Though the Civil War (1861-1865) brought the institution of slavery to an end (via the 13th Amendment) and provided citizenship for African Americans (via the 14th amendment) and prohibited discrimination in voting based on race (via the 15th Amendment), Southern states quickly found ways to disenfranchise and subjugate black men and women in order to return the region to a place of rigid racial hierarchy.
During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the period after the Civil War in which the South needed to demonstrate compliance with the federal government’s dictates regarding reentry into the Union, there were several attempts to limit the new freedoms of African Americans. President Andrew Johnson turned a blind eye as Southern states passed the Black Codes, a series of laws that said, among other things, that blacks had to be employed or they would be put into jail or a chain gang, that they could not own property, that they had restricted movement, etc. When the Radical Republicans in Congress stripped away much of Johnson’s power to control Reconstruction, the Black Codes ended and there was a brief period of time in which black men began to take political office, voting was commonplace, and civil liberties were more conspicuously exercised. However, waning Northern support, Southern intransigence, and a desire to move past the expensive and complicated programs of Reconstruction meant that eventually this period came to a close (specifically, with the Compromise of 1877 in which the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president and the Democrats secured the end of Reconstruction and the removal of federal troops from the South). Now that Reconstruction was over and the South was left to its own devices, explicit racial discrimination began in earnest.
Disenfranchisement, or the stripping away of the right to vote, was one of the most prominent parts of this system of repression. Southern states implemented the following: the “Grandfather Clause,” which stated that a person could only vote if their grandfather voted in 1867, which was not the case for most African Americans just two years after the Civil War; white primaries, in which only whites could vote in the primaries so they naturally only voted in white candidates who, of course, did not speak for black voters; literacy tests, which were difficult for black voters to pass; and poll taxes, which were hard for poor blacks to pay. Furthermore, threats of violence were common. Voting dipped precipitously for African Americans during the late 19th century and remained extremely low until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
In 1896 the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson stated that separate but equal facilities were constitutional. It arose from Homer Plessy, an African American man, testing whether or not he could sit in a train car reserved for whites. The ruling made official what was already happening in Southern states: the Jim Crow laws, which were intended to further oppress African Americans and assert white supremacy. They included things such as separate schools, separate waiting rooms at bus stations, and separate drinking fountains; segregated housing; regulations on interaction between blacks and whites, such as black barbers not being able to cut a white woman’s hair, or black motorists having to let white motorists go first at a four-way stop. They were insidious in that they dictated behavior and demeanor down to the way a black person looked at a white person or talked to a white person. The supremacy of whites and inferiority of blacks was absolute and understood; anyone who deviated from it, either black or white, faced at the very least criticism, and in many cases, threats, violence, or even death.
This, then, is the context in which “A Worn Path” is set. Phoenix Jackson is not a slave, but she is a poor black woman living in the Jim Crow South, and her movements and words are circumscribed by the racist structure of her society.