The Difference Two Feet Makes (#2)

USA. North Carolina. 1950.
USA. North Carolina. 1950.
Erwitt, Elliott. 1950. Magnum Photos. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <>. 


In 1950 slavery had been banned for nearly 100 years, but racial segregation and discrimination still ran rampant. The Jim Crow laws that had been enacted in the late 1800s lasted into the 1960s and were responsible for allowing businesses and other public spaces to be segregated (Jim Crow Laws). In 1896 the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionality of these laws. The Supreme Court decision said that racial segregation would be allowed in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal” (Plessy v. Ferguson). What is striking about this photo, taken by Elliott Erwitt in 1950, is that yes, the facilities are separate, but they are most certainly not equal.

When you hear the term “separate but equal” a picture might come to mind. If you are thinking about the term with no preconceived notions you probably conjure up an image of facilities that are actually “separate but equal” perhaps like men’s and women’s bathrooms. What becomes clear when looking at this photo, however, is just how unequal the facilities could be. The drinking fountain on the left is large and solid and resembles a bathroom sink. The drinking fountain on the right is small and metal and looks to be much cheaper than the sink on the left. The sink on the right is labeled “white” and the sink on the left is labeled “colored”. It is striking just how different these two supposedly equal fountains are even though they sit just mere feet from each other. An African American man drinks from the fountain for “coloreds” and, though his face is blurry, his glance toward the other fountain could be interpreted as longing to be able to use the other fountain. This picture is so compelling because it shows such a clear depiction of the injustices that African Americans were faced with.

The photo was taken in North Carolina in 1950 by Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt is an advertising and documentary photographer who was born in Paris, France in 1928. The child of Jewish-Russian immigrants, Erwitt moved to the United States at the age of ten. Erwitt studied photography and filmmaking at Los Angeles City College and finished his schooling in 1950, the same year that the photo of the drinking fountains was taken (About Elliott Erwitt). The photo of the man at the drinking fountain was taken quite early in Erwitt’s career and likely was taken before he met many of the people that mentored him throughout his career. Erwitt would become known for his black and white candid shots of ironic and absurd situations within everyday settings. This early shot of Erwitt’s is already beginning to show some of Erwitt’s signature style as it is a candid black and white shot that also documents a situation in an everyday setting. While it is not clear exactly why Erwitt took this photo, one could imagine that he could see the striking contrast of the two different drinking fountains and understood some of the absurdity of the situation.  Erwitt was raised by parents that were persecuted because of their religion and this may have influenced him to be more sympathetic to African Americans than many people of the time were. No matter what Erwitt’s intentions were in taking this photo he created a striking photograph that clearly depicts just how unequal being separate was.

Taken in 1950, the photo depicted segregation at a time that it was very prevalent in the United States. Jim Crow laws were still in full effect in the American South in 1950 and this had many impacts on the lives of African Americans. As the photograph shows African Americans were required to use different facilities than white people were using. These facilities were not limited to drinking fountains as we see but also included restrooms, restaurants, movie theaters, schools, and even dry cleaners just to name a few (Jim Crow Laws). It is really difficult for me to even imagine not being allowed in the same place as someone else simply because my skin is a different color and how much of an impact that would have on my life.  That being said, the effect that Jim Crow laws would have on African Americans is immeasurable. In addition to the mandate of separate facilities there were many other injustices that African Americans faced in this era as a result of the pervasive racism they faced from the white population. Not only were African Americans required to use separate facilities, but the treatment they often received could only be described as despicable. Often treated as though they were lesser humans than their white counterparts, African Americans received fewer opportunities for good jobs and housing. While there were other contributing factors, these were some of the major reasons that a massive number of African Americans were moving to cities in the north during the first half of the 20th century (Great Migration). Clearly, the Jim Crow era was a significant time period for African Americans because of all of the discrimination they faced and how their opportunities were limited as a result.

Although this photograph only displays a snapshot of the discrimination that African Americans encountered, it provides a clear image of what Jim Crow laws looked like. As has been stated, segregation was a major part of the Southern United States in the first half of the 20th century and this is exactly what is displayed in the photograph by Elliott Erwitt. At the time that it was taken, the picture simply demonstrated that segregation was a real thing in the South. To those that approved of the Jim Crow laws the picture probably didn’t make them bat an eye, but to those that were fighting for desegregation and equal rights it could be used to highlight the injustices that they were against. As time passed and Jim Crow laws were appealed the picture takes on new meanings. The photo now stands as a reminder of the past and shows us just how unequal being separate was.

From the beginning of class in October we have learned about the unequal and despicable treatment that Africans Americans received from their early years in the United States. During slavery black codes emerged that would control what African Americans were and were not allowed to do. Following the abolishment of slavery, these black codes morphed into the Jim Crow laws that would allow for segregation such as seen in the image. One of the time periods that we focused on in class was even based around the Jim Crow laws and we learned about some of the impact that Jim Crow laws had on the lives of African Americans (L. Pittman). The Jim Crow laws severely limited the opportunities of African Americans and were one of the reasons that African Americans began leaving the Southern United states. While this image does not display all of the turmoil that Jim Crow laws caused, it does show us what these laws mandated and clearly connects to what we learned in class about the unequal treatment of African Americans.

