Jim Crow: Song, Character, and Symbol

The character of “Jim Crow” has had a long and varied life. Most commonly known as the term for racism and segregation in the American south post-emancipation, the Jim crow was first popularized in the early nineteenth century through song and minstrelsy. Coming out of the song “Jump Jim Crow,” the character was physically manifested in blackface minstrelsy by white male performers. The exact origins of Jim Crow within the song are fuzzy, yet that did not seem to matter to Thomas Rice, the “father of minstrelsy,” who created a caricature out of Jim Crow.1

Although there are variations on the tale, the story goes that Thomas Rice, a white actor originally from New York City, had the idea to create the blackface character of Jim Crow after hearing a black man singing “Jump Jim Crow.”2 In a grotesque impression, Rice integrated the song and character into his traveling show. This early version of Jim Crow had one primary purpose: to make a profit for Thomas Rice by capitalizing on the willingness of white Americans to laugh at racist stereotypes. Despite the role that Jim Crow, and the song “Jump Jim Crow” played in perpetuating stereotypes by becoming the face and name of racism, the original intent was to make money by capitalizing on the social situation that already existed.

As a song written before Emancipation, Thomas Rice’s version of “Jump Jim Crow” is not especially remarkable in terms of its stance on race. Sung in a stereotypical “black” dialect, it tells the story of Jim Crow’s journey through the south from his perspective. He is presented as a violent man, who hits other people at least twice, and as a crazy man, who sits on sits on a hornet’s nest, and eats an alligator.3 The tune is jaunty and catchy, and the chorus is repeated frequently. Typical of its portrayal of black men by white men for the time, “Jump Jim Crow” provided an effective combination of catchy tune with an easily replicable character, making both the song and the blackface character financially profitable for Thomas Rice. Due to the success of this song and persona, Rice became one of the first blackface minstrels, touring the country with other productions such as “Ginger Blue” and “Jim Crow in London.” Rice commercialized and standardized the transfer of a little-known song into a profitable product that radicalized the racial stereotypes already present, and set the precedent for blackface minstrelsy characters and songs to come. From a character in a song, Jim Crow grew into a cultural marker of all that was wrong with white Americans’ attitudes and treatment of black Americans. Today, “Jump Jim Crow” is being re-appropriated without blackface. In the first clip, above, a man sings “Jump Jim Crow” without any “dialect” and without some verses. This version is much more languid than a modern instrumental version, linked below. The question remains of how much weight should be given to the connection between the song, the character, and the legacy of blackface minstrelsy.

“Jump Jim Crow.” History of Minstrelsy: From “Jump Jim Crow” to “The Jazz Singer.” http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/jimcrow-to-jolson/jump-jim-crow/

2  Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 8, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1606088.

3 Jump Jim Crow, C Major. Viking Press, 1937. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cscore%7C771896. 

Masculinity and Minstrelsy: Intersectional Issues in Blackface Performances

As long as the entertainment industry has sought to reach the masses it has caused controversy. Minstrel shows, the first form of mass entertainment in the United States,1 is one of the most prolific examples of this. Minstrelsy relied heavily on songs and dances performed in blackface, the act of covering one’s face in burnt cork to give the illusion that the actor or actress is black themselves. Characters that were in blackface were played as caricatures of stereotypes in the African American community.

Thomas Rice as the original Jim Crow

These performances not only relied on racist notions of identity but also gendered ones. White male performers could experiment with identity and commodify it by playing on the entertainment quality of challenging racial and gendered notions of identity.2 Thomas Rice, the actor who created the Jim Crow character, is one example of these performers.3 The Jim Crow character was modeled as a former slave who wished to return to the way things had been during the antebellum years. During and after reconstruction real, living, breathing black American men lived in fear and persecution due to racist beliefs that created a scary and wild image of them. Minstrel shows furthered these images by showcasing them as stupid and brutish. The Jim Crow character was an emasculating and oftentimes pitiful version of the African American man.4 This portrayal stood as a stark contrast from the expectations of white men during this time period. A poster from a five person minstrel show shows this contrast. In it you can see through their difference in posture, clothing, and personality the inferiority of their African American characters.

