The Long, Complicated History of the Term ‘Jim Crow’

The Evolution of Jim Crow, 1828–1841

The term “Jim Crow” conjures up images of segregation and blatant racism during the 20th century, yet the term is deeply rooted in the 19th century. The more historically adept may associate the term with images of Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice performing under the guise of his 1830s minstrel show character, but the term was printed in newspapers as early as 1828. Strangely, the phenomenon of Jim Crow has been incompletely explored in parts — but not as the expansive whole it was. Jim Crow held a variety of meanings for antebellum Americans ranging from flip-flopping politicians to a stereotypical minstrel character to the name of segregated railway cars. The first and the last may receive brief mention in books on minstrelsy but are seldom deeply analyzed beyond attempting to connect both antebellum American terms with segregation laws that began to form in the 1880s. Those who study blackface minstrel shows usually attempt to look at the life of Thomas Rice or how his character Jim Crow was received by antebellum audiences; however, all three of these meanings and stories are important aspects of American history, and all contributed to the segregation laws regarding African Americans in the 1890s being named “Jim Crow laws.”

While several historians have discussed the origins of the term “Jim Crow,” very few have delved into Jim Crow’s history before Daddy Rice first smeared his face with burnt cork [1]. Some, such as C. Vann Woodward and John Briggs, released their books well before the invention of online newspaper databases that allow researchers to analyze millions of pages a second. How did the definition of Jim Crow evolve between 1828, the first recorded usage of the term, and 1841, by which point the term entered widespread use? Why did the term evolve from meaning someone who was self-serving to become a term used to describe segregated areas for African Americans in railroad cars?

This article is divided into three parts: 1828–1830 (The Pre-Rice Era), 1831–1837 (Rice’s Career Peak and the Continuation of Jim Crow as a Slur), and 1838–1841 (Segregated Train Cars). All three sections demonstrate how Jim Crow was not simply the name of a minstrel character — it was a commonly used term with nearly sixty years of history before its adoption as a name for Jim Crow Laws.

The use of blackface in American entertainment dates as far back as 1767’s The Disappointment, a ballad opera featuring actors wearing burnt cork smeared on their faces, an innovation in stage makeup that forged a legitimate path in the theatre as well as the circus.[2] The character of Jim Crow was likely created by African Americans as portrayed a trickster who could “one up” the whites that surrounded him. Jim Crow would have been an important coping mechanism for both slaves, who were facing unimaginable cruelty at the hands of their white owners, and free African Americans, who dealt with segregation and racial hatred in the North and the South.[3] Yet there is debate among historians about the idea that African Americans created Jim Crow. Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen insist: “There are very few if any reliable preminstrelsy documentations of the words or melodies to black American songs; one could easily make the case that the black folk songs that resemble minstrel songs in postbellum songbooks evidence a borrowing from the white minstrel tradition rather than the other way round.”[4] While Taylor and Austen’s argument raises the issue of a lack of documentation available on black culture, the fact that Jim Crow was referred to as an “old negro song” by an 1800s newspaper lends credence to the idea that it was rooted in African American culture. Considering black entertainment had been appropriated by whites since the first slaves set foot on American soil, it is not surprising that Thomas “Daddy” Rice catapulted to fame after debuting the character he stole named Jim Crow on May 21, 1830, in Louisville, Kentucky.[5] Minstrel shows were happening well before Rice debuted Jim Crow in 1830, but Rice made blackface and minstrelsy a stand-alone form of entertainment — no longer a side show to other acts in theatres or circuses.

What blackface meant to its white audiences has recently come under scrutiny. Some theorize the plays were not only a coping mechanism for Northerners experiencing an influx of African Americans, but also as a form of entertainment that could be allow whites to witness vulgar, uncivilized behavior that would have been inappropriate in “regular,” Western-Europe-influenced society.[6] Indeed, this likely was part of the reason for the popularity of blackface; however, one cannot discredit how African Americans from the era looked at minstrelsy. Frederick Douglass described blackface as an attempt to portray African Americans by exaggeration while refusing to depict the black man in any respectful way.[7] The theory of blackface being based on a racist form of entertainment to safely depict primal urges ignores the impact of the increase in the free black population in the North in the 1830s. As more and more African Americans traveled from the South to the North to seek freedom and opportunities, lower-class white workers saw them as potential threats to white livelihoods. White performers dehumanized African Americans by using characters such as Jim Crow, Dandy Jim, and Zip Coon to ease the nerves of whites who feared African Americans potentially stealing their livelihoods — even though many audience members may have never seen a person of color in the flesh. Emasculation of African American men was a common form of this dehumanization; former slaves had not been able to protect their families or fight for their manhood, something any self-respecting white man would have done.[8] This dehumanization would have furthered the idea that African Americans were naturally inferior to whites, something that proponents of slavery would argue justified their actions.

