I search through card catalogues and scan the shelves, but find nothing about domestic workers. In nonfiction, I spot a single copy of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I grab it, excited to deliver it to Aibileen, but when I open it, I see the middle section has been ripped out. Inside, someone has written NIGGER BOOK in purple crayon. I am not as disturbed by the words as by the fact that the handwriting looks like a third grader’s. I glance around, push the book in my satchel. It seems better than putting it back on the shelf.

In the Mississippi History room, I search for anything remotely resembling race relations. I find only Civil War books, maps, and old phone books. I stand on tiptoe to see what’s on the high shelf. That’s when I spot a booklet, laid sideways across the top of the Mississippi River Valley Flood Index. A regular-sized person would never have seen it. I slide it down to glance at the cover. The booklet is thin, printed on onionskin paper, curling, bound with staples. “Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South,” the cover reads. I open the noisy cover page.

The booklet is simply a list of laws stating what colored people can and cannot do, in an assortment of Southern states. I skim the first page, puzzled why this is here. The laws are neither threatening nor friendly, just citing the facts:

No person shall require any white female to nurse in wards or rooms in which negro men are placed.
It shall be unlawful for a white person to marry anyone except a white person. Any marriage in violation of this section shall be void.

The officer in charge shall not bury any colored persons upon ground used for the burial of white persons.
Books shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them.
 
I read through four of the twenty-five pages, mesmerized by how many laws exist to separate us. Negroes and whites are not allowed to share water fountains, movie houses, public restrooms, ballparks, phone booths, circus shows. Negroes cannot use the same pharmacy or buy postage stamps at the same window as me. I think about Constantine, the time my family took her to Memphis with us and the highway had mostly washed out, but we had to drive straight on through because we knew the hotels wouldn’t let her in. I think about how no one in the car would come out and say it. We all know about these laws, we live here, but we don’t talk about them. This is the first time I’ve ever seen them written down.

Lunch counters, the state fair, pool tables, hospitals. Number forty-seven I have to read twice, for its irony.

The Board shall maintain a separate building on separate grounds for the instruction of all blind persons of the colored race.
 
After several minutes, I make myself stop. I start to put the booklet back, telling myself I’m not writing a book about Southern legislation, this is a waste of my time. But then I realize, like a shell cracking open in my head, there’s no difference between these government laws and Hilly building Aibileen a bathroom in the garage, except ten minutes’ worth of signatures in the state capital.