The Turban Makes the Man*

800px-Segregation_1938bIf you lived in the American South in the 1940s and you were African American, you would likely be very aware of the Jim Crow laws (see “What Insiders Know” in the Learning Guide of English Cafe 197). These laws segregated (separated into different groups) white and black Americans, preventing African Americans from going to the same places, using the same services, or having the same rights.

For many people at that time, the issue was black and white (very clear) — literally — and only focused on whether someone was white or black. This meant that there was some ambiguity (uncertainly; not clear distinctions) for people who were neither of European or African descent (origin; background). This ambiguity help some people avoid the harsh (tough; rough) treatment of Jim Crow laws. Take, for example, the Reverend Jesse Wayman Routté. When he visited the American South for the second time, he wore a disguise (clothing and accessories that prevented others from knowing one’s true identity).

The Reverend Routté was a minister (church leader; priest) of a Lutheran church in New York. On a 1943 trip to Alabama to officiate (perform a ceremony, usually a wedding) at his brother’s wedding, he was treated very poorly, like any other African American would expect at that time. Being from the North, Routté wasn’t accustomed to (used to) this treatment and was dismayed (upset). So when he was invited to return to Alabama to visit his brother in 1947, he decided, on the advice of colleagues (coworkers), to wear a turban, a few yards of material wrapped and tied around his head. This, they said, would make things a lot easier.   

The turban is worn by many cultures in many different countries, but was not common in the U.S. at that time. If the Reverend Routté was considered foreign — not African American — would his treatment change? That’s what he wanted to find out. Instead of just wearing a simple turban, however, Reverend Routté decided to go all out (do the maximum). He went to a costume (clothing and accessories worn to appear as someone or something else) shop and rented a tall, purple, sparkling (reflecting a lot of light) turban. And when his train was about to arrive in Alabama, he put on the turban and a long robe (a long, loosely-fitting piece of clothing, similar to a coat). 

He stepped off the train in his new costume and wore it for nearly the entire week of his visit. He not only saw his family, but wanted to get wider reaction. Although Routté never said he was a visitor from abroad (another country), he was treated like foreign royalty (king, queen, or another member of the royal family) or a foreign dignitary (important representative of a country). He ate in fancy restaurants where African Americans were not allowed to enter, he visited a segregated school and was given a tour, and he even visited a police station, where he was treated deferentially (with respect) and given a tour by the police chief (leader of the police). He also visited important business owners and many other places Africans Americans were not allowed to go. Everywhere he went, he was treated with respect.

Within days of Routté returning to New York, an article appeared in the newspaper recounting (describing) his “experiment” and the story spread across the country. Routté later treated the entire experience as a joke and laughed about it, but other people were not so amused (entertained), including the leaders of his own Lutheran church and important civil rights figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Routté was not the only person who used the turban to avoid problems in the American South at this time, but his experience was one of the most talked about. To find out more about Routté, you can read an article about him here, and to learn about others who also used this “turban trick,” see this National Public Radio story (where you’ll also see a picture of Routté in his turban).

– Lucy

* There is a popular expression, “Clothes makes the man,” which means that people judge others by how they dress and the clothes they wear.

Photo Credit: Segregation 1936 from Wikipedia
(The term “colored” was used to refer to African Americans at that time, but is now considered offensive.)

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10 Responses to The Turban Makes the Man*

  1. Dan says:

    HI Lucy,

    This is a very interesting, beautiful and funny story. It is also sad if we think back at those times of segregation and racism.

    Today things got better but there is always room for improvement (I am thinking at the Michael Brown case in Ferguson,Mo)

    I do not you guys, but I do not like the fact that people are called “African American”

    Why? simple, that’s because we are all from Africa where the human species evolved from. I am African, Jeff, Lucy, Betty, Emiliano, Tania we all originated from Africa. The fossil and genetic evidence says that.

    That picture with the sign “colored” on that tree make me feel an idiot as a human being and ashamed of myself. That’s stupidity and ignorance on steroid and Redbull.

    Even though this story is funny, in a way makes me sad. That is why I am going to look at an episode of Cosmos with Carl Segan to restore my faith in humanity.

    Thank you Lucy

    Souvenir medallions ….souvenir medallions..

  2. Marcos says:

    Hi everyone

    American South, nowadays well known as Deep South.

    Thank you Lucy

  3. Tania says:

    Hi! Sad trick to travell in your own country using the “turban trick”.
    I have read “The Importance of Being Turbaned” mentioning “How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go
    Incognito In The Jim Crow Era”, as a turban makes anyone an Indian, a rich Indian.
    The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws enacted between 1876 and 1965 in the U.S.
    Ku Klux Klan threatened to kill negroes burning a cross .

  4. Tania says:

    Hi! But Martin Luther King Jr. had a creed, even though he was assassinated in 1968.
    “I Have a Dream” at the 1963 Washington D.C. Civil Rights March:

    “I still have a dream , a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up
    and live up to its creed. We hold these truths to be self evident:
    that all men are created equal.” I have a dream…

  5. Tania says:

    Hi! Thank you , dear Lucy.
    Indeed, we use the phrase “off-road vehicle”, too.

  6. Dan says:

    As I was following the instructions of my Dutch Yin Yoga teacher on You Tube, where you are supposed to be concentrating on the poses, I was still thinking at this story.

    I do not know why, but I have even thought of my cat wearing a turban. Whit little holes on the side for the ears.

    I was thinking ” what if an Alien from another planet read this story” that is all I was thinking.


    Bye Lucy! have a nice day.

  7. emiliano says:

    Well as Dan said everyone of us are coming from Africa some millions of years ago
    that´s the real thruth, and as he said I even don´t like the word African American
    person, why for this phrase?
    So, Jeff could be Irish American person, another German American person or
    Danish American person or Splanish American person or French American person
    or Asian American person or European American person.

    I think that is really stupid, we all are pesons, human beings, and point….nothing

    I am against all kind of discrimination or segregation and despite the story is really
    DEEP SOUTH OF UNITED STATES on those years, even now could be people thar
    are so stupid as to think that “clothes make the man or the woman” why?
    Just because we can´t look inside the man or the woman, that´s all.

    Thank you endeed dear Lucy, my best to you in this hot summer.


  8. emiliano says:

    me again.

    Dear Lucy, here in Spain we have a saying to refuse the phrase “clothes make
    the man/woman” or “the turban makes the man”


    i do think this is the truth, as what make the monk, the man, or the woman, it is what they really are
    like persons, good or bad people, that´s all.

  9. Zahra says:


  10. Betty says:

    Thank you Dear Lucy

    I appreciate your effort to try to motivate us to think about the world that we are living in.

    In fact sometimes I hate to think too much about what’s happening outside my house. Your article forced me to think about what’s happening outside.

    This is an extraordinary story. Reverend Routté surely was a very brave man. He’s also very clever. It was sad that he had to wear a disguise in order to be treated nicely.

    If we don’t think about racism, the reason why he was treated nicely was because people thought that he was a very rich Indian. They respected money, not him.

    The world has changed. When someone has money, unless they have body guards travelling with them, they’d better dress down and don’t reveal their wealth. Otherwise, the expensive clothes and accessories might not stay with him for long. Sadly this is another social problem in many parts of the world.

    Thanks again Lucy, this story reminds me of the Cloak of Invisibility in Harry Potter.

    See you again.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

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