March 23rd, 1875

Tennessee Legalizes Racial Discrimination in Public Spaces

In July 1866, after ratifying the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Tennessee became the first Confederate state readmitted to the Union. However, many whites in the state had not accepted the outcome of the Civil War and remained intent on maintaining their dominance over a political and social system that now included many free black citizens.

In 1869, racialized political movements restored Democrats to legislative power in Tennessee. Newly elected lawmakers quickly undertook efforts to "redeem" the South by restoring white supremacy and control over labor. They quickly repealed statute that Radical Republicans had passed in 1868 to outlaw racial discrimination in railroad travel and, in 1870, altered the state constitution to prohibit racial integration of Tennessee public schools. Many other border states passed similar laws aimed at limiting black Americans' new Constitutional rights and protections.

Faced with these developments, federal authorities enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1875 on March 1, 1875, which guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public accommodations and jury service. Twenty-two days later, the Tennessee legislature defiantly approved House Bill 527, which permitted hotels, inns, public transportation, and amusement parks to refuse admission and service to any person for any reason. The state had authorized the very discrimination the federal law prohibited.

In 1883, the United States Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act an unconstitutional exercise of Thirteenth Amendment powers, empowering Tennessee and other discriminatory states and clearing the way for several more generations of Jim Crow rule.