What Is the Origin of the Term Jim Crow?


Quick Answer

The term "Jim Crow" originated as the name of a minstrel show character performed by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, a 19th century American stage actor. Rice performed in blackface on stages across the United States, performing as a character called "Jim Crow," a highly racist portrayal of a black man.

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In the early 19th century, minstrel shows were common across the United States. Rice, a struggling actor of the time, got the idea for his character Jim Crow from a black man of the same name who he saw singing a song which included the lyrics, "Come listen, all you galls and boys, I'm going to sing a little song, My name is Jim Crow." Rice then created his character, a racist depiction of a singing, dancing black man, based on a real-life man named Jim Crow. In performing this character, Rice was one of the first actors in America to perform in "blackface" makeup, in which a white actor would darken his face with burnt cork in order to imitate black skin.

By 1832, Rice began appearing on stages across the U.S. for highly receptive audiences. His song and dance routine as a foolish, dancing and singing black man was so popular that he even performed in London and Dublin. As a result of the popularity of his character, the term "Jim Crow" began to be used as a racial slur to describe black people, eventually coming to describe the laws and regulations across the southern United States which enforced legal segregation of blacks and whites in society.

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