Making the Legal Visible: Wilhelmina Griffin Jones' Experience of Living in Alabama during Segregation

Article excerpt

Using Delaney's conception of the legalized landscape, this paper seeks to understand the intersection of race and power in the everyday experiences of an African-American woman. Using Delaney's theory to understand the Jim Crow-era experiences of Wilhelmina Griffin Jones and her interaction with a white police officer offers clues about how the visible, legalized landscape and the metaphysical, conceptualized legalized landscape are manifest in the everyday realm. Furthermore, by asserting the importance of the everyday experiences of African Americans and whites during segregation, this paper comes to a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which resistance and power became enacted through these interactions.

KEY WORDS: Race, power, Jim Crow, De Certeau, resistance


Wilhelmina Griffin Jones moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1942 from a small, rural Georgia farm community. Like many other African Americans, she went to work at Tuskegee Army Airfield. Tuskegee, home to the Tuskegee Institute, had provided an opportunity for African Americans to work and learn, and this opportunity only increased with the start of World War II. "World War II ushered in an economic boom that blew away eighty years of stagnation [in the South]. The South experienced a genuine bloom of economic opportunity, a broad-based and sustained flowering that brightened virtually every corner of the society" (Egerton 1994, 201), and Ms. Jones meant to take advantage of these opportunities. Yet, Wilhelmina faced racial discrimination in her everyday life as she relates in a story about returning to Tuskegee after dark, during a daylong picnic to North Alabama:

   On a Saturday afternoon another couple
   who were friends of mine and another
   male friend of mine decided to
   ride up to Opelika, Alabama, that
   afternoon. We got back to Tuskegee
   just about dusk. As we drove down
   north on Main Street, I was driving the
   car, we heard this whistle blow. My
   friend said, 'I think the police is blowing
   for us and maybe you had better
   stop.' Well, I had seen this man standing
   in the middle of the street at the
   median with a lantern, but so many
   people at that time would try and hitch
   rides back to Army Airfield I really
   paid him no attention. After I had
   pulled over I was approached by the
   white officer. He asked me if I saw that
   man standing there with a lantern. I
   told him 'Yes I saw the man standing
   there with a lantern.' He then told me
   that there had been a fire across the
   street and the man with the lantern
   had tired to get me to stop my car so I
   wouldn't drive over the fire hose which
   was stretched across the street. So he
   [white officer] talked on for a few more
   minutes and he then told me I was
   going to have to go down to the court on
   Monday. Then he looked at me and said
   what is your name? I said, 'My name is
   Ms. Griffin.' I wasn't married at the
   time. And he took out his pad and proceeded
   to write me a ticket and he said,
   'Don't you know we don't Miss niggers
   down here?' (Jones 2001, 272-274)

This incident, related by Wilhelmina Jones, is important for several reasons. First, Ms. Jones is operating in a certain kind of geographical space, a space that is inherently about relationships of power. That space is the space of the "Jim Grow" South, the period in American history when blacks were legally segregated from most white areas. Between 1890-1915 white legislators passed a series of measures that ensured "the permanent, political, economic, and social subordination and powerlessness of the black population" (Litwack 1998, 218). Though these laws were passed primarily in the South, they shaped the cultural and political landscape of the entire United States. In order to understand how this process (the legalized segregation of people based on race) manifested itself, it is necessary to understand that the laws enforcing segregation produced a particular kind of landscape, what Delaney (1998) refers to as a "legal landscape. …