Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay
By Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D.
The term Jim Crow is believed to have originated around 1830 when a white,
show performer, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, blackened his face with
charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a ridiculous jig while singing the lyrics
to the song, "Jump Jim Crow." Rice created this character after seeing (while
traveling in the South) a crippled, elderly black man (or some say a young
black boy) dancing and singing a song ending with these chorus words:
"Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow."
Some historians believe that a Mr. Crow owned the slave who inspired Rice's
act--thus the reason for the Jim Crow term in the lyrics. In any case, Rice
incorporated the skit into his minstrel act, and by the 1850s the "Jim Crow"
character had become a standard part of the minstrel show scene in America. On the eve of the
Civil War, the Jim Crow idea was one of many stereotypical images of black inferiority in the
popular culture of the day--along with
. The word Jim Crow
became a racial slur synonymous with black, colored, or Negro in the vocabulary of many whites;
and by the end of the century acts of racial discrimination toward blacks were often referred to as
Jim Crow laws and practices.
Jim Crow Cars
" on some northern railroad lines--meaning segregated cars--pre-dated
the Civil War, in general the Jim Crow era in American history dates from the late 1890s, when
southern states began systematically to codify (or strengthen) in law and state constitutional
provisions the subordinate position of African Americans in society. Most of these legal steps
were aimed at separating the races in public spaces (public schools, parks, accommodations,
and transportation) and preventing adult black males from exercising the right to vote. In every
state of the former Confederacy, the system of legalized segregation and disfranchisement was
fully in place by 1910. This system of white supremacy cut across class boundaries and re-
enforced a cult of "whiteness" that predated the Civil War.
Segregation and disfranchisement laws were often supported, moreover, by brutal acts of
ceremonial and ritualized mob violence (
) against southern blacks. Indeed, from 1889
to 1930, over 3,700 men and women were reported lynched in the United States--most of whom
were southern blacks. Hundreds of other lynchings and acts of mob terror aimed at brutalizing
blacks occurred throughout the era but went unreported in the press. Numerous
erupted in the Jim Crow era, usually in towns and cities and almost always in defense of
segregation and white supremacy. These riots engulfed the nation from Wilmington, South
Carolina, to Houston, Texas; from East St. Louis and Chicago to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the years
from 1865 to 1955. The riots usually erupted in urban areas to which southern, rural blacks had
recently migrated. In the single year of 1919, at least twenty-five incidents were recorded, with