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


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 justifying 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.  


On September 19, 1860, Thomas Dartmouth Rice passed away. Although seven years junior to George Washington Dixon, Rice preceded him to the grave. He left behind no descendants, none of his children survived infancy. The exact cause of death was supposed by some to be liquor. Although Rice was a rich man at one point and wore extravagant clothing (making him a type of Zip Coon), a New York Times memorial piece stated that Rice spent his fortune away in the saloons. Be that as it may, Many mourned his death as the newspapers eulogized him. The exact opposite of how Dixon was treated. And yet, we remember "The Zip Coon Song"¯ as "Turkey in the Straw"¯ while "Jump Jim Crow" has faded completely from our memories. The only tribute to Rice's character after his death occurred in a most unflattering way: the South's brutal, dehumanizing segregation laws bore his name.

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Blackface! -- Contents

Bert Williams

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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