Much of what we learned in class strengthens my understanding of this photo. The photo makes it clear that there are two separated drinking fountains for “whites” and for “coloreds” but what is not seen in the picture is why this is deemed to be an appropriate practice. In class we learned about the beginnings of racial slavery and how it was used to continue to have a steady work force. It was from this need for workers and the imprisonment of Africans that racism arose. As slavery became more deeply ingrained in the country so too did racism. Racism was so ingrained in the country that clearly racist acts, such as segregation, were upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. Simply looking at the photograph by Elliott Erwitt without any context brings a lot of emotions to the surface, but looking at with the understanding that this segregation was not only legal, but was considered constitutional makes this photo of an African American man drinking from the clearly inferior fountain that is labeled “colored” just that much more infuriating.



“About Elliott Erwitt.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <;.

Erwitt, Elliott. 1950. Magnum Photos. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <;.

“Great Migration.” History. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <;.

“Jim Crow Laws.” National Park Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <;.

Pittman, L. (2015). The Second Reconstruction [Portable Document Format].

“Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).” The Supreme Court. PBS, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <;.

Written by Aidan Beaton

6 thoughts on “The Difference Two Feet Makes (#2)

  1. 1. Yes, amazing title!
    2. Great picture choice!
    3. Is this about de facto segregation?
    4. Related the blog to vocabulary we learned in class and the supreme court cases related to this topic.


  2. 1. I think that the title was a good representation of how things were back in the day.
    2. The visual matched the title and blog extremely well.
    3. I think that the blog compared the artifact and the things we learned very well and covered various topics that we learned about,
    4, There were very strong connections to the course content, so i thought the author did a good job.
    5.Overall a very well written blog, Good Job.


  3. 1. Yes! I think this is a great title as it provides a mental image of racial segregation and the Jim Crow laws.
    2. Yes. This is a great photograph demonstrating the “separate but equal” way of life during Jim Crow. I also really like the description the author gave analyzing the photograph in how the two drinking fountains are different and the presence of the African American man and his reaction.
    3. I would like to know more about the ways this racial segregation (the separate drinking fountains) was enforced and punishments for trying to disobey these laws. I think this would give the photographer a much heavier feeling knowing how deadly disobeying these signs could be for African Americans.
    4. The author does a great job of connecting how this photograph of separate drinking fountains is related to racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, and “separate but equal.” They also talk about the impact of the Great Migration and its relation to this photograph. These connections provided helpful historical context to understanding the importance of the photograph.
    5. I really enjoyed all the connections the author made to the course material and explanations of how this segregation evolved from slavery. Good job!


  4. 1. I really like how the title emphasizes how important a seemingly insignificant distance of two feet really is.
    2. The picture is really nice as well, you can tell from the quality of the drinking fountains alone how “separate but equal” isn’t possible; the white drinking fountain looks a lot better, while the colored drinking fountain is just connected to the white drinking fountain by a pipe.
    3. I would like to know if this kind of segregation was apparent in the entirety of the United States, or if it was only in the cities and suburbs. It is hard to get a grasp at the scope of racism and segregation in the United States as a whole.
    4. The writer does a really good job connecting the picture of segregated drinking fountains to the foundations of segregation and segregation as a whole, talking a lot about black codes and Jim Crow.
    5. Maybe needs more primary sources? I thought it was a very well written blog overall.


  5. 1. Yes, it took me a while to understand why the title came to be about two feet but looking at the picture made me realize that the two fountains were two feet apart. Very interesting title.
    2. Yes, the cultural artifact is an image of racial segregation through drinking fountains.
    3. I would like to know if other cultures such as Asians were supposed to drink the colored water fountain as well.
    4. This blog does a wonderful job of relating their cultural artifact back to class lectures. In class we learned about the Jim Crow laws and this blog incorporates this topic into their blog.
    5. I would suggest explaining how the cultural artifact relates back to you because it was not very explicit in the blog. However, I enjoyed reading it and it was very informative.


  6. 1. Does the person’s title reflect what the project will be about? Yes/No. Can it be improved? If so, provide suggestions. If not, let them know it’s a great title. I liked the title a lot because it highlights that notion of “separate but equal.”
    2. Is there a visual representation of the cultural product-picture, audio, video, or written? Yes/No Yes, there is a visual representation.
    a. How well does the visual representation depict what the blog is about? The blog talks about “separate but equal”, Jim Crow laws and the perceived inferiority of Blacks during the 1950s – the photo definitely captures these themes very well as described by the blog writer.
    3. What would you like to know about the cultural artifact as it relates to what you are learning/have learned in class? I wondered while reading this blog whether or not other non-whites were supposed to drink at the “colored” fountains as well. If so, did all people of color feel connected in a way?
    4. Based on what you have learned in the course, how well does the person connect the cultural artifact to course material? Aidan did do a good job of relating relevant course material to the artifact by talking about Jim Crow, racial segregation and the Plessy v. Ferguson case.
    5. Provide any other useful comments that may the person complete blog #2. Overall I thought it was articulated well. I especially liked the insight provided about the photographer.


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