Minstrel audiences quickly began viewing free African American men and slaves as being stereotypes personified. White performers in blackface were celebrated as “‘the negro, par excellence,’ ‘the best representative of our American Negro’…” due to the ever-present stereotypes of African Americans being continually presented in their entertainment. Another newspaper in Boston described Rice’s portrayal as being “Jim Crow, the perfect image in features, gesture, and position of the original — an excellent representation.” [9] According to a June 7, 1841, column in the Mississippi Free Trader the song was evidently well known as a “negro” song.[10] Shockingly, some believed the white interpretation of Jim Crow did not go far enough in accurately depicting African Americans during the era. An English actress, Fanny Kemble, declared in her 1838/1839 diary (kept while she was touring the South) that she had seen Jim Crow and that “all the contortions, and springs, and flings, and kicks, and capers you have been beguiled into accepting as indicative of [African Americans] are spurious, faint, feeble, impotent — in a word, pale Northern reproductions of this ineffable black conception.”[11] One may be horrified at Kemble’s thoughts, but not surprised. Whites, both North and South, viewed African Americans as being a continued source of entertainment. By reducing African Americans to little more than comical stereotypes, whites could continually assert their supposed racial superiority over African Americans who were deemed to be evolutionarily inferior — whether through slavery or comedy. Both methodologies reduced African Americans to servitude that would not be fully broken until the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement with African American leaders such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.

1828–1830: Jim Crow as a Developing Paradigm

The term “Jim Crow” was both a racial slur and the name of a minstrel character, but it also held a strong meaning as a derogatory term for people of all socio-economic classes and races. One of the earliest printings of “Jim Crow” in an American newspaper was in response to someone who had supported Andrew Jackson for president. A war of words was taking place between letter writers in The Torch Light and Public Advertiser in 1828. In response to someone who had supported Jackson, a writer who chose to call himself “Swift” designated another writer (who used various aliases such as “Q in the Corner,” “A Voter,” and “Criton”) a “‘Jim Crow’ poet” on August 28, 1828. Swift goes on to claim that “Criton” falsely declared an undying dislike of John Quincy Adams and only switched to Jackson for free handouts of “loaves” and “fish.” [12] The meaning is clear: someone who appeared to be self-serving was a “Jim Crow.” Considering Rice had not debuted the character of Jim Crow, it would be a logical fallacy to claim the term held no meaning for antebellum Americans, at least in Hagerstown, that had not been fully established before “Swift” first used it to insult someone who differed from him politically. Jim Crow as a political insult appeared in print again in the Hagerstown Mail, which used it to describe Jackson supporters in Pennsylvania on August 14, 1829.[13] Just like the first instance, the second use of Jim Crow insinuated that Jackson supporters had “jumped Jim Crow” (acrobatically leapt to the other side) in order to receive government handouts.

Around the time Rice started performing as Jim Crow, another blatantly racist act was making its way around the circus circuit. Jim Crow, the pony-riding chimpanzee, is first mentioned in print on December 18, 1830. The chimp rode a Shetland pony as the finale for the act.[14] By 1831, Jim Crow had a partner in crime that was returning to the stage and was eventually turned into the minstrel character Dandy Jack.[15] Interestingly, Dandy Jack had been a part of the act as early as 1824, and described as a “Samia Equestrian.”[16] Dandy Jack would “stand erect on his Shetland Pony, and ride at full speed, holding a flag in his hand, with many other feats.”[17] Considering that African Americans in the era were often compared with apes, the insinuation by the usage of “Dandy Jack” and “Jim Crow” is clear — the apes that share their names with minstrel show characters are providing a source of entertainment because of the common, and highly offensive and irrational, idea of the time that African Americans were more closely related to primates than whites.

