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The Origin of "Jim Crow"
(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

       Chesnutt made it his ambition to address the problems encountered by blacks in the white dominated society of the 19th century south.  His weapon of choice was literaure.

       Using literature,  Chesnutt created stories that sucinctly illustrated the racial barriers and prejudices faced by blacks and mulattos, and the possible resulting consequences, if these racial barriers were not overcome.  A good example of this kind of effort is his novel entitled The House Behind the Cedars.

       Among the larger problems facing blacks was segregation from the whites.  Beginning in the 1890s, and lasting until the 1960s, a plethera of laws and ordinances were passed and enforced in an effort to segregate, as thoroughly as possible, blacks and whites, and these laws were commonly refered to as "Jim Crow" laws.

         The term "Jim Crow" comes from the blackface minstrel shows of the early 19th century.  These were theatrical productions in which white men would dress as black men, coloring their faces with charcoal of some form, and mimic black song and dance, giving an overall inaccurate portrayal of black life.

      Thomas "Daddy" Rice first performed his piece entitled "Jump Jim Crow" sometime between 1828 and 1830, and it became extremely popular.  Soon after, these popular phrases could be heard everywhere:
"Weel about, and turn about,
and do jis' so:
Eb'ry time I weel about
and jump Jim Crow."
      In the 1840s the term again appeared in Massachusetts abolitionists' newspapers,  in relation to seperate rail cars for blacks and whites. The general opinion of blacks, even in the more liberal north, was that their race was inferior to the white race, despite social, economical or individual   achievement.

      In the 1890s segregation became less severe in the north; however, in the south the term "Jim Crow" began to take on a more defined and forceful meaning.  In 1896, the United States Supreme Court established, through the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal ruling, justifying and greatly perpetuating segregation in the south.

      By 1915, segregation of blacks and whites in the south was in full swing, reaching unprecedented lengths.  Schools had separate text books, and courts had "Jim Crow" bibles for black witness to swear on.  New Orleans segregated black and white prostitutes.

       This article appeared in a September 26, 1913 edition of the New York Times:

To view other articles click here.
      The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson remained the enforced standard in the south until the 1960s, when, influenced by the Civil Rights movement, the "federal gov't and courts struck down the legal barriers of racial segregation and ended Jim Crow" (Litwack pp. 1444-1447).


Cartwright, Joseph H.  The Triumph of Jim Crow: Tennessee Race
    relations in the 1880s. Knoxville: Univ. of Tenn. Press, 1976.

McMillen, Niel R.  Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the age
    of Jim Crow. Urbana and Chicago:  Univ of Ill. Press, 1989.

Litwack, Leon F.  "Jim Crow".  Encyclopedia of African-American
    Culture and History.  Ed. by Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith and
    Cornel West.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1996.  1444-1447.

Oshinsky, David M.  Worse Than Slavery: Parchman farm and the
    Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.  New York:  The Free Press, 1996.

Woodward, C. Vann.  The Strange Career of Jim Crow.  New York:
    Oxford Univ. Press, 1974.