Thomas Rice wanted to be famous. The young actor, nicknamed "Daddy," performed in theaters throughout New York for much of the 1820s, but remained frustrated by his small roles and jealous of his colleagues who enjoyed greater celebrity. Seeking new opportunities in the West, Rice accepted work as a stage carpenter in Louisville, Kentucky, an adjunct performer for an acting troupe in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a freelance prop man for a dilapidated playhouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
While in preparation for a stage show in Pittsburgh, Rice concocted a plan to win the notoriety he so desperately desired. He persuaded a black steamboat baggage carrier to accompany him to the theater. During the performance, Rice secretly led the man through a private entrance and into the dressing room backstage. There he commanded the worker to disrobe and proceeded to clothe himself in the man's tattered apparel and his patched shoes. Rice applied black cork all over his face and topped his costume with a matted black wig and a disheveled straw hat. The actor listened for the bell, which signaled the play's intermission, and sauntered onto stage. Before a curious audience he began to dance, exaggerating his movements, limping and shuffling, and belted a distorted version of a song he had heard a slave deliver while in Cincinnati, Ohio:
O, 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.
The Atlantic Monthly reported several years later that the all white audience responded with tremendous enthusiasm: "The effect was electric. Such a thunder of applause as followed was never heard before within the shell of that old theatre.... Next day found the song of Jim Crow, in one style of delivery or another, on everybody's tongue. Clerks hummed it serving customers at shop counters, artisans thundered it at their toils... boys whistled it on the streets, ladies warbled it in parlors, and house-maids repeated it to the clink of crockery in kitchens."24
The parody earned Thomas "Daddy" Rice instant success and took him from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Boston, and back to New York City, where his Jim Crow routine earned more money for the fashionable, upscale Bowery Theatre than any other performance to date. White audiences indulged in the comedic performance and returned again and again to enjoy the elaborate spectacle. By the mid-1830s, Rice's "Jump Jim Crow" routine became America's first international hit.
After the Civil War, minstrelsy, the slapstick blackface performances popularized by Rice, survived as a beloved form of entertainment. (Even Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens, an avid supporter of abolition before the war, enjoyed entertaining dinner guests in the 1870s and 1880s by performing his own Jim Crow impersonations.)25 That such an industry based on stereotypical images of blacks continued to thrive through the turn of the century reveals that white American consumers preferred to imagine African-Americans as jovial, gimpy buffoons rather than accept more sober and truthful representations. By the early 1900s, the still fashionable term "Jim Crow" had evolved from a way for whites to refer to the "comic" and "simple" existence of an entire race of people into a description of the laws that controlled them; the ludicrous portrayal of a crippled black slave came to define the elaborate system of racial segregation in place in the American South since the 1870s.
Why would such a seemingly outdated phenomenon—one born during the height of the domestic slave trade, when the institution spread rapidly westward and few leaders anywhere in the country supported federally mandated abolition—survive decades after the Emancipation Proclamation? The answer, like the moniker "Jim Crow," is intimately connected to the enforcement of racial apartheid in the American South.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Republicans in Congress ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which prohibited slavery, guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law, and granted universal male suffrage. What followed was a brief, albeit revolutionary, period of biracial democracy in which African-Americans, many of them former slaves, seized political, educational, and economic opportunities to reconstruct the society within which they lived. Some 2,000 blacks served in nearly every level of government in the South, from the school board to the Senate, even amidst a hostile environment of disenfranchised southern Democrats.
By the late-1870s, however, Radical Reconstruction had come to an end. As the central government withdrew federal troops and re-enfranchised ex-Confederate men, Democrats quickly regained power throughout the South and began to dismantle policies instituted during the prior years. Whites employed violence to remove black southerners from positions of authority, intimidate black voters, and purge black families from coveted land. As northern leaders looked on, southern lawmakers, business-owners, employers, landlords, educators, religious leaders, and politicians cooperated to resurrect the sort of racial hierarchy in place during the antebellum years.