Finding a definition for “Jim Crow,” as an adjective, from the era is difficult. It was already so cemented in America’s lexicon that newspapers used the term without defining it. At the time of this writing, only two pieces have been discovered that attempt to define the term for their readers and their inclusion is necessary, although they come over forty years after “Jim Crow” first appeared in print. The first is a piece from the Launceston Examiner, published September 17, 1872, which sheds light on the meaning of the word in Australia, and which likely explained the usage in the American lexicon as well. The article, titled “A Political Jim Crow,” focused on a Mr. Douglas, recently appointed colonial treasurer. “To do Mr. Douglas justice,” wrote the anonymous journalist, “he usually has opinions, and has the pluck to fight a losing battle in support of them; while, if he happens to be on the winning side, no one suspects him of being there only because it is the winning side. There is nothing of the pliant, self-seeking ‘Jim Crow’ in his natural composition. But we cannot vindicate his consistency at the present crisis.”[18] Rev J.D. Coleman, a black Canadian man, also defined the term in his 1898 book, The Jim Crow Car: or Denouncement of Injustice Meted Out to the Black Race. “Thus far, we have seen that mal-treatment, deception in court, murdering, etc., are associated with the ‘Jim Crow Car,’ for the title itself means fraud.”[19] It is evident from both sources the term indicates fraudulent or underhanded behavior, but the differences between the two descriptions demonstrate how whites and African Americans viewed the term. The definition by Coleman lacks the mocking, malicious undertones of the definition presented by the Launceston Examiner.

1831–1837: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Rice

Jim Crow occasionally made appearances in its adjective form around the United States but started to pick up momentum around 1833 as far as usage in newspapers. By then, Rice and Jim Crow were household names. Again, it must be noted that the term likely was used orally, so gaps between years where it appeared in print were not uncommon. The term was used to describe Martin Van Buren who was called “a real Jim Crow fellow” on July 23, 1833. [20] The name stuck with Van Buren for years, with one letter to the editor satirically opining on January 14, 1835, that Van Buren had nominated minstrel performer George W. Dixon (whose character was Zip Coon) as his running mate for president of the United States so that the duo would be the ticket of Jim Crow and Zip Coon.[21]

Jim Crow as a political slur makes sense when one looks at the lyrics of the song. “I wheel about an’ turn about/ and do jis’ so/ and ebry time I wheel about/ I jump Jim Crow.” Jim Crow, the character, was known to jump around physically and be self-serving verbally as a means either to trick people or get his way. The song, and eventual variations, were a sharp political critique of anyone at whom they were directed. In fact, W.T. Lhamon insists Jim Crow was rarely blatantly political (although it is easy to disagree on this when the term’s primary use materialized as a political slur) but instead as an insult to the elites of antebellum society who believed that Rice’s Jim Crow symbolized what was wrong with the poor. Lhamon believes the character represented upward mobility for whites. If African Americans could improve their social situation than there were no reasons why whites could not as well.[22] This seems like a bit of a stretch. While one cannot use the idea of racism that has formed today to explain the thoughts of whites in the antebellum era, it is also impossible to say with any sense of certainty what Jim Crow represented to whites regarding societal and economic mobility. Dissecting the lyrics and prose of the countless songs, poems, and plays about Jim Crow can lead even the best historian down a path that may have held little meaning for antebellum society. All modern historians can only understand what has been written and that leaves us with a people who were struggling with the idea of African Americans infringing on the lives of “innocent” whites.

Rice initially performed Jim Crow in the North, but the song was popular in the South as well. The use of Jim Crow as someone who would “flip” to the other side was established in print in North Carolina on July 27, 1833, when a citizen, referring to himself as “Edgecombe,” wrote an opinion piece about a proposed tax to fund a waterway akin to the Erie Canal in Tarboro, North Carolina. Edgecombe disagreed with a “Mr. Howard,” who insisted the town should pay for its own waterway, while Edgecombe wanted the state to help pay for the canal. Edgecombe states: “who would not want to have a rail road or a canal, if the State would construct it and give it to them! Why those dirty faced grinning yankee boys and ivory teethed negroes, and even your own dear self, would readily grin afresh… and jump Jim Crow in the bargain for such a present.”[23] Edgecombe also claimed that the waterway, in the long run, would only be beneficial to rich men. Again, Jim Crow was used to label people considered self-serving in their wants with an underlying emphasis on, to put it in more modern terms, a government freeloader.

