Jump Jim Crow

A short video showing images of Thomas Rice as “Jim Crow,” minstrel inspired toys, and clips from minstrel performances. Video features the “Jump Jim Crow” tune. Video created by Office of Diversity and Inclusion in conjunction with the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University ( http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ )

The term “Jim Crow” is commonly used to refer to the period of racial segregation that lasted from the end of Reconstruction Era (around 1877) to the 1960s, when judicial decisions, congressional legislation, and executive actions officially ended the practice of separate and equal – a practice which almost always resulted in the separate and disciminatory treatment of African Americans.

But where did the term “Jim Crow” come from? It appears to come from the “blackface” minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who darkened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to his song, “Jump Jim Crow.”

The Jim Crow Museum website provides some details:

“Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

These words are from the song, “Jim Crow,” as it appeared in sheet music written by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. Rice, a struggling “actor” (he did short solo skits between play scenes) at the Park Theater in New York, happened upon a black person singing the above song — some accounts say it was an old black slave who walked with difficulty, others say it was a ragged black stable boy. Whether modeled on an old man or a young boy we will never know, but we know that in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as “Jim Crow” — an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character.

Rice, a white man, was one of the first performers to wear blackface makeup — his skin was darkened with burnt cork. His Jim Crow song-and-dance routine was an astounding success that took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York in 1832. He also performed to great acclaim in London and Dublin. By then “Jim Crow” was a stock character in minstrel shows, along with counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. Rice’s subsequent blackface characters were Sambos, Coons, and Dandies. White audiences were receptive to the portrayals of blacks as singing, dancing, grinning fools.

By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.

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Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms. Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.

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A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. [...] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War

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The current debate about gun control, spurred by the Newtown Tragedy, causes me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

Now wait! I’m not taking any position (in this post, anyway) regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. A useful book on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are availble via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
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1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor efeectively with tha cane knives and axes they weilded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distictive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

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Voter Suppression in North Carolina: Then… and Now?

Various news reports have raised the concern that deliberate steps are being taken to suppress the vote of people from low income or minority backgrounds in the 2012 elections. These concerns are discussed in the following video from the group Democracy North Carolina. Democracy NC is a nonpartisan organization that “uses research, organizing, and advocacy to increase voter participation, reduce the influence of big money in politics and achieve a government that is truly of the people, for the people and by the people.”

The video draws comparisons between what some see as today’s voter suppression tactics and those of the post Reconstruction era, when a numbers of methods – including violence – were used to prevent the exercise of black suffrage in North carolina. Those suppression schemes were specifically targeted at the state’s so-called Fusion Movement, in which a coalition of whites and blacks had great success placing its candidates into office in the 1890s. One key event in the backlash against Fusion politics was the so-called Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 or the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. As noted in wikipedia,

…(the insurrection) occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 and following days; it is considered a turning point in North Carolina politics following Reconstruction. Originally labeled a race riot, it is now termed a coup d’etat, as white Democratic insurrectionists overthrew the legitimately elected local government, the only such event in United States history.

Warning: folks of some political leanings might be off-put by the references to current-day politics, or, by what might be perceived as partisanship leanings by the filmmakers. If you wish only to explore the story of Nineteenth Century voter suppression, go to the 2:20 mark in the video. The video, Forward Together, Not One Step Back, is on Vimeo.

 

John Trowbridge’s Visit to the Desolate South (Post-War Atlanta)


This illustration shows a group of freedmen in Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1865, holding a “street convention” to discuss their political status in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.
Source: The South: A tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people, by John Trowbridge.

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In the summer of 1865, and in the following winter, I made two visits to the South, spending four months in eight of the principal States which had lately been in rebellion. I saw the most noted battle-fields of the war. I made acquaintance with officers and soldiers of both sides. I followed in the track of the destroying armies. I travelled by railroad, by steamboat, by stage-coach, and by private conveyance; meeting and conversing with all sorts of people, from high State officials to “low-down” whites and negroes; endeavoring, at all times and in all places, to receive correct impressions of the country, of its inhabitants, of the great contest of arms just closed, and of the still greater contest of principles not yet terminated.

So began John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916) in his book The South: A tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people. (The full, ridiculously long title of the book is The South: a tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people; being a description of the present state of the country, its agriculture, railroad, business and finances; giving an account of Confederate misrule, and of the sufferings, necessities and mistakes, political views, social condition and prospects, of the aristocracy, middle class, poor whites and Negroes; including visits to patriot graves and rebel prisons, and embracing special notes on the free labor system, education and moral elevation of the freemen, also, on plans of reconstruction and inducements to emigration; from personal observations and experience during months of Southern travel.)

Trowbridge wrote The South under commission of L. Stebbins, a Hartford, Connecticut, publisher. Trowbridge’s “tour” of the post-war South was one of several such first hand accounts of the region that were produced by the press. His book won praise for its impartial, fair-minded approach to the subject, and the detail and breadth of his study.

