Signs of America’s racial past
he good news is that news of the sign was shocking.
Because there was a time, not so very long ago — a time remembered vividly by many living Americans — when the sign would not have raised eyebrows, much less warranted national headlines.
You may have seen the story earlier this month. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission upheld a ruling that a landlord in Cincinnati who had posted a “White Only” sign on the gate to her swimming pool had violated the Ohio Civil Rights Act. The landlord, Jamie Hein, who is white, said the sign was an antique, intended to be a decoration; one of her tenants, Michael Gunn, filed the complaint because he believed the sign was placed to dissuade his daughter, who is African-American, from using the pool.
Each side has its own version of the story. But it received widespread coverage because the idea of such a sign, in 2012, was so startling, and was so abhorrent to many people.
Such signs, though, well into the 20th century, were an accepted part of the American scene. If you’re not 50 years old yet, chances are pretty good that you never saw one in a public place. Yet as late as the 1960s, they were there; Elizabeth Abel, author of “Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow,” told me that some in fact were in place through the 1970s. This nation had been around for more than 175 years; more than a century had passed since the abolition of slavery; and the signs still hung.
The popular assumption has come to be that the signs, and what they represented, were limited to the South, but that wasn’t the case. In the 1930s and 1940s, photographers for the Farm Security Administration Historical Section, which later became part of the Office of War Information, documented the American landscape. Among the photographs, which are on file at the Library of Congress, were shots of signs in small towns and large.