Who Was Jim Crow?

Who Was Jim Crow?

Fifty years ago, the voting Rights Act targeted the laws and practices of Jim Crow. Here’s where the name came from.


3 - 12


Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History


T.D. Rice

Thomas Dartmouth Rice was a white American stage performer in the early 1830s. He is best known for popularizing the derogatory practice of blackface with an act called “Jump, Jim Crow” (or “Jumping Jim Crow”).

Portrait from the New York Public Library Digital Collections
Thomas Dartmouth Rice was a white American stage performer in the early 1830s. He is best known for popularizing the derogatory practice of blackface with an act called “Jump, Jim Crow” (or “Jumping Jim Crow”).
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Racial discrimination is unfair treatment based on race. Sadly, it is a big part of the history of the United States. For many years, African Americans were treated as less than human.

Racial discrimination has existed all across the U.S. The South had a specific set of racist laws that started in the 1870s. These laws had a name: Jim Crow.

Jim Crow laws kept Black people out of many places. Black people couldn't go to whites-only schools. They were not allowed to eat in whites-only restaurants. They couldn't sleep in whites-only hotels. They had to sit in the back of the bus. They had to use different bathrooms and drinking fountains.

During the 1960s, many African Americans protested Jim Crow laws. The laws were finally removed in 1965. Today, we still use the term Jim Crow to refer to the South's racist laws. Yet, the real Jim Crow wasn't from the South. He came from the North.

"Jump, Jim Crow"

The original Jim Crow was a white man. His name was Thomas Dartmouth Rice.

Rice was born in New York City, New York, in 1808. He became a performer in his 20s. In the early 1830s, he began performing an act that made him famous. He painted his face black and did a song and dance. The character Rice played was named Jim Crow. The act was called "Jump, Jim Crow."

Rice would put on blackface makeup. That means he would darken his skin. He also dressed in rags, historian Eric Lott said. Rice played a character that was slow-minded and silly. Rice's act was an example of blackface minstrelsy. Blackface minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment. It was cruel and racist. Actors made their skin darker. Usually, it was white actors pretending to be black. They made fun of black people. They also made it look like black people were happy to be slaves.

Rice became the biggest star of blackface minstrelsy. His Jim Crow character was very famous. Soon, the words Jim Crow were used as an insult toward African Americans.

From Entertainment to Law

In 1865, the 13th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution. It made slavery illegal. Yet, Southern states quickly passed laws that discriminated against newly freed African Americans. By the 1890s, these were the laws nicknamed Jim Crow laws.

How did racist Southern laws get that name? Historians are not sure. However it happened, the new name stuck.

Over time, blackface minstrelsy became less popular. It never died completely, though. Rice himself was mostly forgotten. Today, most people don't know his name. Yet, people do know the name Jim Crow.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Becky Little, National Geographic
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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