Debunking Jim Crow misconceptions: name refers to stage character, not a historical racist


LettersI commend The Crimson White for taking the trouble to quote from James Hood’s op-ed piece and to make it available. I also think Maxton Thoman’s piece about students ignoring MLK Day was well thought out and intentioned. I’m writing to clear up what I think is a widespread misperception.

Thoman writes of “racial injustice – formed at the hands of Jim Crow.” Jim Crow was not a person at the heart of civil rights or segregation - I’m assuming there are many ordinary citizens by that name. Jim Crow was not an important person, either.

I can understand that people might think Crow was behind racist laws because of the way we talk about “Jim Crow laws” or “the Jim Crow South.” Jim Crow was a stage character created by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a struggling white entertainer in 19th century New York.

Rice wrote a song about Jim Crow, supposedly after hearing an African-American man or boy singing the song. Rice then blackened his face with burnt cork to perform the song, and by 1828 was portraying “an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character,” according to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Rice’s blackface show was popular and he added more equally offensive black characters to his repertoire – and he had many imitators in minstrel shows around the country.

Ten years later, the term “Jim Crow” became a racial slur, and later it became shorthand for prejudicial laws, systems and attitudes.

But Rice was just entertaining people, right? According to the museum, “Rice and his imitators, by their stereotypical depictions of blacks, helped to popularize the belief that blacks were lazy, stupid, inherently less human, and unworthy of integration.”

Sandi Wisenberg is the visiting Coal Royalty Chair in Creative Writing at The University of Alabama. 

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