Jim Crow origins and law: USA 1870’s – 1960’s

Throughout the years of my Civil Rights work the reference to ‘Jim Crow Law’ has always been prominent. However many people in Civil Rights, the public and Black people born and raised outside the USA, do not know its origins even if they know its effects. This makes for an ugly read, but sometimes its necessary.

The name Jim Crow is not a person, but comes from an old Blackroots ditty (song & dance) from around 1828 called ‘Jump Jim Crow’ (Lyrics at the end of this article). Its racist credentials were created by White performer T. D. Rice.

Throughout the 1830s and ’40s, Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860) performed a popular song-and-dance act supposedly modelled after a slave. He named his characterisation Jim Crow.

Rice darkened his face, acted like a buffoon, and spoke with an exaggerated and distorted imitation of African American Vernacular English. In his Jim Crow persona, he also sang other ‘Negro ditties’ as well as ‘Jump Jim Crow’.

Rice was not the first white comic to perform in blackface, but he was the most popular of his time, touring both the United States and England. As a result of Rice’s success, ‘Jim Crow’ became a common stage persona for White comedian’s blackface portrayals of African Americans.

This theatrical racist, derogatory, demeaning and dehumanising of African Americans, their history and culture, became a source of ‘Blacks as less than human’, that lasted for many years, it was not only the origins of Black faced minstrelsy worldwide (even on the BBC into the 1970’s ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’); it was the origins and basis of ‘Seggregation’.

‘Jim Crow’, became the mantra and terminology for the laws, customs and etiquette that segregated and demeaned African Americans.

It has long been a derogatory slang term for a Black man, making it a fitting name for the laws that were in force in the South and some border states from 1877 through the mid-1960s.

These laws were in place to maintain racial segregation after the Civil War ended. Initially, ‘Jim Crow Laws’ required the separation of White people and people of colour on all forms of public transportation and in schools. Eventually, the segregation expanded to include interaction and commingling in schools, cemeteries, parks, theatres, and restaurants.

Often, anyone who was suspected of having a Black ancestor, even just one in the very distant past, was considered to be a person of colour and therefore subject to the ‘Jim Crow Laws’. The overarching purpose of ‘Jim Crow Laws’ was to prevent contact between Black people and White people as equals, establishing White people as above Black people.

The Forgotten Northern Origins of Jim Crow

By Steve Luxenberg for Time Magazine 12th February 2019

When you hear the phrase “Jim Crow,” what comes to mind?

The easy answer: The South. No other region of the country bears as much responsibility, as much shame, as the states where slavery and then segregation once flourished and dominated. The most famous images of Jim Crow segregation are indelible, unforgettable: Separate bathrooms. Separate water fountains. Separate schools.

What doesn’t come to mind: The North.

Too often when Americans confront the nation’s history of racial injustice, we set aside or leave out the North’s role. Or worse, despite the notable efforts of a few historians, we allow a distorted and simplistic version of our past to creep into the public consciousness. The North, antislavery and good. The South, slaveholding and evil.

This is not to excuse the South, where violence became a tool of white supremacists after slavery’s end, where lynching went unchecked, and where civil rights protections created by Congress in the wake of the Civil War were denied to people of color. There’s no question that Jim Crow laws gained velocity in the South at the end of the 19th century, and then spread like wisteria for five decades, until the Supreme Court declared that separate was inherently unequal in its unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

But Jim Crow did not originate in the South. What most of us don’t know — what I didn’t know until I began researching my new book, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation — is that the impetus for separating the races was a Northern one. The first reference to a “Jim Crow car” that I could find in a newspaper, aided by the 21st-century power of digitized databases? The Salem Gazette, Oct. 12, 1838, less than six weeks after the new Eastern Rail Road opened for business on thirteen-and-a-half miles of freshly-laid track from East Boston to Salem, Mass.

Separation — the word universally used in the 19th century — had no place in the South before the Civil War. Slavery required close contact, coercion and intimacy in order to survive and dominate. It was the free but conflicted North that gave birth to separation, in different places and different forms, at the dawn of the railroad age in the late 1830s.

No existing form of transportation quite compared to a train car’s opportunities for throwing together dozens of passengers without regard for status or social group. “Where do I sit?” was not a new question for white Bostonians. They had already created separate pews in churches, and separate galleries in theaters. But it was a new question for the well-heeled boarding the Eastern Rail Road’s trains on the Salem line.

Among the eight passenger railways operating in the state of Massachusetts in 1840, only three chose the custom of separate cars. Not many people of color were riding the trains, which was hardly surprising in a state with 8,669 “free colored persons,” less than one percent of the population, as recorded in the 1840 census. But two of those lines served towns north and south of Boston that had emerged as antislavery strongholds. With pairs of white and black abolitionists from the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society aboard those trains, confrontations were guaranteed. They could not ride together, conductors said — not in the whites-only car, nor in the “dirt car,” another label that appeared in print. Resisters could go quietly to their assigned seats, or in the rough grip of the crew’s strong arms. But go they must.

