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Separate water fountains for Black people still stand in the South – thinly veiled monuments to the long, strange, dehumanizing history of segregation

Rodney Coates, Miami University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

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’?”

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.

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