On this dayMar 23, 1875

Tennessee Legalizes Racial Discrimination in Public Spaces Three Weeks After Federal Civil Rights Act Is Enacted

On March 23, 1875, the Tennessee legislature approved House Bill 527, which permitted hotels, inns, public transportation, and amusement parks to refuse admission and service to any person for any reason. Three weeks before, federal authorities had enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public accommodations and jury service. By enacting a state law that allowed for all kinds of discrimination, including on the basis of race, Tennessee officials had defiantly authorized the very discrimination the federal law prohibited.

In July 1866, after ratifying the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, Tennessee became the first Confederate state readmitted to the Union. However, many white residents in the state had not accepted the outcome of the recent 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 former Confederates to legislative power in Tennessee. Newly elected lawmakers quickly undertook efforts to "redeem" the South by restoring white supremacy and the exploitation of Black labor. Legislators quickly repealed a state statute passed in 1868 under the Reconstruction government that had outlawed racial discrimination in railroad travel. In 1870, Tennessee lawmakers went further, amending 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. Congress's passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 was an attempt to enforce Black Americans' rights and equality, and it set off a legal conflict between state and federal power.

The U.S. Supreme Court settled that conflict in 1883 when it found the Civil Rights Act to be an unconstitutional exercise of Thirteenth Amendment powers. The opinion, issued in Civil Rights Cases, empowered Tennessee and other states to retain and expand their discriminatory laws and cleared the way for several more generations of Jim Crow rule.

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