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Origin of "Jim Crow" Laws

Updated on March 13, 2012

A Song and Dance

The term "Jim Crow" is thought to have been attributed to a song-and-dance routine, “Jump Jim Crow”, performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice while in blackface. It was based on the mockery of African Americans and satire on Andrew Jackson‘s policies around 1832. The number is thought to have been inspired by the song and dance of a crippled African American slave called Jim Cuff or Jim Crow. It became a great 19th century hit and was performed all over the country as Daddy Jim Crow.

The number went as follows:

“Come, listen, all you gals and boys, I'm just from Tuckyhoe; I'm gwine to sing a little song, My name's Jim Crow. Chorus: Wheel about, an' turn about, an' do jis so; Eb'ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow; I went down to de river, I didn't mean to stay, But there I see so many gals, I couldn't get away; I'm rorer on de fiddle, an' down in ole Virginny, Dey say I play de skientific, like massa Paganini. I cut so many munky shines, I dance de gallopade. An' w'en I done, I res' my head, on shubble, hoe or spade. I met Miss Dina Scrub one day, I gib her sich a buss; An' den she turn an' slap my face, an' make a mighty fuss. De udder gals dey 'gin to fight, I tel'd dem wait a bit; I'd hab dem all, jis one by one, as I tourt fit. I wip de lion ob de west, I eat de alligator; I put more water in my mouf, den boil ten load ob 'tator. De way dey bake de hoe cake, Virginny nebber tire.”

Jim Crow Laws

Because of Rice's popularity, "Jim Crow" eventually became a euphemism meaning "African American" by 1838. From there it evolved into the laws of racial segregation known as Jim Crow laws.

These laws were state and local laws enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated racial segregation in all public facilities. The stipulations were supposedly to establish a “separate but equal” status for blacks but in effect accomplished the exact opposite. Treatment and accommodations for blacks became inferior to those of whites in virtually all socially economic and educational categories. The term “Jim Crow”, however didn’t appear in print until about 1904.

Jim Crow Songbook
Jim Crow Songbook


Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation. Also included in these laws were rules for segregating restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was no exception.

However, state-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional in1954 by the Supreme Court. The remaining Jim Crow laws were eliminated by the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877 federal law provided civil rights protection in the South for African Americans who had formerly been slaves. However, n the 1870s, white Democrats gradually regained control of southern states. They accomplished this usually by as a result of elections in which opponents were intimidated and blacks were prevented from voting through acts of violence. White Democrats had regained power in every Southern state. The white, Democratic Party government that followed legislated Jim Crow laws segregating black people from the state's white population.

Blacks were still elected to local offices in the 1880s, but Democrats were passing laws to make voter registration and elections more restrictive. This was done through a series of poll taxes and literacy and comprehension tests which effectively disqualified most blacks and poor whites. “Grandfather Clauses” temporarily permitted some illiterate whites to vote, but in general, voter turnout dropped dramatically. As a result, blacks and poor whites could not serve on juries or in local office.

Since they could not influence the state legislatures their interests were overlooked. While public schools had been established by Reconstruction legislatures, black schools were consistently underfunded. The decreasing price of cotton also kept the states poor.

Woodrow Wilson, a southern Democrat became the first southern-born president of the postwar period. Instead of putting a halt to the segregationist attitudes in his cabinet he went along with them. Federal offices had been integrated since after the Civil War. The Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, commented on black and white women working together in the same office. "I feel sure that this must go against the grain of the white women. Is there any reason why the white women should not have only white women working across from them on the machines?"

President Wilson instituted segregation in Federal offices, despite much opposition. He appointed other political segregationists. Wilson believed racial segregation was in the best interest of black and white Americans alike.

On July 4, 1913, the semi-centennial of Lincoln’s famous declaration “All men are created equal,” Wilson addressed the crowd with this hypocritical statement: “How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as state after state has been added to this, our great family of free men!”

Following WW11, African Americans began challenging segregationist laws. They believed their military service had more than earned them the right to be treated as full citizens.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained impetus it used federal courts to attack Jim Crow statutes.

In the 20th century, the Supreme Court began overturning Jim Crow laws on constitutional grounds.In a show of defiance, private parties such as businesses, political parties and unions created their own “Jim Crow” arrangements. These “arrangements” effectively barred blacks from buying homes in certain neighborhoods, shopping or working in certain stores and working at certain jobs. The Supreme Court was able to block some of these forms of private discrimination. However, the Supreme Court was unwilling to contest other forms of private discrimination at the time.

In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. This act was a catalyst that contributed to undermining the Jim Crow system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Rev. Martin Luther King was another such example. These were followed by numerous other protests against segregation.

In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act which called for a strong voting rights law. This Act ended legally sanctioned state opposition to voting for all federal, state and local elections and provided Federal monitoring of counties with low voter turnout, usually a sign of discriminatory barriers.


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    • jxb7076 profile image

      James Brown 6 years ago from United States of America

      Great article, well researched and written. Thanks for sharing.

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      Just finished reading about a book that deals with exploitation of African-Americans in the music industry. It's also an interesting history of popular music (including blackface minstrels) and the perpetuation of stereotypes. If you're interested, contact me via e-mail for a link.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Y'all welcome. Y'all come back now, ya hear?

    • Lucky Cats profile image

      Kathy 7 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      Really interesting and answered several questions I had about the origin of Jim Crow and subsequent laws identified w/that term. Enlightning and thorough, JY. Thank you!!!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for this interesting history of Jim Crow. I consider myself a student of history but I did not know the origin of the term. Also you listed all the key details of its rise and its demise. I enjoyed reading it.