In 1944, the Detroit, Michigan, chapter of the 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.
In 1965, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to bury Jim Crow by signing the Voting Rights Act into law. The Voting Rights Act and its predecessor, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fought racial discrimination in the South by banning segregation in public accommodations and outlawing the poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to stop African Americans from voting.
Today, we still use Jim Crow to describe that system of segregation and discrimination in the South. But the system's namesake isn'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 that imitated in his mind—and white people's minds of the time—the dress and aspect and demeanor of the Southern enslaved black person," says Eric Lott, author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class and professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Rice's routine was a hit in New York City, one of many of places in the North where working-class whites could see blackface minstrelsy, which was quickly becoming a dominant form of theater, and a leading source for 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; and as his popularity grew, his stage name seeped into the culture.
Jim Crow was a harmful caricature. The show exploited stereotyped speech, movement, and physical features attributed to Black people to mock them. It entertained, and miseducated, whites at the expense of Blacks, all for Rice's financial benefit.
"'Jumping Jim Crow' and just 'Jim Crow' generally sort of became shorthand—or one shorthand, anyway—for describing African Americans in this country," Lott says.
"So much so," he says, "that by the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was 20 years later in 1852," one character refers to another as Jim Crow. In a strange full-circle, Rice later played Uncle Tom in blackface stage adaptations of the novel, which 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 a derogatory 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 caricature that Rice performed on stage.
From the Theater to the Legislature
After the 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 represent racist laws and policies in the South. But they can speculate.
Since the phrase originated in blackface minstrelsy, Lott says that it's almost "perversely accurate that it should come to be the name for official segregation and state-sponsored racism."
He added, "I think probably in the popular white mind. It was just used because that's just how they referred to black people."
"Sometimes in history a movie comes out or a book comes out and it just changes the language and you can point at it," says David Pilgrim, director of the Jim Crow Museum and vice president for Diversity and Inclusion at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. "And in just this case, 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 but never died and Rice is barely remembered. Most people today don't know his name. But everybody knows Jim Crow.
This article was originally published August 6, 2015.