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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Most Talked About Man Who Never Was

By Tom Morrow

His name has been bantered about for more than 100 years, yet no one ever knew him even though everyone knew and knows what his name connotes.

Jim Crow wasn’t a real person, rather a mid-1800s  theater character created by Thomas D. Rice and an ethnic depiction in accordance with contemporary Caucasian ideas of African-Americans and their culture.

The character was based on a folk trickster named Jim Crow that was long popular among black slaves. Rice also adapted and popularized a traditional slave song called “Jump Jim Crow.”

The character was dressed in rags with battered hat and torn shoes. Rice blackened his face and hands and impersonated a very nimble and irreverently witty African-American field hand who sang, “Turn about and wheel about, and do just so. And every time I turn about I Jump Jim Crow.”

Rice’s famous stage persona eventually lent its name to a generalized negative and stereotypical view of black people. The shows peaked in the 1850s, and after Rice’s death in 1860 interest in them faded. There was still some memory of them in the 1870s however, just as the “Jim Crow” segregation laws were surfacing in the United States. The Jim Crow period, which started when segregation rules, laws and customs surfaced after the Reconstruction era ended in the 1870s, existed until the mid-1960s when the struggle for civil rights in the United States gained national attention.

The actual origin of the Jim Crow character has been lost to legend. One story claims it is Rice’s emulation of a black slave that he had seen in his travels through the Southern United States, whose owner was a Mr Crow. Several sources describe Rice encountering an elderly black stableman working in one of the river towns where Rice was performing. According to some accounts the man had a crooked leg and deformed shoulder. He was singing about Jim Crow, and punctuating each stanza with a little jump.

A more likely explanation behind the origin of the character is that Rice had observed and absorbed African-American traditional song and dance over many years. He grew up in a racially-integrated Manhattan neighborhood, and later Rice toured the Southern slave states.

The term “Jim Crow laws” were so-call discriminatory state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. Enacted by white Democratic party-dominated state legislatures in the late 19th century after the Reconstruction period, these laws continued to be enforced until 1965.

“Jim Crow laws” mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the states of the former Confederate States of America, starting in 1896 with a “separate but equal” status for African-Americans in railroad cars. Public education had essentially been segregated since its establishment in most of the South after the Civil War. This principle was extended to public facilities and transportation, including segregated cars on interstate trains and, later, buses.

“Jim Crow laws,” sometimes, as in Florida, part of state constitutions, mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military already was segregated. President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, initiated segregation of federal workplaces in 1913, at the request of Wilson’s southern members in his Cabinet.

After World War II, African-Americans increasingly challenged segregation, as they believed they had more than earned the right to be treated as full citizens because of their military service and sacrifices. The Civil Rights Movement was energized by a number of flashpoints, including the 1946 police beating and blinding of World War II veteran Isaac Woodard while he was in U.S. Army uniform. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed services.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and used federal courts to attack Jim Crow statutes. Ultimately, liberal-thinking legislators began dominating governments of many of the Southern states, passing and reversing most of the so-called Jim Crow laws.


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