The cover to sheet music for a five part piece designed for a blackface minstrel show

Jokes at the expense of the African American men were the real cherry on top. For example, the Jim Crow character’s wish to return to plantation life also included his desire for the protection of his master. This falsely portrayed wish for domination says more about white men than it does about their black counterparts. It exhibits the racist and sexist values of the United States and the too slow change in societal acceptance. Minstrelsy was a popular and important part of the American entertainment industry. Like many forms of entertainment, though, it helped to fuel the fire of hate a prejudice and that cannot be forgotten.

1 Weiner, Melissa F. “Minstrelsy.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

2  Locke, Joseph. “Blackface.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

3 Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

4 Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

Performing Jim Crow: Stereotyping a People

Williams Clay, Edward. “Mr. T. Rice as the Original Jim Crow”. In Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture by W. T. Lhamon, Jr. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).

In 1828 a New York City native, Thomas Rice, created the character of Jim Crow while performing in Louisville Kentucky. Performing in blackface, Rice presented the character of Jim Crow as a ragged, lazy, child-like, and irresponsible black man. Rice’s performance turned him into a celebrity, igniting the popularity of blackface minstrelsy throughout the United States.1

Blackface minstrelsy perpetuated and exaggerated stereotypes of blacks and thus served as a means of justifying slavery. Jim Crow was no exception. Jim Crow or the Sambo character quickly became the stereotype of black men. Depicted as ignorant, lazy, childish, and completely dependent on their master, minstrel performers justified slavery by implying that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves. Spectators preferred this depiction of black men as loyal to their masters rather than the alternative stereotype of the Savage who was rebellious and would attack white women.2

“Minstrel Music with African American Jim Crow Caricatures.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612304.

Published in 1847, the cover of the Jim Crow Jubilee sheet music, “a collection of Negro melodies” promotes the Jim Crow caricature and blackface minstrelsy. The cover mirrors the staging of a minstrel show: one central figure surrounded by three other performers with a fiddle, mandolin, and bones. The crowd of people in the background also suggests that this image is set on a plantation and that this characterization of black people’s appearance and behavior is representative of the black population.

The central figure of Jim Crow greatly resembles the original image of Jim Crow that advertised for Rice’s performances. Both feature a smiling black man with exaggerated and comical facial features and ragged clothing, including torn pants and shoes. While we discussed in class that performers often wore fantastical clothing on stage, the earlier characterizations of Jim Crow highlighted this disheveled appearance. In both images, the Jim Crows also strike a similar pose as if they are in the middle of dancing to the blackface minstrel music.

The origins of Jim Crow in black face minstrelsy highlight how a character’s name came to be a symbol of black people as a whole, discrimination, and institutional segregation across the South. Depictions of Jim Crow and other black characters demonstrated to audience members that blacks were inferior to whites in their appearance, speech, intellect, and general behavior and personality. This characterization reaffirmed color boundaries and led to the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws.

Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Sear ch/Display/1606088.

Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africaname ri can2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1407153.

Walt Minstry: Dumbo’s Jim Crow

Disney’s feature film Dumbo, released in 1941, tells the tale of a loveable baby elephant born with unnaturally large ears which he is consequently able to use for flying. One of the scenes presented in the film presents some highly problematic material however. Halfway through the film, Dumbo runs into a group of crows who assist in motivating, encouraging, and teaching him to fly. By aid of the “magic feather” the crows give him, Dumbo is then able to return to the circus and perform a revolutionary new act which crazes the nation.

Unfortunately, the crows Dumbo runs into are presented as African Americans. The very fact that Disney chose the particular characterization of crows to display black-coded stereotypes is questionable, but to make matters even worse, their leader’s scripted name is Jim Crow. The blatant reference to the offensive term of Jim Crow, the stereotyped language given to the crows, the voice casting of African Americans as the crows they’re playing, the animator behind their creation, and the role they play in the film’s plot all pose large problems which can’t be overlooked.

