Letter, Jerome Baskett, 8 October 1944
In the middle of the twentieth century, Virginia was a society segregated by race. African Americans and whites ate in separate restaurants, sat in different sections of trains and street cars, and attended separate schools (even separate reform schools). However, the Second World War served as a catalyst for change. The contributions of African Americans at home and overseas, along with the hypocrisy of fighting enemies who used racial arguments to justify aggression, forced white Americans to confront their own racial attitudes.
At the end of the nineteenth century, southern states began to implement Jim Crow—the legal separation of the races. Although racial separation and discrimination were often the practice between 1865 and the turn of the twentieth century, segregation had not been codified into law. The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 announced the doctrine of "separate but equal," and precipitated a series of legislative enactments that drew the color line. In southern states, new constitutions mandated racially segregated public schools and established voting requirements, such as the poll tax and literacy tests, that were designed to limit black voting.
Of course, separate was not equal. Waiting rooms and restrooms for black patrons were not as nice as those reserved for whites. African Americans sat in the balconies of theaters—the poorest seats. It was the responsibility of blacks on street cars to give up seats to white riders, never the other way around. And African Americans were paid less than whites, even if they were working at the same job.
During the First World War, African Americans set aside the struggle for equality in order to demonstrate their patriotism. Even W. E. B. DuBois told the NAACP, "Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances." But conciliation failed as black wartime economic gains evaporated. On the eve of America's entry into the Second World War, black leaders vowed not to make the same error. During the Second World War, African Americans fought a "double-V" campaign—victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. In the summer of 1941, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters proposed a March on Washington to protest discrimination by defense contactors and the armed services. Randolph threatened a new tactic in pursuit of racial justice—the mobilization of the black mass protest as opposed to the legal efforts spearheaded by organizations like the NAACP.
Reacting to Randolph's proposed action, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which required government agencies and firms that accepted defense contracts to put an end to racial discrimination in employment. The act also created the Fair Employment Practices Committee to investigate complaints and try to enforce the ruling. In response, Randolph cancelled the march.
Yet despite these gains, many African Americans fell outside the scope of the order. As the author of this letter, Jerome Baskett, reminds us, many still received unequal pay. It took an actual March on Washington in 1963 and a civil rights bill the following year to bring about "equal pay for equal work."
The letter of Jerome Baskett appears in the papers of William Brown Layton (1888–1975), former superintendent of the Virginia Manual Labor School for Colored Boys, now the Hanover Learning Center. The letter is one of fifty-nine items in the collection, which was given to the Virginia Historical Society by Layton's son, Benjamin Thomas Layton, in 1988. William Layton's correspondence consists largely of letters written by his former students. Layton would have considered these papers his personal property. Any records created by Brown in his capacity as superintendent were considered property of the state, and are probably available in a public repository, such as the Library of Virginia. This distinction between personal and public records is one that has become more important over time.
Virginia Manual Labor School for Colored Boys was what used to be referred to as a reform school. Black juveniles who got into trouble with the law were sent there to be rehabilitated. In the process, they learned a trade. William Layton lived on campus with his family. His wife, Mary Amanda Layton, was the school's dietitian and the head of the sewing department. One letter in the collection cites her many unrecognized contributions. In addition to her teaching and administrative duties, she directed plays, recited poetry at school programs, sang in the faculty choir, planted flowers, and played piano at religious services. Three of her children were born in a house on the school grounds. William and Mary Amanda Layton were more than just state employees; they were surrogate parents and mentors to the many students in their care.
The letter contains a number of misspelled words and grammatical errors. It also conveys the deep sense of the injustice felt by Baskett. Before giving the letter to your students, read it a few times to get a feel for its pacing and voice. If your students find the poor grammar and spelling amusing, remind them that Baskett probably did not write many letters—which makes his effort here especially poignant.
601 Madison Ave. N.W.
Dear Mr. Layton
Activities: Teaching the Document
1. Have your students read the letter to themselves. Have them identify the author of the letter and its recipient. From the letter, can they guess anything about the relationship between the two men?
2. Choose someone to read the letter aloud. What is the tone of the letter? How does Baskett sound?
3. Ask your students what kind of education Baskett received at the school. Why?
4. Baskett describes the contractors as "reblish." Have your students figure out what the word "reblish" means from the context. By using this word as he has, what does Baskett reveal about how he views the Civil War? What does this suggest about southern society that people still identified with the Civil War? View the letter
5. Have your students identify Baskett's problem. Ask them how someone might deal with a similar problem today. Ask your students why they think he has chosen to write to Layton for help. What does this suggest about his options?
6. Baskett is a young man. Why do you think he is not serving in the military?
7. Ask your students how Layton might respond to Baskett's letter. As superintendent of a reform school, what do they think Layton's employers would advise him to do? Do they think Layton would feel a responsibility toward Baskett?
• Genna Rae McNeil. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.
• Richard S. Polenberg. War and Society: The United States, 1941–1945.
• J. Douglas Smith. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia.
• Charles E. Wynes. The Evolution of Jim Crow Laws in Twentieth Century Virginia.
Standards of Learning
• VS.8b, USII.3c, USII.6c, USII.8a, VUS.8c, VUS.11b