Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History



First Reader/Committee Chair

Johnson, Diana


For a country that has been built on the legacy of freedom and the idea of individual rights, the United States has a history of legalizing oppressive policies and denying rights and freedom based on the color of one’s skin. As scholars take on the issue of Colorism within the American society, this thesis works to examine the origins of white supremacy and its legalization through the institutions of American enslavement and the era of Jim Crow. First examining the portrayal of those of African descent and its connection to white supremacy during the period of enslavement, this thesis relies of the records of travel logs, slave codes, federal laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, wills, advertisements, and photographs. Next this thesis analyzes the preservation of white supremacy following the end of enslavement through the analysis of individual state Jim Crow laws surrounding voting, marriage, public institutions, and more in addition to the Supreme Court cases Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Finally, this thesis looks at the connection between the beauty industry and the legal frameworks surrounding skin. Advertisements of popular soaps such as Procter and Gamble and Pears’ Soap, during the era of enslavement and Jim Crow, exhibit the beauty industry’s capitalization of skin color and its connection to civilization. It will also rely on the advertisements of skin lighteners and face powders from popular brands of the different respective eras to examine the pressures to appear lighter considering the current legal frameworks. The thesis will also rely on popular magazines such as Jet and Ebony as well as the literary works of Nella Larson and Toni Morrison to analyze to legacy of white supremacy in the United States.