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.

This is one of many versions of the song that, according to wikipedia, uses “Standard English” (the song was typically sung using a “negro dialect”):

Come, listen, all you girls and boys, I’m just from Tuckahoe;
I’m going to sing a little song, My name’s Jim Crow.

{Chorus: Wheel about, and turn about, and do just so;
Every time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.}

I went down to the river, I didn’t mean to stay,
But there I saw so many girls, I couldn’t get away.

I’m roaring on the fiddle, and down in old Virginia,
They say I play the scientific, like master Paganini,

I cut so many monkey shines, I dance the galoppade;
And when I’m done, I rest my head, on shovel, hoe or spade.

I met Miss Dina Scrub one day, I give her such a buss [kiss];
And then she turn and slap my face, and make a mighty fuss.

The other girls they begin to fight, I told them wait a bit;
I’d have them all, just one by one, as I thought fit.

I whip the lion of the west, I eat the alligator;
I put more water in my mouth, then boil ten loads of potatoes.

The way they bake the hoe cake, Virginia never tire;
They put the dough upon the foot, and stick them in the fire.

According to the book John Strausbaugh’s book Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, lyrics were often changed, or added to the song; consider these these lyrics from 1832, which are both prescient and progressive:

Should dey get to fighting,
Perhaps de blacks will rise,
For deir wish for freedon,
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.

But overall, blackface minstrelry was about exploiting and demeaning the image and music of African Americans. Although this “art form” persisted into the 20th century (as indicated by the brief movie clips in the above video), it eventually became taboo. Jim Crow as an art form, like Jim Crow as public policy and social custom, is history.

I highly recommend a visit to the online version of the Jim Crow Museum. The museum seeks to promote racial understanding and healing by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting objects related to racial segregation, anti-black caricatures, civil rights, and African American achievement. It is a great resource for those who wish to see how African Americans were represented in American culture, and undertand how those representations affected the American society, polity, and economy.

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