The Jim Crow persona was a theater character by Thomas D. Rice and an ethnic depiction in accordance with contemporary Caucasian ideas of African-Americans and their culture. The character was based on a folk trickster named Jim Crow that was long popular among black slaves. Rice also adapted and popularized a traditional slave song called "Jump Jim Crow".
The character dressed in rags, battered hat and torn shoes. Rice blackened his face and hands and impersonated a very nimble and irreverently witty African American field hand who sang, "Turn about and wheel about, and do just so. And every time I turn about I Jump Jim Crow."
The actual origin of the Jim Crow character has been lost to legend. One story claims it is Rice's emulation of a negro slave that he had seen in his travels through the Southern United States, whose owner was a Mr Crow. Several sources describe Rice encountering an elderly black stableman working in one of the river towns where Rice was performing. According to some accounts the man had a crooked leg and deformed shoulder. He was singing about Jim Crow, and punctuating each stanza with a little jump.
A more likely explanation behind the origin of the character is that Rice had observed and absorbed African American traditional song and dance over many years. He grew up in a racially integrated Manhattan neighborhood, and later Rice toured the Southern slave states. According to the reminiscences of Isaac Odell, a former minstrel who described the development of the genre in an interview given in 1907, Rice appeared onstage at Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1830s and learned there to mimic local black speech: "Coming to New York he opened up at the old Park Theatre, where he introduced his Jim Crow act, impersonating a negro slave. He sang a song, 'I Turn About and Wheel About', and each night composed new verses for it, catching on with the public and making a great name for himself."
Jim Crow laws
Rice's famous stage persona eventually lent its name to a generalized negative and stereotypical view of black people. The shows peaked in the 1850s, and after Rice's death in 1860 interest in them faded. There was still some memory of them in the 1870s however, just as the "Jim Crow" segregation laws were surfacing in the United States. The Jim Crow period, which started when segregation rules, laws and customs surfaced after the Reconstruction era ended in the 1870s, existed until the mid-1960s when the struggle for civil rights in the United States gained national attention.