I purchased a copy of The South during a recent visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and found it an interesting and compelling read. The original version is in the public domain; it can be viewed by going here: http://www.archive.org/details/southtourofitsba7228trow

Below, I have provided an interesting excerpt from the book about post-war Atlanta. Large swaths of that city were devastated during Sherman’s march to the sea in late 1864, and the ruin was still evident when Trowbridge visited the area the following year. This excerpt touches on several subjects, including:
• the harshness of post-war life in the South, especially for freed blacks
• Union support among poor southern whites
• relations between blacks and poor whites in the South
• views on who was responsible for some of the ruin in Atlanta (this differs from the view that Sherman’s Union forces were to blame for all of the burning in the city)
• African American dialogue concerning their political future in the post-war South.
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From John Trowbridge’s The South:

IN AND ABOUT ATLANTA (Chapter LXIII)

A sun-bright morning did not transmute the town into a place of very great attractiveness. Everywhere were ruins and rubbish, mud and mortar and misery. The burnt streets were rapidly rebuilding; but in the mean while hundreds of the inhabitants, white and black, rendered homeless by the destruction of the city, were living in wretched hovels, which made the suburbs look like a fantastic encampment of gypsies or Indians.

Some of the negro huts were covered entirely with ragged fragments of tin-roofing from the burnt government and railroad buildings. Others were constructed partly of these irregular blackened patches, and partly of old boards, with roofs of huge, warped, slouching shreds of tin, kept from blowing away by stones placed on the top. Notwithstanding the ingenuity displayed in piecing these rags together, they formed but a miserable shelter at the best. “In dry weather, it’s good as anybody’s houses. But they leaks right bad when it rains; then we have to pile our things up to keep ‘em dry.” So said a colored mother of six children, whose husband was killed “fighting for de Yankees,” and who supported her family of little ones by washing. “Sometimes I gits along tolerable; sometimes right slim; but dat’s de way wid everybody; — times is powerful hard right now.”
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Roger Williams University, Nashville,TN – Academic class c. 1899


Roger Williams University – Nashville, Tenn.-Academic class (1899)
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-126752; see here for more details
Fashion Note: Most of the men have their hair parted in the middle; this was a common hair style at the time

After the Civil War, freedmen exhibited an insatiable desire for education. Throughout the South, schools, institutes, colleges, and universities sprang up to provide places of learning for ex-slaves. These institutions might have any of the following:
• an education or “normal” school, to train teachers
• an industrial school, to provide vocational and craft training
• a theological school, to prepare students for the ministry
• an agricultural school, for instruction in farming skills and practices
• an academic school, for learning in the arts and sciences.

The distingushed-looking young people in the photo are from the academic class of Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tennessee, circa 1899. Post-war Nashville was an appropriate for freedmen schools. During the war, the city’s black population went from under 4,000 to over 12,000, mainly as a result of slaves fleeing their masters or the ravages of the war. This count of blacks does not include any number of United States Colored Troops who might have been in the city. (Tennessee provided 20,000 men to the USCT, the third most of any state.) Many of these migrants or soldiers stayed in the city after the war.

Roger Williams University began as a school for Baptist teachers, but it expanded over time. As noted in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture,

One of four freedmen’s colleges in Nashville, Roger Williams University began as elementary classes for African American Baptist preachers in 1864. Classes were held in the home of Daniel W. Phillips, a white minister and freedmen’s missionary from Massachusetts. By 1865 the classes had moved to the basement of the First Colored Baptist Mission.

In 1866 the “Baptist College” was officially named the Nashville Normal and Theological Institute under the auspices of New York’s American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS). A year later, the school moved from old Union army barracks on Cedar and Spruce streets to a two-story frame building at Park and Polk Streets..

Soon after granting its first bachelor’s degree, the Nashville Normal and Theological Institute… started a new campus in 1874-75 (near) Vanderbilt University… African Americans held faculty positions and served on the board of trustees. In 1886 Roger Williams expanded the curriculum to include a master’s degree program.

I’ll talk some more about Roger Williams University in my next post.

Saluting the flag at the Whittier Primary School, Hampton, Virginia, circa 1899-1900


Saluting the flag at the Whittier Primary School, Hampton, Virginia
Click on the image for a larger/higher resolution version of the photograph.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-65770; see here for more details

The picture was taken in 1899 or 1900, just as the full force of segregation was tightening itself around the necks of African Americans – sometimes in a literal way.

Yet, these children – or their parents or teachers – still saw fit to salute the flag. But then, that flag might have freed those children’s grandparents, or even their parents. So the flag was still something to respect, perhaps even without a sense of irony.


Close-up on boy holding the flag

Florida Portraits


Nellie Franklin, holding a parasol; Tallahassee, Florida circa 1885-1911
Source: The State Library & Archives of Florida, Image Number HA00227 (click here for more details)

The two photos in this post are part of a wonderful collection of pictures taken by Alvan S. Harper which can be seen at Florida Memory.com, the online site for the State Library & Archives of Florida.

Alvan S. Harper was a professional photographer from Pennsylvania who moved to Florida in 1884. He operated a photography studio in Tallahassee until he passed away in 1911. His clientele included the black middle class. Perhaps it was his northern origins, or maybe, his skill as a photographer. Whatever-his portraits of African Americans are always dignified, and often gorgeous. His subjects display a sense of pride and assurance that is almost tangible, and belies the coming of an era (Jim Crow) that would challenge the confidence of all black Americans. (The collection also includes pictures of whites and their black servants.)

A link to the photo collection is here. Enjoy.


Man in a satin-faced coat, holding a cane; Tallahassee, Florida circa 1885-1911
Source: The State Library & Archives of Florida, Image Number: HA00969 (click here for more details)