Origins of Jump Jim Crow

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"Daddy" Rice as Jim Crow


Thomas Rice is credited with creating the Jim Crow character, but the truth is that the character has a long tradition in black African culture. Blacks in America were performing Jim Crow long before the character was appropriated by whites.

The Myth

Thomas Rice was born in the lower east side of Manhattan, New York. While traveling as a performer in the coastal South and the Ohio River valley, Rice had observed black song and dance over many years. While performing at Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1830s he learned to mimic slaves while performing in blackface. One day, he noticed a black stableman named Jim Crow who was dressed in ragged clothes. The man had a crooked leg and deformed shoulder.  While he worked, the man performed a song and dance called ‘Jumping Jim Crow’ and the lyrics were as follows:

”Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

Rice was fascinated with the scene of this "darkie" dancing and singing, and immediately realized that this ditty was something that his audiences would enjoy. Rice bought Jim's clothes and learned his song and dance.

He introduced his Jim Crow act upon his return to New York, where he played the old Park Theatre. Each night he composed new verses, while continuing to perfect the song and dance. His act was an instant sensation and he became famous. Later minstrels referred to him as "Daddy" Rice, the father of American minstrelsy.

All of the myths surrounding Thomas Rice's "discovery" of Jim Crow have one thing in common: They don't explain where the slave got it.

The Reality

The Character: African cultural traditions include many folk tales of trickster animals, including birds, such as crows and buzzards who seem foolish, but who always manage to get what they want through cleverness and luck. In the Yoruba culture of West Africa, he is a crow named "Jim." The slave trade brought these folk tales to America and "Jim Crow" was a favorite. Some slaves even adopted a Jim Crow type attitude as a way of coping with their enslavement. They would play dumb or act the fool as a clever way of avoiding work. 

The Dance: Laws were passed in the 17th Century that prohibited slaves from performing their native dances because whites believed the slave way of dancing formed a cross with their feet, something they considered blasphemous. In order to evade the law, slaves developed a shuffle dance where their feet didn’t cross. They called the dance the Jim Crow.

The Song: Jump Jim Crow began as a slave folk song, then became a "corn song;" sung by slaves at corn huskings. 

Thomas Rice didn't create the Jim Crow character, song or dance. He originally learned it from watching black slaves and then added his own touches to it. Rice’s performance of Jump Jim Crow “eventually turned him into the highest paid minstrel performer around” and, by 1838, the Boston Post reported that, “the two most popular characters in the world at the present time are [Queen] Victoria and Jim Crow.” By the late 1850s Rice was beset with progressive paralysis, which soon ended his career and eventually took his life.



A recreation of the Jump Jim Crow dance
the way it was performed by
Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808-60)


An accurate rendition of the Jump Jim Crow song with banjo


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Jim Crow became a standard character in minstrel shows, and a term for the legalized oppression of African Americans in the years between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. The term “Jim Crow” came to represent laws that segregated African Americans in public facilities and in other areas including social behavior. Such laws segregated public transportation on trains and buses, movie theaters, water fountains, and public schools. Similar policies had been in existence in the United States for many years, but they were increasingly codified by southern states in the years after Reconstruction. Despite protests by African Americans, who filed suit claiming that such policies violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the United States Supreme Court sanctioned the practice in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which established “separate but equal” as the principle undergirding segregation. Fifty-eight years later, in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned this principle in its decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case.

Elvis Presley is often cited as a modern-day example of the Jim Crow phenomenon because of his appropriation of black music, which led to the birth of rock-and-roll and the enormous impact it had on popular culture. And while the comparison may not be entirely fair to Elvis, the process is the same and the impact that "Daddy" Rice had on popular culture of his time is similar to the impact that Elvis had. Elvis and Rice became "overnight" international sensations and spawned thousands of imitators by creating a new genre of musical entertainment based on their appropriation of black music and performance.  


Excerpt from:

San Francisco Theatre Research
Volume Thirteen
Work Projects Administration
Northern California
Author: Estavan, Lawrence
Volume: 1939 13


All of these troupes, including the Philadelphia Minstrels, came to San Francisco with an established repertory. There is no available information as to what that repertory was, but one may hazard a guess that it varied little from the usual songs, dances, jokes, and afterpieces. First in importance was "Jim Crow, " popularized by Thomas D. Rice, the ''daddy of American Minstrels." Although, strictly considered, this was a song, it had in connection much stage business and occupied therefore a prominent place on minstrel programs. Pauline Jacobson in the San Francisco Bulletin, June 30, 1917 writes an interesting account of its origin which is still a matter of some disputation: 

"Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis and Boston all claim that audiences first greeted Rice as Jim Crow in their respective cities. The character is said to have been a negro hostler, a negro stage driver, a negro deckhand, a negro porter. "Most authentic seems the story of Edmond S Connor, member of the Columbia Street Theatre, Cincinnati, 1828-29, when he met Rice doing negro bits between acts. Reminiscing to L. Hutton, he told of how Rice had seen the original Jim Crow in Louisville the preceding summer. "

A man named Crow; ran a livery stable back of the theatre in which Rice played. Actors, leaning from the windows of the theatre, enjoyed watching the bustle and activity of the stable. The scene included a character which interested them immensely. This was an old slave whose name was Jim and who had adopted the family name of his master, thereafter being known as Jim Crow. Sadly deformed, his right knee was drawn high, his left leg stiff and crooked at the knee. The result was a painful and hideous limp. 

Dressed in ragged, ancient garments, he sang an old tune and at the end of each verse he forced his grotesque limbs into a step known as 'rockin' de wheel.' The words of the refrain were: 

Wheel about, turn about, do jis so, .n' ebery time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow. ' 

"In the old slave. Rice recognized that his was a character new to the stage. He began to write verses and assemble a costume similar to Jim Crow's. Shortly afterward he appeared on the stage in an old wretched coat, torn shoes (patched here and there), and a rough straw hat over a 'dense black wig of matted, moss.' Immediately there was strong reaction to this extraordinary apparition. The orchestra opened with a short prelude, then Rice introduced himself to the following accompaniment;

‘Oh, Jim Crow’s come to town
As you all must know,
An’ he wheel about, he turn about,
He do jis so,
An’ ebery time he wheel about
He jump Jim Crow.’

"Like the slave. Rice 'rocked de heel' after each verse. There was great applause. Rice sang all the verses he was prepared with and then had to improvise. Connor said that he was recalled twenty times. Everyone, humming Jim Crow next day, tried to 'rock de heel.' Stage drivers carried the air from town to town. The most staid individuals found themselves impersonating the character."



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Blackface! -- Contents

History of Blackface

Blacks in Blackface

History of Minstrel Shows

Minstrel Show Female Impersonators

Stephen Foster

Origins of Jump Jim Crow

Blackface Origins in Clowning

Blackface History Prior to Minstrel Shows

Excerpts from Monarchs of Minstrelsy (1911)

Famous Blackface Minstrel Performers

Blackface Around the World

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