Even as the radical era came to an end, however, black citizens continued to vie for greater freedom, still boldly challenging centuries of anti-black traditions. Those most likely to violate white southern customs were the children and grandchildren of former slaves, the newest generation since the war and the first to have no recollection of slavery and its horrors. Whites spoke disparagingly of these "new negroes," those who seemed less respectful, less faithful, less moral, and less carefree than their ancestors. "They don't sing as they used to," one white woman from Atlanta told a northern visitor. "Every year, it seems to me, they have been losing more and more of their carefree good humor. I sometimes feel that I don't know them any more... they have grown so glum and serious that I'm free to say I'm scared of them!"26
The growing population of "new negroes," many of them more educated and less fearful of white authority than their predecessors, posed a significant threat to white domination in the South. In response, white southerners devised a plan to quarantine and control them. From the late 1870s to the 1960s, every state in the South, along with several states outside of the former Confederacy, including Indiana, Maryland, Kansas, Oregon, and California, passed laws to prohibit the mixing of races in just about every foreseeable circumstance. Taking cues from northern segregation policies enacted prior to the Civil War, southern legislators dictated where black citizens would eat, drink, sit, swim, walk, work, play, learn, live, be hospitalized, and be buried. Laws mandated separate seating areas for blacks on public transport, in sports stadiums, in restaurants, and in playhouses and movie theaters. City and state officials established whites-only lavatories, drinking fountains, waiting rooms, prison cells, ticket counters, and telephone booths. Furthermore, some laws did more than simply separate the races; black southerners were prohibited from accessing certain facilities altogether, such as public swimming pools, tennis courts, and roller skating rinks. And housing codes forbade black families from renting, purchasing, or building homes except in neighborhoods designated for them.
Some statutes even required items touched by or pertaining to black citizens to be isolated from those used by whites. In some instances, courtrooms maintained two Bibles—one for black witnesses and one for whites. A West Virginia law passed in 1890 required black birth, marriage, and death records to be stored separately from those of whites. Similarly, Florida legislators in 1939 ordered schoolbooks used by black students to be shelved separately from those used by whites; several school districts across the South prohibited the exchange of schoolbooks between white and black schools.
Black schools in Jim Crow societies often had few textbooks for students in the first place. Democratic-controlled local governments and white school board leaders refused resources to black educational institutions, so teachers instructing black pupils usually did so without adequate facilities or proper supplies. Such a system disadvantaged black children and ultimately served to enforce white supremacist theories that blacks were intellectually inferior.
Southern Democratic governments sought not only to limit black academic pursuits, but also to curb political participation. Radical Reconstruction had taught whites that the black vote was intimately linked to that population's quest for equal rights. Thus, it had to be suppressed. Although the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution prohibited the use of race to bar anyone from voting, southern legislators found loopholes; they enforced a series of requirements, including poll taxes, property qualifications, and literacy tests, that appeared color-blind, but actually worked to prevent blacks—who in the South were disproportionately poor and illiterate—from voting. (Though thousands of poor and illiterate whites also lost their right to vote under these rules, officials often allowed them to skip voting tests altogether.)
African-Americans continued to cast ballots in large numbers in many southern counties until the 1890s, and some even continued to hold office, with a few maintaining seats in Congress until the turn of the century. But as the years passed, with tougher voting requirements and increasingly violent harassment at the polls, black southerners found it more and more difficult to participate in the political process. Ultimately, white authority all but eliminated black suffrage in the South, so much so that by 1940, less that 5% of eligible black southerners were registered at the polls.
The most common kind of Jim Crow legislation, however, applied to sex, or, as the text of an Ohio law passed in 1877 read, "illicit carnal intercourse" between a person of "pure white blood" and anyone with "a distinct and visible admixture of African blood."27 Throughout the Jim Crow era, at least twenty-seven states, including California, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, and Wyoming, enforced stringent anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage, intercourse, and cohabitation. No other Jim Crow code or law extended so widely beyond the borders of the American South. Race-based legal restrictions pertaining to marriage were one of the first proposed in the post-Radical Reconstruction era and the last to go. (The Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation statues unconstitutional in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, three years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation and two years after the Voting Rights Act banned discriminatory requirements for voter registration.)
Black southerners were forced to comply not simply with state policies and city codes, but with unwritten "negro laws," as well. These implicit boundaries, unspoken social codes and customs underwrote all official legislation and served to reinforce racial hierarchies. For instance, one wrong move, look, word, or reaction could result in imprisonment, the loss of a job, or a fate far worse.
In a society in which whites used intimidation, harassment, and violence to contain and control blacks, normally positive individual attributes like confidence, intelligence, and achievement could be suicidal. Southern black families that achieved even modest economic success, black men and women who attempted to vote, and those who failed to act in a servile manner in the presence of whites were subject to punishment at the hands of white mobs. These vigilante groups, which included religious men, family men, and all sorts of citizens from various classes and occupations, were responsible for some of the most appalling crimes ever recorded in the United States—terrorism, arson, torture, dismemberment, sadism, and slaughter. Scholars have been unable to agree on the true number of people murdered during the Jim Crow years, but well over 4,000 black deaths have been documented. Even an accurate tally of deaths cannot adequately explain just how treacherous a world this was for black southerners and, fundamentally, all those—including white citizens defiant of segregation laws—who threatened white supremacy in the South. (It must be noted that not all lynching murders occurred in the South. In fact, some 10 to 15% of these cases occurred elsewhere, in places such as Marion, Indiana, Maryville, Missouri, and Salisbury, Maryland.)28
In the decades following Radical Reconstruction, black southerners were thoroughly excluded from the same society that had, for two centuries, depended entirely upon their inclusion. Theories of white supremacy and stringent patterns of racial etiquette underpinned all economic, legal, political, and social institutions. Through a system of racial segregation, psychological subjugation, and anti-black violence, the white South sought to reclaim the power it had lost after the Civil War; in many ways, it succeeded.
