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 an ugly part of the history of the United States. Long after slavery ended, African Americans were still treated as second-class citizens. Racial discrimination has existed throughout the United States, but the South had a special set of laws. The laws had a name: Jim Crow.

Since the 1870s, Jim Crow laws often found in the South kept Black people out of whites-only spaces. Black people were prevented from attending whites-only schools, eating in whites-only restaurants, and sleeping in whites-only hotels. They had to sit in the back of the bus and had to use different drinking fountains and bathrooms.

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

Today, we still use the term Jim Crow to describe the South's system of segregation and discrimination. However, the real person that system was named after wasn't Southern. Jim Crow came from the North.

"Jump, Jim Crow"

Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man, 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 would make him famous. This was when slavery was still legal. Rice painted his face black and did a song and dance he claimed 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, said historian Eric Lott, meaning he would darken his skin. He would also dress in rags. In the minds of many white people of the time, the way Rice dressed and acted was typical of enslaved Blacks in the South.

Rice's act belonged to a genre called blackface minstrelsy. This form of entertainment showed black people as dimwitted and ridiculous. It even suggested that black people were happy to be slaves.

Rice's act was a big hit in New York City. At the time, New York was one of many places in the North where white people could see blackface minstrelsy. In those years, blackface minstrelsy was quickly becoming very popular. (Performing in blackface is highly offensive to this day.) Rice took his act on tour, even going as far as England. As he became famous, his stage name became part of American culture.

Jim Crow became a racist nickname for African Americans, Lott said. To call someone Jim Crow wasn't just to point out his or her skin color. It meant seeing that person as the simpleminded character that Rice performed on stage.

From the Theater to the Legislature

After the U.S. Civil War, the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1865. While this made slavery illegal, Southern states passed laws that discriminated against African Americans newly freed from slavery. As early as the 1890s, these laws had gained a nickname: Jim Crow. In 1899, North Carolina's Goldsboro Daily Argus published an article subtitled "How 'Capt. Tilley' of the A. & N.C. Road Enforces the Jim Crow Law."

"Travelers on the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad during the present month have noted the drawing of the color line in the passenger coaches," the paper reported. "Captain Tilley," it said, "is unceasing in his efforts to see that the color line, otherwise the Jim Crow law, is literally and fearfully enforced."

Experts don't really know how a racist performance in the North came to be the name for a set of racist laws in the South. They can make some informed guesses, though. Lott said the term Jim Crow may have been used because that's just how white people referred to black people back then.

However it happened, the new meaning stuck. Over time, blackface minstrelsy's popularity faded, though it never died. Rice himself was mostly forgotten. Today, most people don't know Rice's name. Everybody knows Jim Crow.

Media Credits

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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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