Jim Crow was not simply directed toward those considered to be “self-serving”; it was used as a tool to target and mock African Americans. In 1834, the song was used as a part of racial mockery in New York, with one newspaper reporting: “A mob surrounded the African Methodist Church, on Columbia Street, on Sunday night, entered and lighted some of the lamps. A young man mounted the pulpit, opened a Bible, and began a discourse in mock negro style, which, however, was soon interrupted by some persons at the further end of the building, who struck up a Jim Crow chorus.” While the reason for the mobbing of the African Methodist Church was not elaborated upon, the racist aspects of its usage are extremely clear. Luckily, the incident did not lead to a violent confrontation. The spectacle lasted about an hour and resulted in no damage.[24]

Yet the derisive aspects of Jim Crow were not limited to African Americans. During a strike against a group of proprietors staged by the Society of the Union Trade Journeymen in Philadelphia, one proprietor named David B. Cook was banned from entering his shop by a group of men who were singing Jim Crow. Considering that the Union Trade Journeymen were fighting for tailoresses to be paid more for their work, the insinuation od Cook being self-serving by paying unlivable wages is abundantly clear. This also makes for an interesting conundrum. While African Americans were frequent targets of the label of “Jim Crow” label, whites faced the similar denigration. It also would be a great error to think that Jim Crow was strictly limited to the United States. By 1837, the term as a slur had crossed the Atlantic.[25]

In April 1837, a posse of five young men who were “larking” were arrested in Dublin, Ireland. The gang was arrested, brought before the local magistrate, and asked to provide their names. The men answered with Jim Crow, James Crow, Jem Crow, Jemmy Crow, and Shammus Crow. They proceeded to sing “Jump Jim Crow” in the midst of their disorderly conduct, although the newspaperman reporting the story took great glee in the behavior of the men in question. [26] On July 24, 1837, The Morning Chronicle discussed the representative in Parliament from Southwark, expressing “Mr. Richards voted on the other side [groans]. If the electors of Southwark wanted to have a Tory representative, let them have one by all means; but let them not take a man who had been a Radical, a Whig, and a Tory, just as it suited his purposes, and who would be a Jim Crow to-morrow if he thought it would advance him.”[27] Rice had performed in London several times by 1836, but it seems unlikely his stage antics alone introduced Jim Crow as a political slur to the eastern Atlantic. W.T. Lhamon writes about Jim Crow’s lyrics and prose holding a deep political meaning for those in America and they likely held the same meaning, albeit applied in different situations, to those living in the United Kingdom.

Three of the most famous lines from Jim Crow’s song were “Turn about/And wheel about/And jump Jim Crow.” By 1836, the ditty had become separated from Rice and was written off as a “school boy saying.” [28] While historians once debated whether Rice originated the Jim Crow tune, most conclude he probably did not. If he had, it took a remarkably short amount of time for Rice to be separated from the song and for it to be adopted by America’s children. Origin stories for both the phrase “Jump Jim Crow” and the character of Jim Crow itself started to penetrate newspapers across the United States.


In 1839, a book entitled The History of Jim Crow was published. In it, English author John Biggs claimed to have transcribed the memories of a former slave named Jim Crow who had been forced to perform a song he had written about himself. Crow claimed his song was hijacked by people who had come to see him perform. He further claimed his words were rewritten but dutifully recited his lyrics. [29] The most likely origin of the character Jim Crow is a commonly repeated story that Rice spotted an African American man (reports differ on whether he was a slave or free and if he was crippled) who went around singing “Turn about/And wheel about/and Jump Jim Crow” in Louisville, Kentucky. This story first appeared in print in 1841, while Rice was still very much alive. Rice was reportedly forced to appear in blackface by his manager with Rice begrudgingly agreeing if “he should have permission to introduce a negro song of his own.” Rice fostered a fondness for riding and visited a stable that housed a “negro hostler, who use to dance grotesquely and sing old fragments of a song about Jim Crow.” Rice apparently got the man to teach him how to “master” the “symphony, melody, and all the steps, words and drollery of the far famed and irresistible Jim Crow.” Rice later went on stage and received a cold reception until he began to sing “Jump Jim Crow.” The crowd went wild and when the manager asked who was performing, a stagehand reportedly responded with “Rice is singing a negro song.” [30] This story is likely not entirely accurate, but it lends credence to the notion of “Jim Crow” being known as a “negro” song before Rice performed it and being a song Rice had adopted from African Americans.

