law narrowly, holding that it only applied to workers who intended to defraud their employer at the time they made their contract.  Several years later, the legislature created a rule that the mere fact of quitting was enough to show fraud, but in Griffin the court rejected this rule, criticizing the legislature for supporting peonage and noting that the U.S. Supreme Court had already rejected such a rule.
 “[It is] an instrument of compulsion peculiarly effective against the poor and the ignorant, its most likely victims.  There is no more important concern than to safeguard the freedom of labor, upon which alone can enduring prosperity be based.  The provisions designed to secure it would soon become a barren form if it were possible to establish a statutory presumption of this sort and to hold over the heads of laborers the threat of punishment for crime, under the name of fraud, but merely upon evidence of failure to work out their debts.” – Justice George Brown, in Griffin



Residential segregation laws

State v. Gurry – Maryland, 1913 (88 A. 546); State v. Darnell –North Carolina, 1914 (81 S.E. 338); Hopkins v. City of Richmond – Virginia, 1915 (86 S.E. 139)

  • Between 1910 and 1920, many Southern cities tried to enforce housing segregation by prohibiting members of one race from moving onto a block dominated by members of the other race.  But here, segregation ran up against respect for property rights:  some landlords and homeowners challenged the laws as an unconstitutional interference with their right to freely sell, buy and rent their property. 
  • Courts in the Old South and elsewhere divided over the issue.  The Maryland and North Carolina supreme courts agreed that property rights outweighed any social interest in segregation, although the Maryland justices were careful to say that segregation was a proper state objective.  Virginia’s justices disagreed:  they concluded that residential segregation laws tended to reduce racial conflict and, thus, were a proper exercise of power to promote public safety.  The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Maryland and North Carolina and put the issue to rest in Buchanan v. Warley (1917).
“[I]f … segregation of the races … will have a tendency, not only to avoid disorder and violence, but to make a better feeling between the races, everyone having the interests of the colored people as well as of the white people at heart ought to encourage rather than oppose it. … [But] we  have not hitherto known of a case which approached the exercise of such power as is contended for under this ordinance – to prohibit one who was the owner of a dwelling when the ordinance was passed from moving into it, simply because he is of a different color from other persons using that block as residences or places of abode, although he might keep his premises in better sanitary condition and in every way more attractive than the others.”  - Justice Albert Constable, in Gurry
Snicker's Gap. Watching the stage go by
"Watching the stage go by," Snickers Gap, Virginia, 1900 - courtesy Library of Congress





“[T]he result of this [residential segregation] policy might well be a large exodus and naturally of the most enterprising and thrifty element of the colored race, leaving the unthrifty and less desirable element in this state on the taxpayers.” – Justice Walter Clark, in Darnell


“The central idea of the ordinance … is to prevent too close association of the races, which association results, or tends to result, in breaches of peace, immorality, and danger to the health. … The attainment of the objects in view is one much to be desired.” – Virginia supreme court, in Hopkins