Early in the 19th Century all sorts of distinct characters were emerging as entertainment types in the popular culture of the common man. One such group was billed as "Ethiopian Delineators," an euphemistic term for white performers in blackface. With their arresting appearance and curious material, their popularity grew, performing in tent shows, between acts of plays and at Barnum's Museum.
One of these performers was Thomas D. Rice who so thoroughly incorporated African-American dialect, song and dance into his blackface act that he was later to be dubbed as, "The Father of American Minstrelsy." Born in Manhattan in 1808, Rice was a traveling actor by 1827 appearing in rural stages throughout the South and Western Frontier as well as his native New York.
Rice is credited as the creator of the character "Jim Crow." As the story goes, true or not, in the early 1830's Rice was performing in Louisville. A man named Crow ran a livery stable behind the theatre in which Rice was appearing. Between shows, the actor enjoyed leaning on the windowsill and watching the activities in the stable. Frequently, he would spy an old slave named Jim who had adopted his master's family name. Badly deformed, Jim's right knee was drawn high and his left leg was quite crooked resulting in a grotesque limp. Dressed in rags, the old slave sang an old tune and at the end of each verse his twisted legs executed a step known as "rockin' de wheel." The refrain went: "Wheel about, turn abut,do jis so, .n' ebery time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow."
Fascinated, Rice recognized the basis for a unique new number. Craving authenticity, Rice bought the slaves shabby clothing and convinced him to teach Rice the song as well as the eccentric dance. He quickened the tempo and added new topical verses. After polishing the act in the hinterlands, Rice returned to New York to present his creation to that city's more sophisticated audiences. The orchestra opened with a short introduction then Rice appeared singing:
"Oh, 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 reaction was an immediate sensation garnering Rice (now know as "Jim Crow Rice") acclaim and wealth in New York and in London. By 1838, the Boston Post reported that, "the two most popular characters in the world are Queen Victoria and Jim Crow. It was an act that defined his career, performing it into the 1850's when growing paralysis ended his life's work.
Whether this account or Rice's discovery/creation of the Jim Crow character is true or not, it's missing one thing: where did the slave stable hand get it? African culture lore includes many tales of trickster animals, including birds such as crows who appear foolish, but manage to get their way through cleverness and luck. The Yoruba culture of East Africa tells of a crow named Jim. Those tales traveled to american with the slave trade. In the 17th century, laws were enacted to prohibit slaves from performing their native dances. It was believed that their way of dancing formed a cross with their feet, considered blasphemous. To circumvent the law, slaves developed a shuffle dance where their feet didn't cross - it was called the Jim Crow.
The irony was that a phrase, Jim Crow, made famous by a performer to entertain and amuse became the term to represent oppressive laws that segregated public transportation, theatres, public schools, etc. When the laws were challenged, the United States Supreme Court upheld the practice in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. They were not overturned until 1954.
In a recent speech, President Obama cited the Jim Crow era, among others, in refuting a Donald Trump assertion that African Americans have never experienced worse conditions in this country as those they are now living under.