You probably know the name Jim Crow from your high school history books, and from public discourse on race relations, as they continue to be an issue that plagues Americans hoping for a different sort of society.
Jim Crow references the laws that were prevalent across the American South into the 1960s, but get this – a person named Jim Crow never existed.
The name comes from a fictional character used to perpetrate racist stereotypes before the Civil War.
A white performer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice originated the caricature in the 1830s. He’s known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” – which is ridiculous, because minstrels have been around since basically forever – and would don blackface, affect an exaggerated African American dialect, and perform musical acts.
Sounds like a real charmer, right?
Not only that, but the character of Jim Crow was meant to be racist and offensive, a stereotype of an enslaved person, and was typically portrayed as a clumsy buffoon.
Rice’s success with the character led to other minstrel acts picking it up, doing their own versions, and soon enough whites all across the South would use Jim Crowas a derogatory term for African Americans.
After slavery was (finally) abolished and minstrel shows lost their shine, the character lived on as a label. The first “Jim Crow” laws were passed during Reconstruction in a successful attempt at limiting the rights and resources of freed Blacks.
The laws imposed literacy tests on black voters, segregated schools, and allowed segregation in businesses and in public spaces, as well.
Jim Crow laws were basically thinly veiled code for “Black Person Laws,” but with context, we know exactly what sort of person they thought most black people to be.
The label has stuck, however, and it’s how we refer to the laws that continued to disenfranchise Black Americans for about a century after slavery officially ended.
Now you know.
Just one more dark chapter in American history that should be learned, absorbed, and filed away for future reference.