Who Was Jim Crow?

Jim Crow was a character developed during the 1820s by a stage performer named Thomas Rice. According to Ferris State University, Rice may have been inspired to create the character by a personal encounter with either an old slave or a young stable boy, and he first appeared in character on stage in 1828.

Thomas Rice appeared in character as Jim Crow with his face covered in burnt cork. His was one of the first minstrel shows, and the depiction of Jim Crow, as well as other characters, inspired a wave of imitators who used many of the same character names in their performances. According to Ferris State University, Jim Crow rapidly became a stock character in minstrel shows, and by 1838, the name "Jim Crow" was in use as a racial epithet for African-Americans.

Minstrel shows declined in popularity after 1870, but the name, and the epithet, survived long enough to be attached to the burgeoning system of laws that are collectively known as segregation. These Jim Crow laws specifically aimed at separating and degrading black Americans, and many of the institutions they fostered persisted into the 1960s before falling to multiple court decisions and persistent civil rights activism.