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In this 1938 image, a Black boy uses a fountain marked ‘colored’ at a North Carolina county courthouse. Getty Images
Rodney Coates Professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, Miami University
Published: 20 February 2024

No one knows for certain when public facilities like bathrooms and drinking fountains were separated by race.

But starting in the 1890s, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Jim Crow laws and customs that emerged required Black and white people to be separated in virtually every part of life. They used separate restrooms, sat in separate sections on trains and buses and drank from separate water fountains.

Even in death, Black and white people were buried in separate cemeteries.

Though the racist practice of separate accommodations was officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, relics from the past still linger today.

In Ellisville, Mississippi, for instance, two water fountains remain standing in front of the Jones County Courthouse. When they were first built in the late 1930s, the words “white” and “colored” designated which fountain was to be used by which race.

Over the years, those words were covered up by different ceremonial plaques. But for some Black Ellisville residents, the fountains still stir up painful memories of second-class citizenship.

During public hearings in 2020 to determine whether the fountains should be removed, then 68-year-old Donnie Watts told the County Board of Supervisors that he had lived there for most of his life.

“I got told once to get away from that fountain because I, as a 6-year-old, was drinking out of the ‘white’ fountain,” Watts said.

“Can you imagine what a child, that age, how they felt when they were told that they can’t drink out of that fountain and they had to drink out of another fountain that said ‘colored’?”

Separate and unequal

In the 2001 Behind the Veil project, Duke University historians and researchers conducted interviews with over 300 Black and white people to document what day-to-day life was like during the Jim Crow era of legal segregation.

One of those interviewed was Mary Sive, who in 1947 was 24 years old and lived in Montclair, New Jersey. That year, she was traveling through the Deep South when she saw water fountains labeled “colored” and “white” for the first time

 segregated water fountains body1 Men drinking from segregated water fountains in 1960. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

“This was not outright cruelty such as lynching or denial of voting rights,” she said. “It was not silly, as it at first seemed to me.

"I realized that for segregation to stick, it had to intrude into the simplest everyday activity such as taking a drink of water.

"It was that very banality that brought home what it must be like to be ‘colored.’”

Sive said she chose not to drink from either fountain.

The signs were not the only thing that separated the fountains.

The fountains for whites were often more modern, offered some form of filtering from contaminants found in tap water and were capable of providing cold water. The colored water fountains were always worse, generally older and less well kept and usually found in the basement or outdoors.

More often than not, there were no Black facilities.

Bloody Tuesday

In my view as a sociologist who studies race and ethnicity, part of the legal and systematic effort to maintain Black subservience was based in part on the white people’s fear that formerly enslaved Black people would be rebellious and unwilling to stay on the lower levels of society.

It’s not surprising, then, that peaceful protests against the repressive structure of Southern society was met with a violent reaction from Southern law enforcement officers.

On June 9, 1964, for instance, Rev. T.Y. Rogers organized a march with the NAACP to protest segregated drinking fountains and restrooms in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The civil rights group had planned to march to the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse but barely made it a few steps from where they started at the First African Baptist Church before they were assaulted, beaten, arrested and tear-gassed by police officers, who used cattle prods and wooden batons to subdue the demonstration.

Known as Bloody Tuesday, the day saw the hospitalization of 33 Black men, women and children and the arrests of 94 others on charges of unlawful assembly.

That tragedy has been largely overshadowed by another protest march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery that occurred nearly a year later on March 7, 1965.

In what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” more than 600 marchers who were demanding equal voting rights, including John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and future congressman, were beaten and arrested by state troopers led by segregationist Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.

But unlike Bloody Tuesday in Tuscaloosa, news photographers and television cameras captured the images of Black marchers being beat by white police officers.

Those images triggered national outrage.

segregated water fountains body2 President Lyndon B. Johnson, left, shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act on July 3, 1964, at the White House. AFP via Getty Images
But enactment of civil rights laws didn’t mean the end of the fight.

After Donnie Watts’ testimony about his experience with discrimination at age 6, Jones County voters decided to keep the two separate fountains in a 2020 referendum.

Even though the fountains don’t work any longer and the words “white” and “colored” remain covered by ceremonial plaques, Watts said in a published interview that his memory of them remains clear.

“I can see right through those plaques. I know what they say,” Watts told the Hattiesburg American. “If they were so gung-ho about keeping those fountains, why don’t they take those plaques off where everybody can see the words ‘colored’ and ‘white’?”

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