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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In 1944, the Detroit, Michigan, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a mock funeral for him. In 1963, participants in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom symbolically buried him. Racial discrimination existed throughout the United States in the 20th century, but it had a particular name in the South: Jim Crow.

More than 50 years ago, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to bury Jim Crow by signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The Voting Rights Act—and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—were passed to help end legal racial discrimination in the South. They banned segregation in public accommodations, such as restaurants and bathrooms. They also outlawed the poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to stop African Americans from voting.

Today, we still use the term Jim Crow to describe that system of segregation and discrimination in the South. But the real-life person that system was named after wasn't actually 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. He devoted himself to the theater in his 20s, and in the early 1830s, he began performing the act that would make him famous: He 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."

"He would put on not only blackface makeup, but shabby dress," said Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. In Rice's mind—and many white people's minds of the time—the way Rice dressed and acted was typical of the Southern enslaved black person. Blackface minstrelsy, in general, was a form of entertainment that represented black people as cartoonish and dimwitted, and even suggested they were happy being slaves.

Rice's routine was a hit in New York City, one of many places in the North where working-class whites could see blackface minstrelsy. At the time, blackface minstrelsy was quickly becoming a very popular form of theater, and was also a leading source of popular music in the United States. (Performing in blackface is highly offensive to this day.) Rice took his act on tour, even going as far as England. As his popularity grew, his stage name seeped into the culture.

Jim Crow became a shorthand way of describing African Americans in the United States, Lott said. "So much so," he added, "that by the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was 20 years later in 1852," one of the characters referred to another as Jim Crow. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was an abolitionist novel written as an attack on the institution of slavery. In a strange full-circle, Rice later played Uncle Tom in blackface stage adaptations of the novel. His version often reversed the book's abolitionist message.

Regardless of whether the term Jim Crow existed before Rice took it to the stage, his act helped popularize it as an insulting term for African Americans. To call someone Jim Crow wasn't just to point out his or her skin color. It was to reduce that person to the kind of simpleminded caricature that Rice performed on stage.

From the Theater to the Legislature

After the U.S. Civil War, Southern states passed laws that discriminated against African Americans newly freed from slavery. As early as the 1890s, these laws had gained a nickname. 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 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. However, they can speculate.

Lott said it could be that the term Jim Crow was just how white people referred to Black people. David Pilgrim, director of the Jim Crow Museum in Michigan, said some successful performers, books or movies are able to change a language. In this case, he said, "I think it just evolved. And I think it was from many sources."

However it happened, the new meaning stuck. Blackface minstrelsy's popularity faded, though it never died, and Rice was mostly forgotten. Today, most people don't know Rice's name—but everybody knows Jim Crow.

This article was originally published August 6, 2015.

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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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