Unfortunately, the United States has quite a dark history when it comes to racism, which was only aggravated by the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the period immediately after the Civil War, it was common for African-Americans to be elected to many positions, including Congress and State Houses. Once the period of Reconstruction ended, however, the white Southern elite took power again. They re-implemented their traditionalist political system, which sought above all to maintain the status quo. In order to do this, the white elites made sure to pit the poor white population against the African-American population. The rhetoric included telling poor whites that they were simply better than African-Americans, or that the African-American population posed a serious threat to the well-being of the poor whites. This rhetoric was further reinforced by the Jim Crow laws, which legally enforced racial segregation.
The images of the Imperial Laundry Company and Rex Theatre both show how Jim Crow laws often played out. Businesses would frequently only cater to whites or to blacks, but not both. Because these were private facilities, they were not required to meet the standard of “separate but equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson. Businesses that catered only to African-Americans were often separate, but not equal to the ones that catered to white patrons. Some businesses, however, did cater to both whites and blacks. When this was the case, there was usually some sort of physical division between the two groups. A common way to keep them separate was to have one door for whites in the front of the business, and another door for blacks on the side or in the back of the building, far from the street and sidewalk.
In the public realm (schools, transportation, government buildings, etc.), facilities for whites and blacks were supposed to be “separate but equal”. In the implementation of this policy, though, the separate facilities were almost never equal. For example, white schools would often have the newest textbooks and classroom supplies, while black schools would have old textbooks and supplies that the white schools did not want anymore. The image of the two water fountains gives a good idea of the real-world implementation of “separate but equal”. Clearly, both water fountains serve the purpose of allowing someone to get a drink of water. However, one would imagine that there would just be two of the same water fountains with different signs over them, so they would be equal. But that clearly was not the case. The water fountain for whites is nicer, with the pipes underneath it covered. It is also higher up to make it easier to drink from. The “colored” water fountain, however, is lower to the ground and has exposed pipes under it. They simply are not equal.
The physical legacy of segregation, like the separate water fountains, can still pose challenges to this day. For example, when cities restore old government buildings, they can frequently uncover old labels for “white” and “colored” facilities, which must be dealt with carefully in the modern post-Jim Crow world.