In 1838, the term was recurrently used to describe someone easily persuaded to change sides. Hartford Courant reported on April 23, 1838, “Mr. Calhoun followed and ‘jumped Jim Crow’ in the crackling of a whip. Yesterday he had voted and spoken for the Resolution fixing the 4th of June a day of adjournment. Yesterday, also, he had voted against laying the Resolution on the table, and today, as soon as upon his feet, he moved to lay the Resolution upon the table!”[31] Considering that John C. Calhoun was a staunch Southerner and Jim Crow had a derogatory racial implication at this time, being declared a “Jim Crow” was a serious transgression. This use of Jim Crow was firmly rooted across the nation by this time, with a Pennsylvania writer exclaiming, “… men who would aspire to high offices in the gift of the people, must have clean hands and pure hearts: ‘Jim Crow’ jugglers will be despised: they must meet with the severest censures from all parties…” [32] Southerners were still readily using the term as well, especially with regards to Van Buren, with one writer insinuating a violent revolution may be in the works: “The Van Buren party are pursuing now the very course they always have pursued and always will pursue when it becomes their interest so to do…. Leaders [will] order… all the faithful to ‘Jump Jim Crow,’ and become the violent advocates of that much abuses institution, declaring at the same time that it was a purely ‘Democratic’ measure.”[33] Of course, the anonymous writer’s concerns about an impending war would come to pass within the next twenty-three years, but not due to any abuses of power or “Jumping Jim Crow.”

Thomas Rice was still making headlines in the United States in 1839. Rice’s career was now focused in the United Kingdom, but his loyalty was to his home country. On March 25, 1839, the Courier-Journal reported: “The English papers say, that our old friend ‘Jim Crow’ has given Charles Matthews a cowhiding for slandering this country. It is stated that Jim laid the cowhide on as if he had been whipping a negro. Great as he is at ‘jumping,’ he proved himself far greater at making Matthews jump.”[34] Rice found his fame diminished by the time he returned to the United States and historians in the early 1900s were forced to find out who Rice was due to his lack of existence in history books.[35]

Sometime in the mid-to-late 1830s, second-class railroad cars became known as “Jim Crow Cars.” The reason for this sudden need to segregate people by race is unclear, although one writer in the 1940s claimed “the origin of Jim Crow cars was not racial arrogance alone. It was esthetic. As the white man has an odor offensive to Chinese, so the unwashed African was offensive to white people.” [36] No follow up is available regarding whether odors were still ranked by their offense level based on race at the time that the piece was written. This explanation may have been forwarded as the reasoning by some, but the more likely case is that whites simply did not want to associate with African Americans if interactions were avoidable. Instead of unwashed bodies, it was more likely a case of whites wanting the visual aesthetic of only seeing people of their own race on their commutes. Whites also would not have to deal with the idea that African Americans were at the same socio-economic level as they were. There was no threat when relegating African Americans to second class cars. No matter how rich, successful, or popular an African American was in the North, he or she would never be able to enjoy the same privileges as even lower middle-class whites.

On August 11, 1838, David Ruggles, an African American man traveling from New York to Boston via the Stonington Railroad, described being defrauded by railway workers when he tried to enter a railway car. He was told to go into the “pauper (or jim crow car)” after refusing to pay $.50 more to ride in the train car he had paid for.[37] He proceeded to write a letter detailing his experience to the African-American-owned The Colored American newspaper. Jim Crow was now cemented in American print as a term denoting segregated African Americans, but it was not exclusive to them — it was a catch-all for degenerates such as poor or disorderly whites. For example, a conductor on the Stonington removed two drunken white sailors from a regular railway car to a Jim Crow car in October of 1838.[38]

In 1840, Charles L. Remond wrote a letter published in the Colored American, and eventually William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. He expressed his want of freedom for his fellow African Americans in the South and addressed the need for prejudices in the North to be pointed out as well. Referring to the English as “the pious,” (likely on account of their abolition of slavery several years before and their lack of segregated areas) Remond wrote: “refer [the pious] to our negro pews in the house of worship, and when you tell him of the Jim Crow car, the top of the stagecoach, the forward deck of the steamboat, as the only place for colored people to occupy, he at once, turning pale, then red, inquires if this is American republicanism.”[39] Remond and his companion’s thoughts were not sequestered simply to the two of them. While many from Britain used derogatory terms for African Americans, they did not practice racial segregation to the extent of the United States.