And yet black Americans never found themselves entirely powerless, reduced to the status of mere victims of an oppressive system. The history of Jim Crow is a story of white power, but it's also a story of black survival and resilience. Many of the ways in which African-American men and women responded to the Jim Crow system cannot be described as explicitly rebellious. In fact, most of the choices that black southerners made each day resembled a sort of resignation. In light of what we've learned about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power struggles that followed, it may be difficult to comprehend the fact that most black southerners, prior to the 1950s, chose to yield to the obstacles that prevented them from exercising their rights. These men and women hoped to live their lives to the fullest within the confines of the Jim Crow system; they followed the rules because their day-to-day experiences taught them that any attempts to challenge centuries of anti-black traditions were futile, if not fatal. In particular, the older generation—those who had been born into slavery—recognized the fatal consequences that could come from asking questions, pursuing higher education, or seeking economic advancement.
Yet, even through acts of accommodation, many tested the limits of segregation and discovered ways to undermine the system without appearing to do so. Stripped of political power and civil rights and faced each day with the threat of violence, many chose to carefully navigate through the complex maze of rules and restrictions in order to ensure a future for themselves and their families. Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became a spokesperson for black vocational learning, vowed to be their guide; through encouraging self-help and accommodation, Washington hoped to protect his people and aid them in earning educational opportunities, better jobs, and, ultimately, economic independence. Black citizens, he preached, must not fight disenfranchisement and segregation but must instead focus on proving themselves worthy of the vote and social equality. "[T]he whole future of the Negro," Washington professed in his autobiography, "rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character."29 His many black supporters trusted that this plan for peaceful cohabitation with whites and gradual economic advancement would help chip away—however slowly—at an elaborate system of oppression.
Not all African-Americans accepted the plan for survival and advancement touted by leaders such as Washington. The younger generation of black southerners, many of them more educated and less fearful of white authority, rejected accommodation, even as a strategy to earn new rights. They were far more cynical than their predecessors for they believed that by playing by white rules, blacks would forever lose. Success could not be attained, they resolved, without provoking white resentment and inviting retaliation. The intimidation, harassment, terrorism, and violence they endured betrayed any expectations for meaningful change and convinced them that the "American Dream" did not apply to them.
Why, then, didn't black southerners in the Jim Crow South retaliate against their white oppressors? Why didn't they stage a mass revolution? Why didn't whole communities take up arms against those who after Radical Reconstruction had employed violence to strip them of positions of authority, the vote, and their land? Why didn't they implement their own equally effective brand of violence to demand justice and punish the white mobs that terrorized their communities?
Some did. These acts, however, were all too often sporadic and unorganized, and they resulted, without exception, in greater white violence. In fact, the odds were stacked against armed defense and rebellion of any kind. Throughout the Jim Crow era, anti-black violence underpinned each economic, legal, political, and social institution in the South. White lawmakers, business-owners, employers, landlords, educators, religious leaders, and politicians worked in concert to ensure white supremacy by any means necessary. Black men and women who demonstrated too much aspiration, confidence, or success lost their jobs, their homes, their farms, their freedom, or their lives. Individual attempts to prevent such crimes were in vain. Furthermore, from the late nineteenth century through the 1950s, the federal government and the rest of the country remained indifferent to these injustices and, in some cases, condoned them. Thus, any attempt at organized armed rebellion would have led to a race war that black southerners were certain to have lost.
Living within a highly organized system of white power that seemed as impenetrable as it was treacherous, African-Americans—black leaders as well as average men and women—resisted, rationalized, undermined, accommodated to, migrated from, and tested the limits of a system created to control every aspect of their lives.
The Jim Crow era lasted for nearly a century, largely because the federal government and the majority of non-black Americans ignored or condoned this apartheid and the barbarism associated with it. Jim Crow institutions officially fell in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement effectively destroyed many of the legal, political, and social structures that hindered African-American progress for so long. The damage inflicted from this dark century could not be (and was not) thoroughly resolved by a decade of peaceful protests or by the violent riots and black separatist movements that followed. Some would argue, in fact, that although the term "Jim Crow" and the black caricatures first associated with the phrase refer today to a bygone era in American history, echoes of this troubling time continue to haunt the nation.