Part 1: 1450-1750
Part 2: 1750-1805
<--Part 3: 1791-1831
Part 4: 1831-1865

Narrative | Resource Bank | Teacher's Guide

Historical Documents
Jim Crow

Resource Bank Contents

Jim Crow

click image for close-up
In 1822, English actor Charles Mathews mounted a one-man show in black-face called "A Trip to America," based on the dialect, songs and dances he observed while in the United States. During a visit to New York's African Theatre, Mathews claimed that an actor performing the role of "Hamlet" was interrupted by calls from the audience for the slave song "Opossum up a Gum Tree," an incident that Mathews used to construct one of the most popular segments of his show.

Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice popularized the black-faced minstrel on the American stage with his 1828 caricature of a crippled plantation slave, dancing and singing the words:

"Weel about and turn about and do jus' so,
Eb'ry time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow."

After touring American cities, Rice took his immensely popular act to London in 1836. By then "Jim Crow" had proliferated in prints and sheet music, and he became a stock character in minstrel shows, along with his counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. White audiences readily accepted the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky, singing, dancing, grinning buffoon as representative of blacks, at the same time that white hostility and violence against free blacks escalated.

Ira Aldridge, one of the few black actors of the period to portray Shakespearean characters before white audiences, sometimes ended an evening's performance with a rendition of "Opossum up a Gum Tree" or "Jump Jim Crow," which he delivered with pathos rather than humor before offering a plea for the abolition of slavery.

Image Credit: The Harvard Theatre Collection, The Houghton Library

previous | next

Related Entries:
David Blight on minstrelsy

Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop

WGBH | PBS Online | ©