When we first tried connecting with Linda Barrett Osborne to discuss Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation & Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years, scheduling proved a little difficult. The recently retired senior writer and editor at the Library of Congress was serving on a jury in a case involving five defendants accused of opening fire on a crowd and facing 45 criminal counts.
This happenstance proved rather ironic, for bookending Osborne’s rivetingly accessible and grippingly illustrated study of segregation and civil rights are two landmark Supreme Court cases: Plessy v. Ferguson, whose 1896 concept of “separate but equal” legalized racial segregation, and Brown v. Board of Education, which, in 1954, found the practice in schools unconstitutional.
Osborne’s study of the Jim Crow years picks up where her critically acclaimed Traveling the Freedom Road: From Slavery and the Civil War through Reconstruction (2009) leaves off, lending middle-grade readers on up a captivating, rounded portrait of one of the most regrettable periods in U.S. history.
Find more books that illuminate Jim Crow for young readers.
Is this book the logical continuation of Traveling the Freedom Road, or is this historical period something you’ve always wanted to explore more?
Both. I knew the Civil War and Reconstruction periods pretty well from having written for The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (2002), and I thought it could be done for children. When I got to the end of Traveling the Freedom Road, which stops about 1877, when Reconstruction ended, I was also learning that segregation didn’t start immediately. There was horrible discrimination and violence against African-Americans, but the actual laws didn’t start then, and I was curious as to how we got from emancipation to segregation that was, in many cases, as restrictive as slavery.
I didn’t start out writing about the North. I was just going to do the South, and then I learned that some of the segregation laws were outside the South—laws, not just discrimination. They mostly related to schools or to intermarriage, so in addition to the laws, there was a pattern of discrimination that didn’t stop with the South. Suddenly the book became much bigger just because of my own interest in that leap between the end of Reconstruction, when there was relative freedom, and the beginning of segregation in the South, and then I leapt to the North, and then to the nation, and I just wanted to give a full picture. It was ambitious.
One assumes the evolution of civil rights was a linear progression, and it’s stunning how we went from emancipation backward to segregation.
I’ve said in both books the role of the federal government was significant. When the federal government drew back, the states and local governments had more opportunity to impose segregation laws. Both at the end of the Civil War and in the 1960s, really, the federal government stepped back into having a voice in making decisions that helped ameliorate the situation.
It seems that there are a number of parallels here to the immigration debate and state rulings on gay marriage today.
You’re absolutely right. This opens up a whole world of rights issues. It’s not just African-American history—it’s an American issue.
Has your recent jury service given you new perspective on the historic cases you document here?
Yes. I don’t know if it’s given me new perspective on these landmark cases, but both these books are about justice and equality, and while I think people are trying to be fair in our justice system, I also wonder how fair we are as a society to communities who produce the kind of violence involved in the trial I was on. I wonder how much we’re doing to address the problems that I think cause those kinds of violence, and that to me connects with the basic themes of this book.
It’s not that I don’t think that we’ve made progress because I do. But I still see race operating in our justice system. It’s not that I thought the members of the jury I was on were biased. It was a more general sense that we’re still grappling with the same issues and the same history of violence. If you’re a group that violence has been done to for so long and have little economic opportunity, how do you break that cycle? In terms of a fair trial, I don’t think that would have been an option for the people in this book.
That’s kind of why it was good to serve, because that right was denied to so many for so long. To preserve that right to a jury trial and not to be taken off and lynched or whatever, you have to have people willing to serve on juries. So it was a good lesson for me and all of us who were dying to get out after three weeks but nobody did. Everybody came every day, and we did our best. That was something that didn’t happen for everyone 60 years ago. So I was making those connections, too, thinking about justice and equality and what that means as it plays out now.
Do you think segregation is as much of a blight on our history as slavery?
Yes, but that’s me. I think if you read about it and really get into the details and see how widespread it was, see how damaging to life it was, it’s something that’s shaped our country. I’ll go even further and say you can’t get from the Civil War to now if you don’t understand this period. A lot of our history today comes out of legal segregation and intense discrimination and the migration north and how people were received in cities. I think it’s essential to understanding our history. Otherwise, a huge piece is missing.
Is this period often overlooked for kids?
I haven’t explored that many children’s books, but I don’t think it’s given as much weight in the general literature as the period starting in the 1950s or ’60s. This period answers the question why that more hopeful and exhilarating period was necessary.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.