UChicago Professor Jane Dailey tackles the tumultuous history of Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the African American experience.

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jane Dailey, associate professor of American history, has spent her career exploring the relationship between race, sex, and politics in the post-Emancipation South.

Her interest in this topic began with her dissertation at Princeton University, where she analyzed the conditions that facilitated, and ultimately undid, interracial democracy in the post–Civil War South. In it, she underscores the important roles that race and sex played in the downfall of interracial democracy.  “White men insisted that allowing black men into the political realm would lead to interracial socialization, sex, and marriage.” From emancipation through the 1960s, civil rights activists understood that racially-restrictive marriage laws, and the state-enforced regime of racial identification that those laws made possible, lay at the heart of the segregated system they struggled to overthrow.

Her dissertation led to her first book, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (North Carolina, 2000).

A legacy of scholarship

Dailey joined the UChicago faculty in 2007, following in the footsteps of a legacy of African American history scholars, including Allison Davis and John Hope Franklin. “I think everyone who writes about African American history and racial issues is familiar with the work of John Hope Franklin and Allison Davis,” she says.

In many ways her scholarship builds on the work of Davis, who wrote extensively on the fallacy that white reformers tried to push in the 1930s and 1940s of creating parallel societies for whites and blacks – an idea that Davis roundly rejected.

Dailey has published a number of books and articles along this theme. They include The Age of Jim Crow: A Norton Documentary History (Norton, 2008); "Is Marriage a Civil Right? The Politics of Intimacy in the Jim Crow Era,” an essay in the book The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South (Texas A&M Press, 2012); and Building the American Republic Volume Two: A Narrative History From 1877 (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

The University of Chicago Press opted to publish this last work as a free ebook, making it widely available to the reading public. “For them to have done that is a tremendous gift to scholarship, and to anyone who wants to know about American history,” she says.

She is currently wrapping up her latest book, White Fright: Sex, Race and the Fight for Civil Rights, (Basic Books, 2020), which explores the links connecting sex and politics in a segregated world, and how African-American reformers, politicians, and activists managed to get out from under arguments that linked sex, race and politics during the Civil Rights Movement.     

“The world of Jim Crow, which lasted roughly from 1890 to 1967, was rooted in fears of interracial sex and reproduction.  Those fighting for full equality understood that racially-restrictive marriage laws lay at the heart of the segregated system.”

When she’s not writing, Dailey teaches several classes on civil rights and modern American history more broadly. This year, her course load includes two new classes:  a course in the law school on the history of the civil rights movement, and a two-quarter graduate introductory seminar on American history, called “Radical America.”

Historians were surprised by the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, but not by the sentiments underlying it.  “It was a fascinating moment when Americans were open to their own history,  to hearing accounts that were different from what they knew, or thought they knew.  I wrote a bunch of op-eds for Huffington Post, including one on Virginia.  Quite a few people wrote to me about them.  A few called for me to be fired or at least lose my tenure, but most were appreciative.  This being about the South, one person was actually related to the historical character at the heart of my story!”