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

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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.”

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Blackface performers in the late 1800s
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Fanny Kemble didn’t think blackface was accurate, saying Northerners participating in the practice were “pale…comparisons.”
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Depiction of Rice as Jim Crow
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Rice without his makeup
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Jim Crow became so popular that song books were produced.
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Railroad cars were segregated in the North based on race and income.
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Jim Crow laws affected the African American community for years.

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