As “separation” emerged in the North, so did early attempts to fight it. One who did not go quietly was a young abolitionist who had fled slavery’s grip in Maryland. His name was Frederick Douglass. In his memoirs, Douglass described holding so tightly to his bolted seat during one 1841 trip that it took six men to oust him:

“It might have cost the company twenty-five or thirty dollars,” Douglass wrote, “for I tore up [the] seats and all.”

Frederick Douglass Memoirs

The Eastern Rail Road superintendent, tired of Douglass’s fierce resistance, ordered his train crews to skip the station at Lynn where Douglass boarded. Lynn’s white residents howled, forcing the superintendent to rescind his ill-advised directive.

Nor was Douglass the only one resisting. On the line going south to New Bedford a few weeks earlier, a train crew had ejected black abolitionist David Ruggles for refusing to move from the whites-only car. The slightly built Ruggles, on his way to early blindness from cataracts, filed assault charges against the men who had manhandled him, leaving him with bruises and torn clothing. By seeking to bring the railway to account through the legal system, this free man of color had done something extraordinary, something no one in slavery could do. He wanted more than an apology. He wanted the discrimination to end.

The local judge ruled against him, blaming Ruggles for disobeying the conductor and declaring that the railway corporation was entitled to make and enforce whatever rules it deemed necessary to keep good order. The rights of individuals vs. the rights of corporations — a clash that resonates still, nearly 200 years later.

The abolitionists protested the judge’s ruling with fervor. Separate cars, they said, belonged in:

“the receptacle of forgotten barbarisms.”

In 1843, under pressure from Massachusetts legislators, the three railways succumbed. But the custom did not die, nor did resistance and legal challenges.

In 1855, a New York jury awarded $250 in damages to passenger Elizabeth Jennings after a judge ruled that:

“colored persons, if sober, well-behaved and free of disease, had the same rights as others” on the city’s streetcars.

In 1858, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against black abolitionist William Howard Day, who had sued a Michigan steamboat company for refusing to sell him an overnight cabin. In 1867, after the Civil War, teacher Mary Miles refused to sit in the colored-only section of a car on the West Chester and Philadelphia Railway. After succeeding in the lower court, Miles’ lawsuit met a brutal defeat at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Judge Daniel Agnew declared “a right to separate,” a precedent-setting ruling often cited later by other state courts — and by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy.

These cases share a common lineage. All came from the North. All were challenges to discrimination, but all were also links in a chain leading to the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual embrace of separation, first in a Mississippi railroad case in 1890, and then in Plessy, a Louisiana railroad case from 1896. Both were decided by a court dominated by Northern justices.

The shame of the South? Yes, and the North, too. In the spirit of understanding our history and its reverberations, of dealing honestly with our past and present, shame on us if we do not remember this.

Jim Crow Jump

The lyrics as most commonly quoted are:

Come, listen all you gals and boys, Ise just from Tuckyhoe;
I’m goin’ to sing a little song, My name’s Jim Crow.

CHORUS [after every verse]
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

I went down to the river, I didn’t mean to stay;
But dere I see so many gals, I couldn’t get away.

And arter I been dere awhile, I tought I push my boat;
But I tumbled in de river, and I find myself afloat.

I git upon a flat boat, I cotch de Uncle Sam;
Den I went to see de place where dey kill’d de Pakenham.

And den I go to Orleans, an, feel so full of flight;
Dey put me in de calaboose, an, keep me dere all night.

When I got out I hit a man, his name I now forgot;
But dere was noting left of him ‘cept a little grease spot.

And oder day I hit a man, de man was mighty fat
I hit so hard I nockt him in to an old cockt hat.

I whipt my weight in wildcats, I eat an alligator;
I drunk de Mississippy up! O! I’m de very creature.

I sit upon a hornet’s nest, I dance upon my head;
I tie a wiper round my neck an, den I go to bed.

I kneel to de buzzard, an, I bow to the crow;
An eb’ry time I weel about I jump jis so.


As he extended it from a single song into an entire minstrel revue, Thomas Rice routinely wrote additional verses for “Jump Jim Crow”. Published versions from the period run as long as 66 verses; one extended version of the song, as archived by American Memory, includes 150 verses. Verses range from the boastful doggerel of the original version to an endorsement of President Andrew Jackson (known as “Old Hickory”); his whig opponent in the 1832 election was Henry Clay:

Old hick’ry never mind de boys
But hold up your head;
For people never turn to clay
‘Till arter dey be dead.

Other verses by Rice, also from 1832, demonstrate anti-slavery sentiments and cross-racial solidarity that were rarely found in later blackface minstrelsy.

Should dey get to fighting,
Perhaps de blacks pee
For deir wish for freedom,
Is shining in deir eyes.

And if de blacks should get free,
I guess dey’ll see some bigger,
An I shall consider it,
A bold stroke for de nigger.

I’m for freedom,
An for Union altogether,

Although I’m a black man,

De white is call’d my broder.

Read more

‘Jim Crow Law’ – online Britannica

Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860) – Wikipedia

Frederick Douglass – Black History Bootleg

David Ruggles – Black Past


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