Jim Crow railroad cars were declared legally permissible in 1841, a decision met by vigorous backlash. One African American woman, Mrs. Mary Newhall Green, wrote to the Liberator offering her thoughts on the Jim Crow cars. She sat in seats that were not in the Jim Crow car, instead paying for, and sitting in, seats that were designated for whites. She was ruthlessly dragged from her seat and beaten by conductors on the train for sitting in seats outside of the Jim Crow car, as was her infant that she was holding. When her husband attempted to rescue her, he too was attacked by the Eastern Rail Road’s employees:

“I will tell you the reason why I do not wish to ride in what is called the Jim Crow car. In the first place, I have been grossly insulted in said car by one of the hirelings of the rail-road; and had it not been that they life of my babe would have been endangered, I would have jumped from the car, though the train was going at a rapid rate… I do not think it is proper for a woman to go in that car by herself, liable to be insulted by the servants in attendance… I do not think I have any more right in that car than any other person… I think I have a right, in common with others, to go in any car I choose.”

Green defended her actions, denying that she was part of a scheme to test the substance and validity of Jim Crow rail cars, writing, “I need no prompting. I hope that I have intelligence and courage enough to assert my rights when I see them invaded.” The employees who savagely beat the young family, according to Green, claimed she was a man in woman’s clothing and her infant was nothing more than a ragdoll. Green theorized this lie was a way to cover the employees’ shame. Very few stories detail the female plight on Jim Crow cars, but one might surmise the harassment endured was plentiful.[40] Green’s story also tugged at the heart strings of many white supporters. There were undoubtably countless stories of African American men being abused, whether physically or verbally, but to abuse a woman holding an infant was unthinkable. Green’s story was widely published — in both the North and South — but no changes were enacted to the Jim Crow cars’ policies. Stories like Green’s were always accepted more favorably in the South as a testament to the continued racism of the North. In fact, the very idea of a Jim Crow car was horrific to Southerners. Southerners argued for the next two decades that Northerners did not care about the plight of African Americans. Instead, Northerners were looking for a way to infringe on Southern lives.

Jim Crow cars posed an interesting conundrum because African Americans were allowed travel on regular cars as well — it was up to the conductor whether they were moved to the lesser Jim Crow cars. One also must realize this system was not whole heartedly endorsed by all. After two African American men, William Reed and William Ford, had purchased tickets to ride in regular railway cars, they were forced into a Jim Crow car because the regular car was full. They found the Jim Crow car to be “extremely dirty.” A disgruntled citizen wrote to The Liberator with his letter being printed on October 11, 1839. The writer entitled his letter “The Color-Phobia As It Is” and proceeded to share the story of Reed and Ford. The writer even declared in his piece that the only people who should be in a second-class car were those who were offended by people’s skin tones.[41] This support of African Americans by whites was not new, but they were becoming more vocal. This mindset would simmer for nearly twenty years, until the Civil War began in 1861.

Jim Crow quickly became associated with segregated areas, especially in Boston. On October 15, 1841, members of the Worcester County South Division Anti-Slavery Society held a meeting to declare what they would fight against in the coming months. Article six stated: “…those churches, stage-coaches, steamboats, rail road cars, &c, which provide ‘negro pews, jim crow cars,’ or separate seats of any description for colored people — thereby making them as a degraded or separate race — require our special and earnest condemnation.”[42] White allies were told to sit in Jim Crow Cars with their “colored friends” to identify with African Americans. If they did not feel up to the task, they were advised to “withdraw… wholly from such places.”[43] Whether or not this suggestion was followed by any of the members of the Bristol County Anti-Slavery Society is unknown.

