The term “Jim Crow” typically refers to repressive laws and customs once used to restrict Black Americans' rights, but the origin of the name itself actually dates back to before the Civil War.
In the early 1830s, the white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice was propelled to stardom for performing minstrel routines as the fictional “Jim Crow,” a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted Black enslaved man. Rice claimed to have first created the character after witnessing an elderly Black man singing a tune called “Jump Jim Crow” in Louisville, Kentucky. He later appropriated the Jim Crow persona into a minstrel act where he donned blackface and performed jokes and songs in a stereotypical dialect.
For example, “Jump Jim Crow” included the popular refrain, “Weel about and turn about and do ‘jis so, eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.” Rice’s minstrel act proved a massive hit among white audiences, and he later took it on tour around the United States and Great Britain. As the show’s popularity spread, “Jim Crow” became a widely used derogatory term for Black people.
Jim Crow’s popularity as a fictional character eventually died out, but in the late 19th century the phrase found new life as a blanket term for a wave of anti-Black laws laid down after Reconstruction. Some of the most common laws included restrictions on voting rights. Many Southern states required literacy tests or limited suffrage to those whose grandfathers had also had the right to vote. Other laws banned interracial relationships, while clauses allowed businesses to separate their Black and white clientele.
The segregationist philosophy of “separate but equal” was later upheld in the famous 1896 Supreme Court decision “Plessy vs. Ferguson,” in which the Court ruled that the state of Louisiana had the right to require different railroad cars for Blacks and whites.
The “Plessy” decision would eventually lead to widespread adoption of segregated restaurants, public bathrooms, water fountains and other facilities. “Separate but equal” was eventually overturned in the 1954 Supreme Court Case “Brown vs. Board of Education,” but Jim Crow’s legacy continued to endure in some Southern states for decades.