“Jim Crow” is a term full of racial connotations most often associated with the Jim Crow laws of the early 1900’s. Historian C. Vann Woodward notes that while, “The origin of the term ‘Jim Crow’ applied to Negroes is lost in obscurity. Thomas D. Rice wrote a song and dance called ‘Jim Crow’ in 1832, and the term had become an adjective by 1838.” The origin and etymology of the term comes specifically from a minstrel performance by Thomas D. Rice from the early 19th century. Although the exact origins of Rice’s inspiration for the Jim Crow character are unknown, it quickly became a sensational performance phenomenon. In his book Jump Jim Crow, W. T. Lhamon Jr explores the history and characteristics of the Jim Crow craze. He states that “No other American cultural figure stirred a legacy that endures such widespread censure as well as continual appropriation.” Such a widespread cultural figure can’t be referred to without indicating the negative racial stereotypes associated with it. A visual comparison between the two characters confirms the similarities between T. D. Rice’s representation of Jim Crow in minstrelsy and the animation of Dumbo’s crows. Even the poses, dance, and body language of Dumbo is a direct tribute to the original minstrel tradition.jim crowjim crow dumbo

Having already established a problematic visual representation of Jim Crow, the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” next adds a disturbing linguistic stereotyping of African American language. The main line of the chorus uses speech reminiscent of early minstrel songs: “But I be don’ seen ‘bout ev’rythang, when I see an elephant fly” It’s interesting to note that the lyrics of this song in current Disney songbooks have changed the lyrics to “But I think I will have seen ev’rything when I see an elephant fly.” The removal of dialect from the printed sheet music seems to reflect a recognition of the racist implications to it.

The controversial visual and linguistic stereotypes presented in Dumbo’s crows are further complicated by the voice casting. Jim Crow is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, while the rest of the crows are voiced by the African American choir Hall Johnson. (The same chorus Disney used in the racially controversial film Song of the South.) Whether it’s more problematic to have African American actors voicing racist stereotypes or to have a white actor voice a caricature of Jim Crow is difficult to determine. To have a white actor giving a racially black coded performance, even if animated, is the same act as a blackface minstrel show. And if the animated character being performed is Jim Crow himself, what makes this any different than T. D. Rice’s own performance a century prior to Dumbo’s release?

Works Cited:

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.

Lhamon, W. T. Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Disney Productions: The New Illustrated Disney Songbook. New York: Abrams, 1986. Print.

Zip Coon…Dance Tune?

Almost all of us know the melody of “Turkey in the Straw,” whether singing it at summer camp when we were kids or singing along with The Wiggles before school. The song “Zip Coon” is also based off of same melody and was most popular in the 1830’s and 40’s when it was sung in minstrel shows to depict the “coon” stereotype. Despite its controversial racist lyrics, the melody is catchy and works well for dancing.

When minstrelsy was becoming popular, so were the tunes that were being performed. What better way for people to enjoy these famous songs but to dance to them as well? One of the popular dance forms during the 1840’s was the quadrille, which is related to square dancing today. It contained six parts and four couples would dance in a square formation. This composition features six popular tunes from minstrel shows, including “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow,” and uses these tunes as the six parts of the quadrille. The cover features depictions of many famous minstrel show stereotypes.

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By the 1920’s, slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 following the American Civil War. However, segregation remained strongly prevalent throughout the United States. The mindset of white supremacy among non-African American citizens pervaded even into their music. In this arrangement of “Turkey in the Straw” by Otto Bonnell and arranged by Calvin Groom, the cover of the sheet music features an African American man playing a banjo.

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Or so it seems.

Upon closer inspection, the depiction of the man is clearly referencing blackface. When compared with the cover of “The Crow Quadrilles,” the large eyes and clown-like red lips are a means of hearkening back to the “good old days” of minstrelsy. The man is also missing teeth and his hands have an animalistic quality to them, characterizing the African American as less than human.

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The tune of “Turkey in the Straw” is set as an innocuous foxtrot in this arrangement with no racial implications. However, with the cover depicting African Americans in such a condescending fashion, it is clear the intent of the music is to invoke a feeling of nostalgia to a time when white men owned slaves. In that case, this piece is not any less offensive today than “The Crow Quadrilles.” Instead of titling it “Turkey in the Straw,” it may have just as well been labeled as a foxtrot based on “Zip Coon.”


1. Ashley, Robert. “The Crow Quadrilles.” New York City, NY: C.T. Geslain, 1845. http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15037coll1/id/6875.

2. Bonnell, Otto. “Turkey in the Straw.” Arr. by Calvin Grooms. New York City, NY: Leo Feist Inc., 1921. http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/ref/collection/SheetMusic/id/24823.