Exactly when Jim Crow became a term to describe strictly segregated areas outside of railroad cars is impossible to say, but it was not a Southern invention. Woodward states, “the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in full force.” [44] This is an oversimplification of the geographical movement of the system of segregation known as Jim Crow. The South simply could not afford to segregate any form of transportation due to Southerners’ reliance on their slaves; blacks and whites traveled together frequently. The South ran on a system of reliance on free black labor and it was necessary to continue this reliance while traveling. This lack of segregation would have applied to free African Americans as well; after all, they would still be in second class cars that housed single white men and those who consumed tobacco.[45] However, Southerners also dictated free blacks have segregated areas when it came to areas around towns such as shops and churches. Frederick Douglass remembered hearing the term “negro car” when he was a slave which dates it to at least 1838, meaning the term graduated to the South sooner than Woodward theorized.


Jim Crow ultimately became the name applied to racial segregation laws in the United States beginning in the 1880s. These laws applied most noticeably to African Americans but were applicable to Native Americans, Asians, and women as well. By the early 1900s, historians were already trying to piece together the history of Jim Crow and tied it back to Thomas Rice, already a forgotten figure. The adjectival meaning of Jim Crow as a political slur lost popularity about the same time as the rise of Jim Crow laws. There was no “forgetting” of its history, simply another evolution that began in antebellum America.

Jim Crow held various meanings to antebellum Americans. By 1830, “Jim Crow” held meaning as a caricature of African Americans while also being a derogatory term for people in power who would change their political stance frequently to whichever party or side was the most beneficial. How Jim Crow evolved from this dual meaning to a term for segregated train cars was not a single event — it was a gradual evolution that took roughly ten years. Jim Crow, the character, held a variety of meanings for the people of antebellum America. He was both a stereotype and a living, breathing political cartoon. He was, most importantly, a way for whites to come to grips with an influx of African Americans migrating into the North. Jim Crow as a political slur would be used until the 1890s but would quickly fall out of favor after the implementation of racial segregation laws. Considering the political implications of the songs and plays of Jim Crow, it was in no way a stretch for Jim Crow, as a term, to hold a variety of meanings for the people of the era. How Jim Crow — the political slur — predated the minstrel character is unknown. Regardless, the jump from Jim Crow the political slur to Jim Crow being a name for segregated areas is not difficult to document. It was a combination of the adjectival meaning and the racial connotations joining together in order to keep African Americans in their place in antebellum society. The term Jim Crow was a solidified combination of multiple meanings that were viewed as the perfect combination to keep antebellum society running in a way that whites saw fit. Humans continuously divide the world into “us” versus “them” and for antebellum era whites, “them” referred to African Americans. Jim Crow kept “them” out of the lives of “us” beginning in 1838 and continued well into the 20th Century.


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Paskman, Dailey and Sigmund Spaeth, ‘Gentlemen Be Seated!’ A Parade of the Old Time Minstrels. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928)

Richardson, Sarah. “As American as Jim Crow,” American History 53. No 1. (Apr 2018)

Stark, Seymour. Men in Blackface: True Stories of the Minstrel Show. (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2000)

Strausbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. (New York: Penguin, 2007)

Taylor, Yuval and Jake Austen, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012)

Wittke, Carl. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968)

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. (London: Oxford University Press, 2002)

[1] Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 72–75, 88–91; Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8–60; Robert Hornback, Racism and Early Blackface Comic Traditions (Atlanta: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 109–139; Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 32–33; Dailey Paskman and Sigmund Spaeth, ‘Gentlemen Be Seated!’ A Parade of the Old Time Minstrels (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1928), 12; W.T. Lhamon Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performances from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 44–46; John Strausbaugh, Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture (New York: Penguin, 2007), 81–98; Carl Wittke Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 21–33; W.T. Lhamon Jr. Jim Crow, American: Selected Songs and Plays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), xvi-xxiii; W.T. Lhamon Jr., Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 10–14; Jerrold M. Packard, The American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2002) 62–73; Jane Dailey, The Age of Jim Crow (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), xi-xxvi; Stephen Johnson, Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) , 18–41; Eric Lott, Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 22–29.

[2] Alan W.C. Green, “’Jim Crow,’ ‘Zip Coon’: The Northern Origins of Negro Minstrelsy,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 11, No 2. (Spring, 1970), p. 387,

[3] W.T. Lhamon Jr., Jim Crow, America, vii.

