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, or unfair treatment based on race, is an ugly part of the history of the United States. Long after slavery ended, African Americans were still treated as less than human. Racial discrimination has existed all across the U.S., but the South had a specific set of laws. These laws had a name: Jim Crow.

Since the 1870s, Jim Crow laws kept African Americans out of whites-only spaces. Black people were not allowed in 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 and had to use different bathrooms and drinking fountains.

During the 1960s, many African Americans protested Jim Crow laws. This led U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The new law outlawed segregation. It also banned racist laws that were used to keep Black people from voting.

Today, we still use the term Jim Crow to refer to the South's system of segregation and discrimination. The real Jim Crow wasn't actually Southern, though. He came from the North.

"Jump, Jim Crow"

The original Jim Crow was Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man. Rice was born in New York City, New York, in 1808. In his 20s, he became a theater performer. In the early 1830s, Rice began performing an act that made him famous. This was when slavery was still legal. Rice painted his face black, and did a song and dance he said were inspired by an enslaved person he saw. The act was called "Jump, Jim Crow" or "Jumping Jim Crow."

Rice would put on blackface makeup, meaning he darkened his skin. He also dressed in rags, historian Eric Lott said. In the minds of many white people, the way Rice dressed and acted was typical of black slaves in the South.

Rice's act was a big hit in New York City. At the time, New York was one of many places where white people could see blackface minstrelsy. Blackface minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment in which actors made their skin darker. Usually, it was white actors pretending to be Black. These imitations were (and still are) cruel and deeply racist. White performers made black people seem slow-minded. They also made it look like Black people were happy to be slaves.

Rice quickly became the biggest star of blackface minstrelsy. His Jim Crow character was widely known around the country. Jim Crow soon became an insult toward African Americans. Calling someone Jim Crow wasn't just a way of saying they were black. It was a way to reduce a person's worth. It suggested they were the kind of simpleminded character Rice played on stage.

From the Theater to the Legislature

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. As early as the 1890s, these laws were nicknamed Jim Crow laws.

How did a racist stage act in the North become the name for a set of racist laws in the South? Historians are not sure. Lott said Jim Crow may have been used because that's what some white people called Black people. It was a common insult.

However it happened, the name stuck. Over time, blackface minstrelsy became less popular, though it never died. Rice was mostly forgotten. Today, most people don't know his name. Everybody knows 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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