A Jim Crow Comb

Georgia Telfair, born into slavery on a Georgia plantation about 1864, was interviewed in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  She talked about African-American folk life in the period after the war. In one passage she mentions how enslaved people cared for their hair,

“Ma combed our hair with a Jim Crow comb, or card, as some folks called ’em. If our hair was bad nappy she put some cotton in the comb to keep it from pulling so bad, ’cause it was awful hard to comb.”  – Georgia Telfair

The most common tool slaves relied on for combing out their hair were the cards used in carding wool. – Reenact This

Wool cards were used by African-Americans to comb out tangled hair. In this use they came to be known as Jim Crow combs. Image source: http://reenactthis.blogspot.com/2013/10/african-american-hair-wrapping-and-hair.html

Wool cards were used by African-Americans to comb out tangled hair. In this use they came to be known as Jim Crow combs. Image source: http://reenactthis.blogspot.com/2013/10/african-american-hair-wrapping-and-hair.html

Historical context and empirical findings on skin tone

In American history, slavery constituted a strict caste system that distinguished Black slaves by their skin tones. Lighter-skinned slaves were usually mixed-raced and favored by White slave-owners. These lighter-skinned slaves were frequently fathered by White slave-owners (typically from nonconsensual sexual relations with female slaves) and were, therefore, privileged (; ); unlike dark slaves, lighter-skinned slaves were spared physically strenuous, outdoor work and instead held domestic indoor jobs like housekeeping in closer contact to Whites. Over time, these privileges in the antebellum period allowed lighter-skinned Blacks to become more educated () and to own more property (). Furthermore, to maintain their elite status and privileges, lighter-skinned men engaged in social practices to exclude darker-skinned Blacks from entering their social circles; these practices included the “Paper Bag Test,” (which banned Blacks from joining fraternities if their skin tones were darker than a brown paper bag), the “Comb test,” (which banned Blacks with coarse, nappy African hair if combs could not glide through it) and the “Blue veins” society (which banned Blacks whose skin tones were too dark to see the blue veins on their arms) (). These findings consistently indicated that light skin tone resulted in clear social and economic advantages.

According to historians Shane White and Graham White,

Interviews with former slaves also frequently describe African American hair-styling practices and reveal something of what those practices meant. African-American women’s hair, though probably shorter than in the previous century, could soon become tangled and unmanageable if uncared for. This problem must have particularly affected field slaves, whose typical labor regime, stretching each day from “can see” to can’t see” and often involving cooking and mending duties as well, made adequate care of the hair difficult, if not impossible. Only on Sundays, their day off, could slaves find the time for grooming and styling, with whatever implements they could locate. Former slave James Williams recalled for his W.P.A. interviewer how the “old folks” used continually to talk about how much harder the life had been before freedom came. “Said the only time the slaves had to comb their hair was on Sunday. They would comb and roll each others hair and the men cut each others hair. That all the time they got. The would roll the children’s hair or keep it cut short.” Removing tangles must have been a painful process. Jane Morgan explained that “we carded our hair ’cause we never had no combs, but the cards they worked better. We used the cards to card wool with also, and we just wet our hair then card it. The cards they had wooden handles and strong steel wire teeth.” (The cards referred to here were implements used to prepare washed fleece for spinning, to make the fibers lie evenly in one direction.) Recalling his childhood on a large South Carolina plantation, Jacob Stroyer told how, before each inspection of the slave children by the plantation owner and his wife, attempts were made “to straighten out our unruly wools with some small cards, or Jim-crows,” as they were called. On one such occasion, and old woman had attempted to comb his hair straight, but “as she hitched the teeth of the instrument in my unyielding wool with her great masculine hand, of course I was jerked flat on my back. This was the common fate of most of my associates.” Aunt Tildy Collins’ account of the preparation of slave children for Sunday school is equally graphic: ” Us children hate to see Sunday come, cause Mammy and Granmammy they wash us and near about rub the skin off getting us clean for Sunday school, and they comb our heads with a jim crow. You ain’t never seed a jim crow? It most like a card what you card wool with. What a card look like? Humph! Missy, where you been raise – ain’t never seed a card? That jim crow sure did hurt, but us had to stand it, and sometimes after all that, mammy she wrap our kinky hair with thread and twist so tight us’s eyes couldn’t hardly shut.” – Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

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