[4] Taylor and Austin, Darkest America, 32.

[5] W.T. Lhamon Jr., Jump Jim Crow, 3.

[6] Taylor and Austin, Darkest America, 45.

[7] Douglas A. Jones Jr., The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014, 65.

[8] Paul Gilmore, “’De Genewine Artekil’: William Wells Brown, Blackface Minstrelsy, and Abolitionism,” American Literature, Vol. 69, No 4 (Dec 1997), p 762.

[9] Boston Post (Boston, MA), May 13, 1833.

[10] “Origin of Jim Crow,” Mississippi Free Trader (Natchez, MS), June 17, 1841.

[11] Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, volume 2, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1863), 96, quoted in Douglas A. Jones, Jr. The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 65.

[12] Swift, “For The Torchlight,” The Torch Light and Public Advertiser (Hagerstown, MD), August 14, 1828.

[13] “The Jackson Barbeque,” Hagerstown Mail (Hagerstown, MD) August 14, 1829.

[14] “Grand Menagerie of Living Animals,” Natchez Weekly Democrat (Natchez, MS), December 18, 1830.

[15] “Prudy, Carley & Bailey’s Menagerie,” Wyoming Herald (Wilkes-Barre, WY), September 28, 1831. “Dandy Jim” would first make an appearance on the stage around 1840. Whether or not those who performed Dandy Jim adopted their names from the apes used in circus acts or if the term was established before is unknown although the latter seems more likely.

[16] “Grand Caravan of Living Animals: 25 In Number,” National Standard (Middlebury, VT), August 17, 1824.

[17] “Grand Caravan of Living Animals,” Evening Post (New York, NY), January 9, 1826.

[18] “A Political Jim Crow.” Launceston Examiner (Launceston, Tazmania), September 21, 1872.

[19] Rev. J.C. Coleman, The Jim Crow Car: or Denouncement of Injustice Meted Out to the Black Race (Toronto: Hill Printing Co, 1898), 24.

[20] Weekly Raleigh Register (Raleigh, NC), July 23, 1833.

[21] Baltimore Visiter, Carlisle Weekly Herald (Carlisle, PA), January 14, 1835.

[22] Lhamon, Jim Crow, 18–19.

[23] Edgeworth, Tarboro’ Press (Tarboro, NC), July 27, 1833.

[24] Sentinel and Democrat (Burlington, VT), July 25, 1834.

[25] Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA) May 31, 1836.

[26] Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland) April 24, 1837.

[27] Morning Chronicle (London, England), July 24, 1837.

[28] Barnet, “Letter to the Editor,” State Journal (Montpelier, VT), May 3, 1836.

[29] John Briggs, The History of Jim Crow, (London: Smallfield and Son, 1839), Kindle Edition, 1420–1462.

[30] “Origin of Jim Crow,” Missisiippi Free Trader (Natchez, MS), June 7, 1841.

[31] “Congress,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), April 23, 1838.

[32] “To Robert Snodgrass, Esq,” Carlisle Herald and Expositor (Carlisle, PA), August 7, 1838.

[33] Canton Herald (Canton, CT), October 10, 1838.

[34] Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), March 25, 1839.

[35] “’Jim Crow’ Rice’s Centenary,” Sun (New York), May 10, 1908; “The Origin of Jim Crow,” Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, IA), February 9, 1891.

[36] Robert Quillen, “Joe Louis is Popular Because his Behavior has Earned Popularity,” Greenville News (Greenville, NC), July 8, 1941.


[38] Stephen Johnson, “Burnt Cork,” 39.

[39] “Letter from Charles L. Remond,” Liberator (Boston, MA) October 16, 1840.

[40] “Eastern Rail-Road Outrage,” Liberator (Boston, MA), November 5, 1841.

[41] “The Color-Phobia As It Is,” Liberator (Boston, MA), October 11, 1839.

[42] John M. Fiske, “Worcester County South Division Anti-Slavery Society,” Liberator (Boston, MA), October 15, 1841.

[43] “Bristol Country Anti-Slavery Society,” The Liberator (Boston, MA), Dec. 24, 1841.

[44] Woodward, Jim Crow, 17.

[45] Packard, American Nightmare, 70.

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