On this dayMar 22, 1901

Black Man and White Woman Arrested for Walking Together in Atlanta

Image | The Atlanta Constitution

On March 22, 1901, a white woman and a black man were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, and accused of walking and talking together on Whitehall Street. In a news article entitled, “Color Line Was Ignored,The Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported that Mrs. James Charles, “a handsomely dressed white woman of prepossessing appearance,” and C.W. King, “a Negro cook,” were arrested after Officer J.T. Shepard reported having seen the two talk to each other and then “walk side by side for several minutes.”

After the Confederacy's defeat in the Civil War, emancipation and the granting of civil rights to black people threatened to overturn traditional southern culture and social relations rooted in white supremacy and racial hierarchy. After Reconstruction ended and white politicians and lawmakers regained control and power in the South, many set out to restore that racial order through very strict laws that mandated segregation and made it illegal for black and white people to interact as equals. Under these policies, interracial marriage or romance–particularly between black men and white women–was strictly banned, as was integrated education, and even interracial athletic events.

After her arrest for allegedly walking and talking with a black man, Mrs. Charles gave a statement that did not challenge the law but instead but fervently denied the accusation. She insisted she had exchanged no words with Mr. King, and merely smiled as she passed him dancing on the street:

"As I paused to listen to the music I noticed a negro man, the one arrested with me, dancing on the sidewalk," she said. "I smiled at his antics and was about to pass on when a policeman touched me on the arm and said he wanted to talk to me. I stopped and he asked why I talked to a negro. I denied having spoken to any negro. I told him I was a southern born woman, and his insinuations were an insult."

Mr. King also denied having spoken to Mrs. Charles, and said he never knew there was a white woman near him. No further reporting on the arrests was published, and it is not clear whether they were convicted and fined when tried the next afternoon.

The narrative of racial difference created to justify slavery–the myth that white people are superior to black people–was not abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment, and it outlived slavery and Reconstruction. White Americans committed to the myth of black inferiority used the law and violence to relegate black Americans to second-class citizenship at the bottom of a racial caste system.

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