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Jim Crow

Jim Crow

As a way of portraying African Americans, Jim Crow first appeared in the context of minstrelsy in the early nineteenth century. Thomas "Daddy" Rice, a white minstrel, popularized the term. Using burnt cork to blacken his face, attired in the ill-fitting, tattered garments of a beggar, and grinning broadly, Rice imitated the dancing, singing, and demeanor generally ascribed to Negro character. Calling it "Jump Jim Crow," he based the number on a routine he had seen performed in 1828 by an elderly and crippled Louisville stableman belonging to a Mr. Crow. "Weel about, and turn about / And do jis so; / Eb'ry time I weel about, / I jump Jim Crow." The public responded with enthusiasm to Rice's caricature of black life. By the 1830s minstrelsy had become one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment, Jim Crow had entered the American vocabulary, and many whites, north and south, came away from minstrel shows with their distorted images of black life, character, and aspirations reinforced.

Less clear is how a dance created by a black stableman and imitated by a white man for the amusement of white audiences would become synonymous with a system designed by whites to segregate the races. The term Jim Crow as applied to separate accommodations for whites and blacks appears to have had its origins not in the South but in Massachusetts before the Civil War. Abolitionist newspapers employed the term in the 1840s to describe separate railroad cars for blacks and whites. Throughout the North, blacks, though legally free, found themselves largely the objects of scorn, ridicule, and discrimination. Most northern whites shared with southern whites the conviction that blacks, as an inferior race, were incapable of assimilation as equals into American society. Racial integrity demanded that blacks, regardless of class, be segregated in public transportationthat they be excluded from the regular cabins and dining rooms on steamboats, compelled to ride on the outside of stagecoaches, and forced to travel in special Jim Crow coaches on the railroads. Only in preCivil War New England did blacks manage to integrate transportation facilities, but only after prolonged agitation during which blacks and white abolitionists deliberately violated Jim Crow rules and often had to be dragged from the trains.

Before the Civil War, enslavement determined the status of most black men and women in the South, and there was little need for legal segregation. Several Radical Republican state governments outlawed segregation in their new constitutions during Reconstruction but did not try to force integration on unwilling whites. Custom, habit, and etiquette defined the social relations between the races and enforced separation. The determination of blacks to improve their position revolved largely around efforts to secure accommodations that equaled those provided to whites.

But in the 1890s, even as segregation became less rigid and pervasive in the North, the term Jim Crow took on additional force and meaning in the South. It came to represent an expanded apparatus of segregation sanctioned by law. Economic and social changes had multiplied the places and situations in which blacks and whites might come into contact, and whites had become alarmed over a new generation of blacks undisciplined by slavery, unschooled in racial etiquette, less fearful of whites, and more inclined to assert their rights as citizens.

Jim Crow, then, came to the South in an expanded and more rigid form in the 1890s and the early twentieth century in response to white perceptions of a new generation of blacks and to growing doubts that this generation could be trusted to stay in its place without legal force. Some whites, caught up in the age of Progressive reform, preferred to view legal segregation as reform rather than repression, as a way to resolve racial tensions and maintain the peace. For most whites, however, it was nothing less than racial self-preservation, deeply rooted in the white psyche. "If anything would make me kill my children," a white woman told a northern visitor, "it would be the possibility that niggers might sometime eat at the same table and associate with them as equals. That's the way we feel about it, and you might as well root up that big tree in front of the house and stand it the other way up and expect it to grow as to think we can feel any different" (Johnson, 1904, p. 352).

Between 1890 and 1915 the racial creed of the white South manifested itself in the systematic disfranchisement of black men, in rigid patterns of racial segregation, in unprecedented racial violence and brutality, and in the dissemination of racial caricatures that reinforced and comforted whites in their racial beliefs and practices. The white South moved to segregate the races by law in practically every conceivable situation in which they might come into social contact. The signs white only and colored would henceforth punctuate the southern scenery: from public transportation to public parks and cemeteries; from the workplace to hospitals, asylums, orphanages, and prisons; from the entrances and exits at theaters, movie houses, and boardinghouses to toilets and water fountains. Oftentimes, Jim Crow demanded exclusion rather than separation, as with municipal libraries and many sports and recreational facilities. Jim Crow legislation tended to be thorough, far-reaching, even imaginative: from separate public school textbooks for black and white children to

Jim Crow Bibles for black witnesses in court, from separate telephone booths to Jim Crow elevators. New Orleans adopted an ordinance segregating black and white prostitutes.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the U.S. Supreme Court employed the "separate-but-equal" principle to affirm the constitutionality of Jim Crow, confirming what most black southerners already knew from personal experiencethat the quality of their life and freedom depended on the whims and will of a majority of whites in their locality or state. The court decision, along with the elaborate structure of Jim Crow, remained in force for more than half a century. In the 1950s and 1960s a new climate of political necessity and a new generation of black Americans helped to restructure race relations. With an emboldened and enlarged civil rights movement in the vanguard, the federal government and the courts struck down the legal barriers of racial segregation and ended Jim Crow. But a far more intractable and elusive kind of racism, reflected in dreary economic statistics and a pervasive poverty, lay beyond the reach of the law and the growing civil rights movement.

See also Abolition; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Plessy v. Ferguson


Cell, John W. The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South America and the American South. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Johnson, Clifton. Highways and Byways of the South. New York: Macmillan, 1904.

McMillan, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Patler, Nicholas. Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration: Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2004.

Rabinowitz, Howard. Race Relations in the Urban South, 18651890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Woodward, C. Vann. "The Strange Career of a Historical Controversy." In American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

leon f. litwack (1996)
Updated bibliography

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