Was Jim Crow Real?
By Russell Roberts
We’ve all heard the term “Jim Crow.” It describes a way of life that operated primarily in American Southern and Border states for about 90 years – from the mid-1870s to the mid-1960s. Jim Crow laws and social customs were designed to treat minorities, primarily African-Americans, as second-class citizens.
Was this terrible system based on an actual human being? Was Jim Crow real? If so, who? Was there someone named Jim Crow?
Many historians feel that one of the men responsible for popularizing the term “Jim Crow” was a man named Thomas Dartmouth Rice. A struggling actor/musician, Rice either encountered an elderly black man or a black stable boy singing a song with the name Jim Crow in the title.
By 1828 Rice was appearing onstage in blackface as “Jim Crow – a stereotypical black character with exaggerated motions, bug eyes, and a way of talking that was half-English, half-“Lawdy, Lawdy, Lawdy.”
The Jim Crow character proved very popular, and soon the once-struggling Rice was a star. He appeared around the country and overseas as Jim Crow, popularizing the notion of African-Americans as dancing, grinning, lazy, half-wits.
By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” had already morphed into a term used collectively to describe African-Americans, instead of a single performer. Rice died in 1860, but by then, minstrel shows and other forms of entertainment had helped spread “Jim Crow” far, and wide. As the 19th century progressed, it became common for “Jim Crow” to refer to laws, customs, or rules that inhibited blacks instead of African-Americans themselves.
Although initially it seemed the conclusion of the Civil War was going to bring many benefits for blacks, in reality, it made many whites angry and resentful toward them. Thus as more and more laws and rules were passed oppressing blacks, they were collectively grouped under an umbrella term that fit the bill perfectly: Jim Crow. This shameful term was a part of American life for almost a century.
Was Jim Crow real? Although there is no definitive proof, it appears that Thomas Rice was the man who started the Jim Crow phenomenon.
Featured Photo Credit: blackpast.org