Sankofa Studies

Who Was Jim Crow?

February 5, 2020
A man in blackface costumed in eccentric, formal clothes with patches, dances making exaggerated motions with one hand on hip.
Thomas Dartmouth Rice as “Jim Crow” 1832

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern United States. Enacted after the Reconstruction period, these laws continued in force until 1965. But, where did the name “Jim Crow” come from? 

The origin of the name dates back to before the Civil War. In the early 1830s, the white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice was propelled to stardom for performing minstrel routines as the fictional “Jim Crow,” a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted black slave. Rice claimed to have first created the character after witnessing an elderly black man singing a tune called “Jump Jim Crow” in Louisville, Kentucky. He later appropriated the Jim Crow persona into a minstrel act where he donned blackface and performed jokes and songs in a stereotypical slave dialect. As the show’s popularity spread, “Jim Crow” became a widely used derogatory term for blacks. 

Jim Crow’s popularity as a fictional character eventually died out, but in the late 19th century the phrase found new life as a blanket term for a wave of anti-black laws laid down after Reconstruction. 


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